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High number of expulsions at Western New York Maritime Charter School draw questions

The charter school located in a former warehouse on Genesee Street isn’t like other Buffalo charter schools.

That’s obvious from the uniform inspections students face as they walk through the door, and the framed photos that line the entryway, outlining the chain of command.

It’s obvious by the students who walk the halls, proudly wearing crisp, $500 uniforms with name tags, ribbons, bars and stars, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

It’s also obvious by the students who aren’t there – the dozens every year who withdraw or get expelled at a rate two to five times higher than most other local charter schools.

“We don’t try to cover up anything,” said Lt. Col. Lawrence Astyk, the school’s commandant. “This is who we are.”

Western New York Maritime Charter School is either one of the most successful charters in Buffalo or one of the most controversial, depending on who you ask and how you view their data.

Many who attend the military-themed school clearly love it, having found a safe haven, clear expectations, academic support and a caring community of teachers and friends. The high school, founded in 2004, boasts a graduation rate of 85 percent – far above that of the Buffalo Public Schools and better than the state average.

But Maritime also has the highest attrition rate by far of any of Buffalo’s 15 charters. Roughly one out of every four students enrolled in Maritime last year were either expelled, suspended or withdrew, according to data tracked by the Buffalo district. Maritime administrators also acknowledge that the current senior class is only half the size of its freshman class.

That makes Maritime most susceptible to the criticism often lobbed by traditional public school advocates against charter schools: these independent schools excel because they have the freedom to throw out troublemakers and underachievers or persuade them to leave.

“Kids with discipline issues either are not accepted or are immediately told to leave,” said Larry Scott, a school psychologist in the Kenmore-Tonawanda school district and co-chairman of the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization. “Here you’re taking money from a traditional school district and sending those kids back to a traditional public school or not accepting them at all.”

Not all charter schools have high attrition rates. In fact, some of the highest performing Buffalo charters have attrition rates of 5 percent or less.

But Maritime is different; its leaders don’t pretend otherwise. Astyk said that if a charter school can’t have admissions criteria like City Honors School or Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, then a military school like Maritime can at least have precise standards and consequences for students already enrolled.

That’s what makes it Maritime.

“They have to meet our standards of conduct,” Astyk said, referring to the school’s detailed rules that emphasize moral integrity and leadership, as well as academic effort and physical fitness. “You can be on the honor roll, but if you’re not meeting the other standards, you’re going to be out of here.”

It works for many

There’s no denying that for some students, Maritime is a blessing. Students who have struggled in other public and charter school settings have found a path to success within the walls of a school adorned with old flags, naval posters and other nautical displays.

Maritime was established 10 years ago for high school students who could benefit from the discipline, structure and support offered by a school affiliated with the Navy Junior ROTC program. Maritime’s student cadets are all JROTC participants; more than three-quarters come from the city.

In the early days, many kids were enrolled at Maritime against their will by fed-up parents who saw the school as a place where their kids would be forced to shape up. Astyk said that’s not the case any longer.

Senior Nadia Perri is a good example. The 18-year-old was flunking at Niagara Falls High School, jaded by teachers and a school environment she considered uncaring. If she failed, she said, it didn’t seem to matter.

Her parents encouraged her to consider Maritime. She was hesitant but finally “manned up and went.”

She spent several months struggling in an environment where she was graded on everything from the length of her hair to the polish on her shoes. She got stopped for not wearing the proper pins on her shirt and ended up in the “brig,” an after-school detention.

“If you go there once, you pretty much learn not to go there again,” said Nadia, whose thick hair was pulled into a low, smooth bun that didn’t touch the bottom of her collar.

The consequences for rule breaking are precise and swift. Coming to class two minutes late warrants an immediate set of pushups.

“Corrective” military instruction and in-school and out-of-school suspensions are clearly listed for more serious infractions, including disrespect to a teacher, use of profanity and any public display of affection. Incidents of bullying, fighting, theft and harmful horseplay result in expulsions by the second or third offense.

In exchange for students and parents signing off on the strict rules, outlined in a 35-page cadet handbook, students interviewed said they receive extensive individual support from teachers, and a close community of kids who look out for one another.

Expectations are clear and consistent. Progress and achievements are visibly rewarded with military pins, ribbons, braids and name-tag color changes.

As a result, Nadia has gone from being a failing student to an honor roll student. She has won ribbons for community service, academics and physical training, and medals in air rifle competition. She works in school as a teaching assistant and intends to earn her teaching degree.

She considers the school a family and appreciates that every teacher stays after regular classes end to give students extra assistance.

“They help us with anything we need,” she said, “or just to talk.”

Oneshia Cooke, a slim, energetic junior, recounted how Maritime kept her on the straight-and-narrow when she could easily have fallen in with a bad crowd as a foster child. Last year, after she finished the Maritime 5K race and wound up in an ambulance due to anemia, it was her Maritime friends who stayed with her after her foster mother hung up on the paramedics.

She now wants to continue on to a Navy ROTC program in college and become an officer.

But many Maritime students have no military interest at all.

Ke’San Weston, 15, a former Buffalo Public Schools student, said he was sent to Maritime as a freshman by his mother, who felt he needed the discipline. Ke’San wasn’t crazy about the change and still can’t get used to all the “yes ma’am, no ma’am” courtesies he’s required to extend. His military uniform is markedly devoid of decoration, and friends are stunned he’s still enrolled.

“They thought I’d be kicked out by now,” he said.

He struggles with math but said his teachers have gone out of their way to help him improve. When asked if he’d rather be somewhere else after more than seven months at Maritime, Ke’San thought about it.

Finally, he said, “I’m kind of glad I’m here.”

Many cadets dumped

Not every cadet arrives at the same answer.

Astyk, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, knows his school’s attrition rate is unusually high. Dressed in military fatigues, he admits that some of his own children would have been ill-suited to Maritime.

“It’s a huge, huge culture shock,” he said. “You’ve got to accept our culture. Most of the kids who leave here, they leave here by choice.”

The gap between students who opt out and those forced out is not as wide as Astyk suggests.

According to data tracked by the Buffalo school district, 23 of the Maritime students who returned to the district last school year were expelled. Another four were suspended and 35 transferred by choice. Between July and December of this school year, another 12 were expelled, one was suspended and 12 transferred out.

No local charter school expels so many children.

As a result, Maritime’s reputation is not only built on its success, but on the frustrated stories told by parents whose children are forced to leave.

Chastity Houston, single mother of a daughter and son who were both expelled, said she lives in fear for her children’s future now that Maritime has determined her children aren’t worthy of their program.

Houston complained about the many infractions that resulted in repeated write-ups for her children and their eventual dismissal. Prior to being expelled, she said, they did very well, academically, at Maritime.

She said her daughter left the Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts to attend Maritime and had loved the school until she was expelled in her sophomore year. She still wishes she could return.

Houston’s son, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, made it through his freshman year. His father died when Houston was three months pregnant and he looked up to Astyk as a father figure, she said. Though he struggled with the rules, he regularly attended school and made tremendous academic progress.

“He just blossomed,” she said.

But over the summer, she received an unexpected letter saying her son would not be allowed to return. Both of Houston’s children re-enrolled in Buffalo Public Schools and were assigned to two low-performing high schools that they detest. Both are smart enough to keep up with much of their coursework, Houston said, but they’ve each missed weeks of school this year.

Houston now worries her son won’t stay in Burgard High School long enough to learn what he needs to even gain a GED certificate.

“He doesn’t like the school at all,” Houston said. “Once you get kicked out of a school, that’s on your record. There’s nothing he can do. What good school is going to take you?”

Another parent, Fatima Sharp, said a Maritime basketball coach recruited her son from Tapestry Charter School, but when that didn’t work out, her son got more and more write-ups until he was expelled last school year. When Sharp tried to speak with his teacher, she said she was barred and told she could only speak with the dean of students or Astyk, the commandant.

Though she subsequently received a letter saying that her son could attend in-school suspension from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. to pick up his school work until he enrolled in a new school, she said her son was threatened with trespassing and a call to the police when he showed up.

“I just felt like they wanted him for their good,” Sharp said. “Now this is on his record.”

Response to critics

Astyk said the demands made of students who are expelled are the same demands made of every student at Maritime. He questioned how many times a student could be given another chance before the school culture of honor, integrity and effort is rendered meaningless and all students suffer the consequences.

He and his top administrators contend that a failing student trying his or her hardest will remain at Maritime before an honors student who doesn’t feel like doing the work. Sixteen percent of Maritime students have some type of disability, they said, and of the four special-education students who were expelled from Maritime this school year, three had very good grades and were forced to leave for other reasons.

They added that no student is expelled without adequate warning and counseling.

“No one leaves thinking they didn’t get a fair shake,” Astyk said.

Many parents disagree. They said they were repeatedly ignored by Astyk and the charter school board.

“I wrote the board but I never got a response,” said Julia Medley, who ultimately pulled her daughter from the school last year. “I gave a letter to the colonel; I never got a response. We had all kinds of issues.”

Astyk reiterated that Maritime is a niche school, not unlike the themed and criteria-based schools in the Buffalo district.

“We’re a military school,” he said. “This school isn’t meant to serve all students.”

“If that’s the counterargument, my response to that is, where do we draw the line then?” said Brian Trzeciak, organizer for the local Alliance for Quality Education, a public school advocacy group. “How do we deem what student deserves success and what student doesn’t?”

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