The end of alternative schools?

You may not have noticed this year when each state released a list of their lowest performing schools. This is normal. The schools get state “support” and typically have a few years to shape up or ship out. What is NOT normal is that now under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), every school with less than a 67% 4-year graduation rate was on that list (in most states). And that means a whole lot of alternative schools made the lists.

I haven’t found a comprehensive database, so I checked state websites for a few recent examples to show how alternative schools are impacted by this rule:

  • In California, 42% (roughly 330/781) of schools identified for comprehensive support (CS) schools were alternative schools

  • In Washington, 66% (roughly 163/247) of identified schools were alternative schools. Put another way, nearly half (46%) of alternative schools were identified.

  • In Texas, 28% (92/333).

In many states, it’s hard to get this figure without a deeper analysis.

It’s possible that many alternative schools needs support - they serve students with a lot of barriers to success. Or they may be sticking kids in front of computers all day for “personalized” learning, so yea, they gotta go. It’s also possible that they are excellent schools that show gains in literacy, engagement, SEL, recidivism, and postsecondary placement and NONE of that is captured in a 4-year graduation rate. Let’s be clear: alternative schools are designed to serve students who are not succeeding in traditional settings. They may already be in their 5th year of high school when they enroll in an alternative school. These students may be parents, justice-involved, over-age and under-credited, homeless, caregivers, newcomers, etc. Often, they fall into more than one of these categories. So, the odds aren’t great for them in terms of graduating high school in four years. However, when they enroll in a good alternative school, data shows they often exceed comparison groups (that’s why NYCDOE evaluates them using comparison groups). According to ESSA, that’s not good enough. Time will tell if the arbitrary 67% benchmark is a death knell for alternative schools as we know them OR an out-of-touch federal mandate that’s just creating a lot of paperwork.

See my 2017 ESSA advocacy letter for more here.

Alison HolsteinComment
When I hear “Research,” the word that comes to mind is..."Suffering"

This Fall I am teaching Social Work Research at Silberman School of Social Work. Why? My theory is that in order to have high-quality social services, we need to:

(1) have access to good knowledge of what works (evidence) and

(2) MAYBE MORE IMPORTANTLY, have curious front-line staff and leadership who ask critical questions (like, “how do I know?”) and who can evaluate evidence and adapt that evidence to varied contexts.


On my first day of class as a Social Work Research lecturer, I asked students: “When I hear ‘Research’ the word that comes to mind is…” The responses (see image) were mixed. Not to be ignored were words like “suffering”, “anxiety”, and “daunting.” I was not surprised, since my experiences working with social workers and counselors in the field were similar. I learned never to invite people to a “data meeting”, and I even avoided using the word “data.” When people hear “data” they hear a few things they don’t like: complex math, turning people into impersonal widgets, and evaluation or grades. When people hear “research” they may also imagine people who look different from themselves. As a teacher, my task is to address these *legitimate* fears head-on.

My goal is for students to believe: I know what research is. I need research to inform my work. I know how to get it and appraise it. I can even make my own! I’m fearless! Curious! Capable! I realize this is a long road from “suffering.” Will keep you posted on my progress.

Alison HolsteinComment
Warnings on SEL and Accountability

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) continues to spread as we deepen our understanding of what really contributes to youth success. As it grows, there are more data collection tools and reports. That’s great for sparking conversations about how we can support students, BUT, there are reasons to be cautious:

  • The most ubiquitous measure of SEL is currently self-reported surveys. Surveys have 99 problems. Including:

    • Reference bias. With surveys, we’re trusting young people to grade themselves in their own mindsets and beliefs. Like this:

      Survey: Do you care about other people?

      Student: Sure do!

      Actual Person: Can you hold the door for me?

      Student: Hold it yourself!

      Would we also ask them to grade themselves in Math? No, because a student’s perception of their own skills is subject to reference bias. A student might report being good at math because he is the best in his class, but in another school he would be below average. I worked with a group of programs that found students who were lowest performing academically actually rated themselves highly in Academic Self-Efficacy. The experts agree that reference bias can “produce results opposite of the truth.” The Learning Policy Institute recommends NOT holding schools accountable for self-report survey data due to reference bias and because SEL surveys are relatively new and not designed for accountability purposes.

    • Surveys are administered and taken by humans. And humans are subject to a lot of factors that might impact results: weather, literacy, mood, relationships, understanding of the survey purpose, etc. In my experience working with dozens of programs on survey administration, the results don’t always turn out the way you expected, and it’s not necessarily a reflection of your work. Which is why I always hear skepticism from staff when looking at survey results.

      • Some issues highlighted by the Student Success Network:

        • How the survey is framed: is it personal, genuine, and does it make sense? Students may not understand or pay attention to the questions.

        • How the survey is perceived based on norms and culture. Students may give the right answer rather than the honest answer.

    • Other administration considerations:

      • The survey is not given to students who don’t show up (skewing the data)

      • The survey is given right before a state math test vs. during a happy graduation ceremony.

  • Will accountability help? Some organizations are in the early stages of learning about and institutionalizing SEL. Before we grade staff on their ability to move the needle, do they know what they’re being graded on? Have they been trained? Does the organization have supports in place for them to develop practices? If we use the data to identify weak spots - how will that help?

I believe non-profits need to be held accountable, and SEL is a key focus of our work. Surveys can provide thought-provoking data, and we’ve seen important connections between SEL growth and achievement. We still need to be very careful about the messaging and administration plan before holding people accountable for survey results. I’ll try to have a growth mindset about it, but we’re not there…yet. Our measures are not sharp enough to say to funders: Don’t give us money if we fail to move the needle on this survey.

Building and Measuring Student Relationships: Two Examples

Relationships with students are important, duh. They engage, motivate, and buffer trauma. Good ones result in higher attendance and graduation rates. Two of my recent conference presentations can be tied together by the ideas that (1) Relationships with students are vital, (2) we can get better at building relationships, and (3) we can measure their impact.

1) Through the Good Shepherd Services Improvement Fellowship I co-designed and facilitated, we brought together schools and programs to tackle the issue of chronic absenteeism with improvement science methods. Each site developed a theory for why students are not present (ie. negative peer influences, academic fatigue] and then tested ideas. The result: three interventions that focused on building adult and peer relationships. That might sound weird. We were trying to raise attendance, but the solution was NOT outreach, attendance awareness campaigns or incentives. The solutions were peer groups, afterschool career exploration, and case conferencing. And, for some students, we saw increases in their attendance. See more about the fellowship and out outcomes here.

Ready by 21 National Meeting, Forum for Youth Investment, April 2019: The Problem with Attendance: Using Continuous Improvement to Tackle the Root Causes of Chronic Absenteeism.

2) At South Brooklyn Community High School, we found that if we asked students which adults they were connected to, the ones with more connections had higher attendance, on average. So, we adapted some activities with staff to figure out who we are connected to and WHY. Turns out staff were more connected to females, interns, students who had been enrolled longer, and students who were either struggling or excelling academically. This reflection with staff, and at the Transfer School conference, was important in starting the conversation on HOW to build better connections going forward.

NYC Transfer School Conference, June 2019: Building Connections for Student Success

Alison HolsteinComment
How Funders Can Help Nonprofits With Data

I recently attended the Ready by 21 National Meeting where I sat in a networking discussion that was cleverly titled “I Got 99 Problems, and Data Portals Are All of Them.” The group of mostly nonprofit leaders realized we share some of the same frustrating data challenges. Upon my return to NYC, many of those concerns were echoed. Here are some things funders could do that might help:

  • Do not require nonprofits to enter data directly into a funder’s system. Government agencies seem to do this the most. For small nonprofits that lack good data systems, having a government system could be helpful. However, check to see if the nonprofit has the information captured somewhere else, and consider how it could be formatted for your purposes or connected to your system.

  • If you ignore my first bullet and create a separate system, make sure this system is not a “black hole.” The worst example of this would be front-line staff entering case notes that they are not able to refer back to, the grantee can’t produce any aggregate report, and no insights are reported back from the funder. Yes, this still happens.

  • Help us advocate for data sharing. Help us gain the appropriate access to existing databases, rather than creating duplicate systems. If a nonprofit serves a school-based population, why not have some way to sync rosters? I’ve worked with programs where staff are responsible for attendance outreach, but they do not have direct access to attendance data,. As a result, they take attendance for the same students in TWO systems! In NYC, nonprofit community school leaders can access academic data through the New Visions data portal - how can that be expanded to other partnerships? And how can a system share data both ways?

  • Fund data quality, literacy, and integration. Most people who know how to create sophisticated, integrated data systems do NOT work at a nonprofit. But, nonprofits need this outside skill set to make sure systems are efficient. They also need internal capacity to: manipulate the data to answer questions, train staff to enter data, maintain systems as the work evolves, and develop the skill/will of staff to USE the data to improve. Few non-profits have dedicated full-time staff to assess performance.

  • Consider programming cycles when creating report deadlines. We know board meetings and fiscal years make it difficult to be flexible, but you also don’t want rushed and incomplete information. If you want to see outcomes for a college retention program, make sure the semester is over and there is enough time for staff to input the data.

  • Know your power. Here’s what’s tricky: nonprofits want to know how they stack up to help identify growth areas. However, they don’t want to do this in full display of funders. Anything you touch is high-stakes and could impact budgets, systems, and jobs. Improvement cultures grow in low-stake environments. Funders could help connect agencies to develop common measures, but make sure they are not punished for coming to the table.

Did I miss anything?

How Data Helps You Know More About The Kids You Know

Why would staff in a small school or program do a needs and assets assessment? A counselor already feels like they know their young people better than any survey or database. They are probably right. Here’s why we should do it anyway:

  • Prioritizing Resources and Advocating: In a program that has 160 students on four caseloads, each counselor may have a few students with mental health needs. They are addressing the needs (or not) on an individual basis. However, if an assessment reveals that a few kids on each caseload is actually 10% of the program, there is now motivation to identify partners, train staff, talk to funders, etc. One alternative school I worked with administered a survey that revealed ONE THIRD of students reported being sexually assaulted. While I may not recommend giving a survey that asks such intimate questions, WOW does that give some insight into what supports students need.

  • Programming to Build Upon Strengths and Interests: A key piece of any youth development program is getting students to learn more about themselves. As they share these revelations with us, where does it go? Despite the lack of advanced degrees, young people are most qualified to design programs that work for them. And we should collect data on their dreams, learning goals, desired experiences, strengths and growth areas, hobbies, etc. to inform program design. Don’t forget the assets, even if they seem less urgent. The assets give us the best clues as to how we can engage students.

I’m still trying to figure out needs and assets assessments, but here’s what I’m learning:

  • They can be ongoing. You don’t need to know all the needs and assets from a survey administered on Day 1. And sometimes, we must build relationships first to understand what questions to ask. If you are planning trips or resource fairs do it collaboratively with youth who can best identify their interests and needs. Photo voice is a great activity for this. Focus groups can be excellent. Community schools in NYC also have family forums each spring where they incorporate activities designed to get feedback into fun barbecues or carnivals. Assessments should be important, cyclical moments where we collect data on the bigger picture, but the assessment mindset can be applied daily.

  • They can be separate. In one school, we had counselors fill out a basic spreadsheet with each student listed and 12 columns of “Needs” because we realized we didn’t have a high-level view of many needs we had identified at the student-level (substance abuse, work conflicts, family responsibilities, etc.). With a “Yes”, “No”, or “Unknown” response, we got to see that over 20% of students (as identified by their counselor) have a mental health issue. By looking at the needs along with academic data, we found that our attendance problem was also a WORK CONFLICT problem. All 18 students with a work conflict were severely chronically absent. How can the attendance team address THAT?

  • They can be irresponsible. If we ask students and families what they need, and they tell us, we have a responsibility to respond to the best of our ability. And, we should be cognizant of how someone might feel when answering questions about his or her home, family, or trauma. I work with a program where we’ve heard anecdotally about youth experiencing trauma, and we considered administering the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) Questionnaire to learn more and help advocate for resources. However, without mental health specialists on site and a comprehensive plan to avoid triggering young people, we decided to hold off.

Overall, just because staff are empathetic, curious, active listeners, does not necessarily translate to program design. The better we know our young people, at every level of an organization, the better they are served.

A few resources:

Alison HolsteinComment