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