Traditionally, schools are judged by graduation rates, test scores and overall student achievement. But a recent report suggests that some 500,000 kids nationwide are enrolled in publicly funded alternative programs that escape this kind of scrutiny.
At their best, alternative schools offer smaller classes, flexible schedules, extra counseling and intensive tutoring. But the report, published by ProPublica, suggests that high numbers of students in alternative education may be a red flag. And in that calculation, Washington stands out.
About 45,000 high-school students here participate in nontraditional programs — everything from dropout re-engagement schools to online course work – and their outcomes are spotty.
The ProPublica authors suggest that No Child Left Behind, with its laser emphasis on testing, turned alternative education into a “release valve” for schools with kids who struggled and might bring down overall scores.
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“No Child Left Behind was supposed to improve educational outcomes for students long overlooked – including those who were black, Hispanic and low-income,” they wrote. Yet those very students were disproportionately enrolled in alternative programs “where many found a second-tier education awaiting them.”
There’s no way traditional schools could have met the needs of these students.
Carol Cleveland, principal at iGrad in Kent
In Washington, alternative-school students must meet the same requirements as kids in traditional programs to graduate, said Dixie Grunenfelder, who heads secondary education at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. But for some, there are ways around taking the rigorous state tests.
The dropout re-engagement program iGrad in Kent is among these programs. Housed in a shopping-center storefront, it looks nothing like a conventional school, and its curriculum, tailored to the individual needs of each student, is similarly unusual.
Some of the 429 youths now enrolled have children of their own. Others have serious illnesses. Still others are working multiple jobs.
“There’s no way traditional schools could have met the needs of these students,” Principal Carol Cleveland said.
Still, she acknowledges that five years after opening, results so far are underwhelming.
Since June 2012, iGrad has enrolled 2,625 students and awarded only 507 credentials – including GEDs, high-school diplomas, vocational certificates and a handful of associate degrees.
Some students have earned more than one, meaning that the actual number of students who’ve achieved what was envisioned is even smaller.
“Yes, these are low numbers – not nearly good enough,” Cleveland said. “But this is not a dumping ground. It’s an opportunity.”
Attendance is Cleveland’s biggest challenge. And when students fail to show up, there are consequences – in funding as well as academic futures.
IGrad receives $630 per student each month. But those who attend erratically cannot be counted on Cleveland’s roster. So what to do?
“I have about 30 kids that I can’t claim funding for,” she said. “Multiply that by $630. Do I send them out the door, or help them get back on their feet? Some of my colleagues will give these students their walking papers. But I take my chances. I know what clientele I’m working with.”
For this reason, Cleveland was not surprised to learn that charter schools have rushed to fill the alternative-education void in other states, like Florida and Michigan.
“Something other than traditional education is definitely needed,” she said. “If it’s charters, so be it. We can’t afford to do what we’ve always done in this country.”