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Holding California's 'Continuation' Schools Accountable: An Investigation

Students use a break between classes at Bowman High School for a drum circle.
Students use a break between classes at Bowman High School for a drum circle.
—Sarah Butrymowicz
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Jailine Lopez skipped school more often than not her sophomore year. Eventually, she fell so far behind that counselors transferred her to Jereann Bowman High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., a school for students at risk of not graduating. And that, she says, is where her life began to turn around. Feeling like her teachers and peers cared, Lopez, 18, began regularly showing up for class, earning credits quickly and thinking about college for the first time.

DeShawn Wilkins, now 23, said that transferring out of his regular high school wasn’t up to him. He was forced out of his original school for fighting and moved to San Bernardino’s Sierra High School. Sierra, like Bowman, is one of the state’s 480 “continuation schools.” But unlike Lopez, Wilkins didn’t connect with his teachers. He did the work, but there wasn’t much incentive to show up. After missing three days in a row, he says he lost his spot at the school and dropped out altogether.

Lopez and Wilkins represent two extremes of student experience at California’s continuation schools. Although the schools serve the most vulnerable students, the state has no mechanism for determining which schools are doing a good job and which need to get better. The state education department declined to comment on the state of continuation schools because, as a spokesperson said, most decisions about the schools are made at the local level.

“I think there are some genuinely good things going on in the alternative sector,” said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “I don’t want to condemn the whole area. But we just don’t know.”

Credit Recovery for Struggling Students

Continuation schools are supposed to take students who are far behind in credits and help them catch up in less time than at a comprehensive high school and are only required to offer 15 hours of classes a week, although they can offer more.

A 2008 study by California Alternative Education Research Project found that Academic Performance Index (API) scores were available for three consecutive years at just 229 of 519 continuation schools. Of these, only 23 schools were “beating the odds,” based on student demographics. The same study found that continuation schools generally did at least as well as traditional schools in helping 11th and 12th graders pass the state high school exit exam.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. It first appeared in McClatchy newspapers.

According to a Hechinger Report analysis of available data, in 2012-13, more than 66,500 students were enrolled in continuation schools. Of these students, about 12,259 dropped out and 22,681 graduated. There’s no record of how many of those graduates went on to higher education, but fewer than a tenth of a percent were eligible for admission to the state’s four-year university systems.

The lack of concrete information about alternative schools is particularly striking in the age of accountability. Over the past 15 years—the entire time Lopez, Wilkins, and their peers have been in school—state and federal governments have pushed for more testing and the publication of more accurate information on graduation rates in order to identify and improve low-performing schools of all kinds.

That data could be particularly helpful for continuation schools. Surveys show that these schools have a high number of disadvantaged minority students, many of whom don’t live with a parent or have a history of alcohol or substance abuse.

And in a trend that has puzzled alternative school experts, the percentage of low-income students at alternative schools is going up faster than the percentage in the traditional system, both nationally and in California.

More Low-Income Students Enrolling

Because students at continuation schools move often, the exact number of low-income students in these schools is hard to determine, but a Hechinger Report analysis of California state data found that continuation school enrollment of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty, grew from 35 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2013. In the same time period, the percentage of low-income students in districts in which these schools are located rose from 47 to 61 percent.

There’s no easy explanation for this trend, particularly as there are many routes into alternative education. Students might rack up too many absences, fall behind on credits, get in trouble too often or simply feel they don’t fit in. California’s law allows for both voluntary and involuntary transfer to the schools.

“We don’t really have any way to tell how much of it is done in a thoughtful manner and how many cases it’s really just a dumping process of ‘get them out of my school so my graduation rate goes up,’ ” said Rumberger.

Administrators at Bowman differ on whether their school receives students forced out of traditional schools, but Principal Robin Geissler said that, in many cases, students at the school have simply fallen behind due to some sort of traumatic event, like a death in the family or homelessness. It’s up to her and her team to figure out what went wrong for the roughly 500 students and help them refocus on school. Geissler keeps a virtual Post-it on her computer of those who have lost a family member recently. This year, nine students have made the list.

Nearly 44 percent of Bowman’s students were eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch in 2013, compared to 25 percent in the entire district. “I don’t see it as a bad thing,” Geissler said of the discrepancy. “If the kids are with us, we’ll graduate them.”

Helping Students Graduate

Bowman now has a 95 percent graduation rate, with 81 percent of its graduates going on to higher education, most to community college. When Geissler arrived at the school nearly two decades ago, things were much different. The campus was unsafe, she said, and teaching consisted of giving students packets of worksheets to go through at their own pace and turn in for credit—without participating in classes. Teachers and students say that it’s now a supportive environment. Students call teachers by their first names. Packets are banned. Instead, schedules are rotated every six weeks to allow students to earn credits quickly, but still make sure they learn.

On a morning earlier this year, students in an economics class were researching possible future careers, finding information on salary and the type of degree required. Students in an art class discussed symbolism in a painting from the Harlem Renaissance and an English class, in which Jailine Lopez is a student, held an open mic poetry session, with students snapping their fingers and pounding on desks to support their classmates.

Geissler says she knows of many other high-quality continuation schools. Still, it’s difficult to know how many schools look like today’s Bowman, which has been designated a Model Continuation School by the state, and how many, if any, still rely on teaching-by-packet. California law doesn’t require continuation students to be taught directly by teachers; schools can use independent study or work-study programs.

There also isn’t much public information on instruction at even the best schools. Each year, as many as two dozen schools are awarded Model Continuation School status, through a process that combines an application with external review. Wilkin’s former school, Sierra, received the designation in 2010. But while it “wasn’t a bad school,” he said he didn’t feel like was learning.

“I’m not just there for the credits,” Wilkins said. “I need to learn something.”

In the last three years, San Bernardino has embarked on a districtwide initiative to increase student engagement in school, said Linda Bardere, district director of communications. Annual survey results show that the program is having an impact, she says.

Tracking School Results

Apart from information gathered through the Model Continuation School program, the state department of education says it has limited data on how continuation schools perform. From 2001 to 2009, the state used an Alternative School Accountability Model, in which schools were allowed to pick the criteria on which they were judged, such as attendance, test scores or credit accumulation. Some experts criticized the model, which was scrapped due to budget cuts, for not providing enough uniform information about the schools. For instance, they were not required to report a graduation rate.

Administrators at continuation schools say that holding them to the same standards as a traditional high school is also problematic. Measuring school success based on a four-year graduation rate would miss students who graduate in five years—a very real possibility when some seniors come to a school with less than a quarter of the credits needed to graduate. Student pass rates on the high school exit exam may also be an imperfect indicator of a school’s success: A continuation school might only have students for a few weeks before they take the high school exit exam— meaning their old school is still largely responsible for how they fare.

It’s not clear how the state education department will measure continuation schools in the future, but some advocates worry that holding them to different standards will hurt the poor and minority students the schools serve. Orville Jackson, an education researcher, formerly with Education Trust–West, argues that it’s important for continuation schools to expect the same results of their students as traditional high schools, including giving them the option to prepare for a four-year college.

Comprehensive high schools in California must offer the courses required for admission to the state’s university systems, but alternative schools don’t have to. Many alternative schools partner with community colleges, but can’t afford to offer prep courses for four-year colleges—or if they offer the courses, can only do so through online programs. In part, that’s because many students are so far behind academically when they come to continuation schools that just earning the credits for a diploma is enough of a challenge; school administrators say they have to be realistic about who they’re serving. In 2013, only 132 continuation school graduates were eligible to go to a state university.

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“If you start putting poor kids in separate schools you’re going to get bad outcomes and you’re going to disenfranchise a whole population of people,” said Jackson, who attended a continuation school himself. “We really need to start thinking about how to bring this all under one umbrella and make sure we’re having the same expectations and standards and practices for all kids.”

Although Bowman does offer college-prep courses, Lopez won’t be going to a four-year school right away. After graduating on time this spring, she plans to get her associate’s degree at a community college, then transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s in psychology.

Unlike Lopez, Wilkins wasn’t able to catch up to his classmates. He had a series of starts and stops at the YouthBuild Charter School of California in San Bernardino. This spring, he was close to graduating, but stopped attending after some behavior issues. He’s welcome back in the fall, though, and staff said they expected he’d try again.

Before he left, he acknowledged the need to earn his degree. “I’ve just got to get through school,” he said in an interview early this year. “I’m not going to be labeled as a nothing.”

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