School & District Management Opinion

An Education Stimulus for the Nation’s Cities

By Gregory A. Ballard, Cory Booker & Karl Dean — October 19, 2009 6 min read
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Given the beating that city and state budgets have taken in recent months, America’s mayors have come under tremendous pressure to scale back all but the most critical investments in public safety, infrastructure, transportation, and other core services.

But for the nation’s big cities, there can be no true, long-term economic recovery without adequately educating far greater numbers of young people. No matter how steep the fiscal downturn, mayors must redouble local efforts to improve graduation rates and—no less important—to create meaningful educational options for the staggering numbers of adolescents who have been pushed aside or have given up on school altogether.

We therefore argue that one aspect of school reform—expanding high school options and alternatives—deserves to be ranked as a top priority for the nation’s mayors and school superintendents. A new generation of innovative high school models offers rigorous academic coursework, supports for students who face personal challenges outside of school, and opportunities for returning students to both catch up on what they have missed and prepare themselves for college and careers. For students who have not been well served by traditional “one size fits all” high schools, these programs offer a second chance to realize their full potential.


In each of our three midsize cities, the schools lose roughly 4,000 students every year. Over their lifetimes, these students each earn about $260,000 less than high school graduates, pay about $60,000 less in taxes, and put an enormous strain on our health-care, criminal-justice, and social-welfare systems. They represent yet another generation that could have contributed to the civic and cultural life of our communities.

We are convinced that even a modest investment in well-designed alternative high schools can have a major impact on the dropout problem, and, by extension, the economic and social burdens dropouts place on our communities. Indeed, we see a movement to provide much broader high school options for all students as an essential piece of any long-term strategy for the economic, civic, and cultural recovery of our cities.

Our three cities are place-based partners in the Alternative High School Initiative that has been managed by Big Picture Learning and the National League of Cities under a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Through this initiative, our cities are beginning to make strong, systemic efforts to reach out to young people who have left school or have begun to drift away. We are in the midst of opening an array of high-quality high school options, so that all our young people can achieve academic proficiency, earn a high school diploma, and be prepared to pursue postsecondary education. Launching and expanding these alternatives, we have found, requires that city and school leaders be receptive to schools that are innovative, often started from scratch, and sometimes managed by entities other than local districts.

Newark, N.J., for example, has introduced what amounts to an education stimulus package to reclaim its dropouts. Through a partnership that includes the Newark public school system, Essex County College, and nonprofit organizations such as Gateway to College, Diploma Plus, Communities in Schools, and Big Picture Learning, the city will have launched eight new alternative schools and programs focused on dropout prevention and recovery during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years. These efforts eventually will serve between 1,000 and 2,000 young people—a sizable portion of those who have left the system.

Indianapolis and Nashville, Tenn., are continuing their successful partnerships with Big Picture Learning. Its alternative school model created in Providence, R.I.—the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, known as the Met—combines demanding academic work and experiential learning, boasts a national graduation rate of 92 percent, and regularly meets adequate-yearly-progress goals in all of its schools nationwide.

In addition, Indianapolis has already opened four new Diploma Plus schools, a model that targets students who are overage and undercredited, and a YouthBuild program that blends construction training with a return to school for dropouts. Next year, Nashville also plans to open a Diploma Plus school, and will launch a Gateway to College program, which provides high school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 20 with a means to complete their diplomas while also earning significant college credits. The city also plans to start a new YouthBuild program.

What have we learned from these efforts? We have come to understand that for alternative programs to flourish, mayors must work closely with school leaders and play an ongoing, hands-on role, going well beyond their customary involvement in education.

Specifically, to the extent that it is possible, mayors can identify and offer available space within their cities to house alternative high schools. Further, they can lead the reform of municipal policies, such as zoning restrictions or rules governing access to public transportation, that might prevent local alternative schools from finding homes or attracting students from other parts of their cities.

Mayors also can champion increased front-end investment for principals and teachers to be trained in new approaches to teaching and learning that work with students who have had bad experiences in traditional high school environments. It is rare that a school district has funding to pay the professional-development costs for launching many new schools at once. In our cities, we have combined public and private money with the help of a broad range of community funders and partners, including philanthropic foundations, higher education institutions, and nonprofit organizations.

Equally significant, launching these efforts requires true leadership from the city agencies that support young people. Students leave school for many reasons—health challenges, problems in the justice or foster-care system, family conflicts, and so on. We therefore need to be sure that city departments are providing or are forging strong collaborations with relevant county and state agencies to provide all the necessary support services for young people and their families. In our cities, we have convened meetings of the heads of various city agencies to brainstorm new ways to collaborate on education and youth development and to create interagency agreements and realign services when necessary.

Many of our alternative high schools are operated and managed by groups outside the local school district. Indianapolis was the first city in the nation to be granted chartering authority by the state legislature. As a result, Mayor Gregory Ballard’s office is able to tap per-pupil funding for new alternative high schools opening as charters.

Other cities and school districts can learn from our efforts. It is possible to hold students to high standards while also allowing them to learn at their own pace and in ways that respect their singular talents, interests, and learning styles. Reclaiming students who have left or are drifting away requires a broad array of interventions and innovations, as well as flexibility in regulation, which requires municipal leadership at the highest level.

Regardless of the size of the nation’s cities or the economic troubles they face, urban dropout rates are too sizable to overlook. As civic leaders across America explore ways to stimulate their economies, we urge them to spark the growth of alternative high schools and dropout-recovery programs in their communities. The development and expansion of these student-focused, project-based schools can change the odds for the most underserved students. And they have the power to transform the dynamic of leaving school early into a culture of graduating from high school ready for college and work.

But it will take leadership from mayors, who, as our experience illustrates, can be catalysts for change, ensuring adequate resources and buildings, appropriately trained staffs, flexibility, and expanded options—crucial elements of the education stimulus America’s cities so desperately need.

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as An Education Stimulus for the Nation’s Cities


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