25 Aug 2013
by: Mary Beth Faller
Alternative schools can be the last best hope for students who have been expelled, can’t succeed in a traditional classroom or fall behind their peers.
In Arizona, more than 180 alternative schools help these at-risk students catch up on credits and, hopefully, acquire a diploma. The latest accountability data show these schools are improving.
When the state Department of Education released letter grades for schools earlier this month, nine alternative schools received the highest mark — A-alt. That’s the same number as last year. However, because the schools performed better overall, the department toughened criteria for earning an A.
“This is empirical evidence that schooling for non-traditional students continues to improve,” said Amy Schlessman, president of the Arizona Alternative Education Consortium, which includes about two-thirds of the schools as members.
“All alternative schools in the state should get some recognition that ‘Hey, you guys all got better,’ and, in a sense, that’s what letter grades are all about. It’s helped us to continuously improve, and the students are the ones who benefit from that.”
About 28,000 students are in alternative education, about 3 percent of the total in Arizona’s public schools.
Like traditional district and charter schools, alternative schools are scored based on results of the Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards test. But because they serve a unique group of students, the state scores alternative schools differently, with less weight given to the actual AIMS results and more weight placed on academic improvement.
The average total score for the state’s alternative schools for 2013 was about 125, compared with about 120 for 2012, according to state Department of Education data.
Unlike traditional schools, alternative schools can get bonus points for academic persistence — if at least 70 percent of their students re-enroll in school the next year.
In 2014, the schools may get an additional measure added to their grading model: college and career readiness.
“I look at things nationally, and I think we’re close to having a model that would merit national attention,” Schlessman said.
Still, there are challenges. A quarter of alternative schools were rated D-alt, about the same as last year.
About half the students who are in alternative education graduate within five years, according to state Department of Education data.
“But it’s all based on that one high-stakes test, and so the challenge to alternative schools is that we need to quantify some of these other things because it’s a major contribution to society to get a student re-engaged if they’ve been disenfranchised by the traditional system,” Schlessman said.
“How do you quantify that you’re giving them hope again?”
Alternative schools serve students who have behavioral issues, have dropped out, are far behind in credits, are pregnant or parenting, or are transitioning out of the criminal-justice system.
Many students who come to Arizona Preparatory Academy are significantly behind in the credits they need for graduation, according to Steve Durand, the site director for the west Phoenix school, which received an A-alt grade.
“A lot of students lose heart when they hit 19 or 20, so we’re fighting the clock,” he said.
Over the past few years, many alternative programs, including Arizona Prep, have switched to a hybrid, or blended, learning model. Students attend class, where they do their work on a computer, assisted by a teacher. Arizona Prep students must attend either a morning or afternoon four-hour session, and some go to both.
Durand said his school, which has about 160 students in Grades 9 through 12, uses a proprietary software system that continuously tracks student progress.
The online content is broken down into individual concepts, and when students struggle with a concept, they have one-on-one support from the teacher, according to Kurt Huzar, chief executive officer of Arizona Prep and a math teacher there.
Huzar said many of his students have moved frequently and were unable to transfer credits, losing the time they spent in class. In the hybrid model, students take two classes at a time in six-week blocks, earning credit as they go. That helps students catch up more quickly, motivating even those who are many years behind their peers to graduate.
Arizona Prep student Ciara Maldonado, 18, of Phoenix, said that when she calls up her online schoolwork, she can immediately see her progress, shown in a bar that’s green, yellow or red.
The constant monitoring is “good pressure,” she said, “because you can see right away what’s happening.”
For example, on a recent day, her coursework in one subject was supposed to be 64 percent complete, and her portal showed she had finished 74 percent.
Maldonado came to Arizona Prep last year after attending two other high schools where she had fallen behind in credits.
“I should have been on top of my schoolwork, but my teachers also didn’t care,” she said. “Here, I caught up really fast.”
Hope for the future
Many students in alternative schools are overcoming great obstacles.
Ombudsman Charter Metro in Phoenix, another A-rated alternative school, is one of about two dozen that have joined a pilot program to accept youths coming out of the criminal-justice system.
The program, administered by the Maricopa County Education Service Agency, has a goal of reducing recidivism to 15 percent among youths who are at a moderate to high risk of reoffending.
Dottie Wodraska, director of juvenile transition for the agency, said: “Districts are not particularly welcoming students back from incarceration. They usually have a history of suspension and expulsion before they enter the justice system.”
The agency provides staff to the schools to help work with the youths, who may not only be academically behind but may also need help learning life skills, such as how to use public transportation.
One way to sustain hope in students who haven’t had a lot of success is to show them the future, according to Binky Michelle Jones, assistant vice president of operations for Ombudsman Educational Services.
“They need to see the value beyond what’s happening in their life at that moment,” she said.
Ombudsman invites employers in to talk about what it takes to launch a career. The school also helps students get financial aid for postsecondary education.
Next year, alternative schools might be graded on that metric, which could be a combination of graduation rates and how many students went on to postsecondary education, a job or the military.