Tuesday, February 21, 2017

‘Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System - ProPublica

‘Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System - ProPublica:

‘Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System
School officials nationwide dodge accountability ratings by steering low achievers to alternative programs. In Orlando, Florida, the nation’s tenth-largest district, thousands of students who leave alternative charters run by a for-profit company aren’t counted as dropouts.


TUCKED AMONG POSH GATED COMMUNITIES, and meticulously landscaped shopping centers, Olympia High School in Orlando offers more than two dozen Advanced Placement courses, even more afterschool clubs, and an array of sports from bowling to water polo. U.S. News and World Report ranked it among the nation’s top 1,000 high schools last year. Big letters painted in brown on one campus building urge its more than 3,000 students to “Finish Strong.”

Olympia’s success in recent years, however, has been linked to another, quite different school five miles away. Last school year, 137 students assigned to Olympia’s attendance zone instead attended Sunshine High, a charter alternative school run by a for-profit company. Sunshine stands a few doors down from a tobacco shop and a liquor store in a strip mall. It offers no sports teams and few extra-curricular activities.
Sunshine’s 455 students — more than 85 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — sit for four hours a day in front of computers with little or no live teaching. One former student said he was left to himself to goof off or cheat on tests by looking up answers on the internet. A current student said he was robbed near the strip mall’s parking lot, twice.
Sunshine takes in cast-offs from Olympia and other Orlando high schools in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Olympia keeps its graduation rate above 90 percent — and its rating an “A” under Florida’s all-important grading system for schools — partly by shipping its worst achievers to Sunshine. Sunshine collects enough school district money to cover costs and pay its management firm, Accelerated Learning Solutions (ALS), a more than $1.5 million-a-year “management fee,” 2015 financial records show — more than what the school spends on instruction.
But students lose out, a ProPublica investigation found. Once enrolled at Sunshine, hundreds of them exit quickly with no degree and limited prospects. The departures expose a practice in which officials in the nation’s tenth-largest school district have for years quietly funneled thousands of disadvantaged students — some say against their wishes — into alternative charter schools that allow them to disappear without counting as dropouts.
“I would show up, I would sit down and listen to music the whole time. I didn’t really make any progress the whole time I was there,” said Thiago Mello, 20, who spent a year at Sunshine and left without graduating. He had transferred there from another alternative charter school, where he enrolled after his grades slipped at Olympia.
The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.
As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.
Concerns that schools artificially boosted test scores by dumping low achievers into alternative programs have surfaced in connection with ongoing litigation in Louisiana and Pennsylvania, and echo findings from a legislative report a decade ago in California. The phenomenon is borne out by national data: While the number of students in alternative schools grew moderately over the past 15 years, upticks occurred as new national mandates kicked in on standardized testing and graduation rates.
The role of charter alternative schools like Sunshine — publicly funded but managed by for-profit companies — is likely to grow under the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, an ardent supporter of school choice. In her home state of Michigan, charter schools have been responsible in part for a steep rise in the alternative school population. She recently portrayed Florida as a national model for charters and choice.
In Orlando, both traditional and alternative charter schools manipulate the accountability ‘Alternative’ Education: Using Charter Schools to Hide Dropouts and Game the System - ProPublica:

Alternative School Enrollment and Warning Signs
by Hannah Fresques , Olga Pierce , Al Shaw and Heather Vogell Which districts have large numbers of students in alternative schools, and where are those schools potentially problematic?
Help ProPublica and USA Today Investigate Alternative Schools
by Heather Vogell and Ariana Tobin ProPublica and USA Today are teaming up to cover a neglected sector of American K–12 education: a vast and growing system of “alternative” schools. These schools are made up of roughly half a million of the nation’s most vulnerable students, and as our initial reporting shows, many are getting a second-tier education . Alternative schools have long served as dis


Methodology: How We Analyzed Alternative Schools Data
by Hannah Fresques , Heather Vogell and Olga Pierce Roughly half a million of the nation’s most vulnerable students are enrolled in a neglected sector of American K–12 education: a sprawling system of “alternative” schools. 

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