Saving Schools That Save Students: Alternative High Schools Are An Essential Element of School Districts

I guess we can call 2016-17 “The Year of ESSA,” the planning/crafting year of the federally required Every Student Succeeds Act that will submitted to the US Department of Education in September.

Two of the leading education thinkers in the nation, Linda Darling-Hammond and Scott Marion have guided the process, scores of hours of meetings, discussions all leading to an accountability plan: identifying the lowest 5% of Title 1 schools. and creating school improvement plans.

The process has been transparent, with endless opportunities for feedback and public comment.

Tuesday night the State Ed held one of many public forums at a high school in Brooklyn, and I traveled out to give my three minutes of wisdom.

The Long Island meeting only had 50 attendees and 11 speakers, compared to the Common Core open meetings that were packed, angry audiences, so angry that Commissioner King suspended the meetings.

I arrived early and was surprised – the auditorium had a couple of hundred attendees, mostly high school students and teachers.

Commissioner Elia, flanked by Regents Cashin and Reyes sat at a table with League of Women Voter volunteers monitoring the three-minute speaking time limit.

The first speaker was Tim Lissante, the Superintendent of District 79, the organization that runs the rich panoply of alternative high schools . Part of the portfolio are Transfer High Schools, there are about fifty, they only accept overage and undercredited students. One of the schools, South Brooklyn Community High School admissions requirements,

… must have attended high school for at least one year, a history of truancy, have a minimum of eight credits, a 6th-grade or higher reading level and have passed at least one Regents exam.

The speakers were mostly students from transfer high schools. The draft ESSA plan sets a 67% graduation rate for all schools. Transfer schools accept students who are well along a path to dropping out of schools; in fact, if we track students eligible for transfer schools who did not switch to a transfer school the vast percentage do not graduate.

Sadly, even in transfer schools, students fail to pass regents exams and accumulate credits, and, the students are faced with a reality, they are getting older and need to work.  Some move on to Pathways, the Department term for GED programs. (The State no longer supports the GED exam, now owned by Pearson,. the State supports another test referred to by the acronym TASC – read about the test here).

The student speakers, fearing the school that literally changed their lives would close, poured their heart and soul into their statements.

“My mother was addicted to drugs and I had to run the household.”

“I was in Rikers for a year, couldn’t make bail, the judge told me to get a high school diploma”

“I was living on my own and I was evicted”

Story after story ending in “my school changed my life.”

The students were emotionally wrought, a few “choked up” they couldn’t speak, the students in the audience cheered and encouraged every speaker.

Transfer schools should be compared to other transfer schools with the lowest five percent requiring intervention, not to all other schools.

I was speaker # 37 and I had intended to summarize one of my prior blogs, as an experienced teacher I changed my lesson plan to meet the changing circumstances.

A few weeks earlier I had a conversation with a higher up in the Department. He made an interesting suggestion. Students pass a few regents exams, not the required five exams, parts of the TASC exam, not the entire exam. Under the current rules they do not receive a regents diploma or a high school equivalency diploma.

The “higher up” asked was it possible to figure out a process to combine passing “a few regents exams” and “part of TASC” as an additional pathway to a local diploma? An innovative idea that deserves exploration.

High school diplomas and GED diplomas change the direction of student lives.

Throughout the evening the commissioner was actively taking notes.

Other speakers supported a group of 39 Performance-Based Assessment Schools: State Ed has granted waivers from regents exams (students only take the English Regents) for many years, the ESSA plan would have to address the waivers in the plan.

A few advocates opposed the entire plan – the plan doesn’t address class size, the teaching of the arts, age-appropriate standards, etc. A number of parents from District 15 (Brownstone Brooklyn) urged the commissioner to support school integration efforts. (The NYC Department had released a “school diversity” plan earlier in the day – read here).

On Monday, the June Regents Meeting, the commissioner will continue to guide the discussion, the plan will move to the governor in July and a vote on the full plan in September.

The plan is only a first step, the other side of the plan, how do you “improve” the lowest 5% is the challenge. We have been writing school improvement plans for decades, without much to show for it. We have learned, or should have learned, that schools are part of communities and you can’t take the school out of the community. We can select the best school leaders and best teachers, unless we fund the schools adequately and unless we address the issues confronting the communities encompassing the school we will face the same “crisis” again and again.

Community schools, schools that expand their reach and partner with the social service agencies serving the community acknowledges the essential school-community partnerships.

One of the high schools that spoke was Manhattan Comprehensive Day and Night High School, a school that only accepts student from 18 to 21 years of age and has an extremely flexible school schedule. About half the students are English language learners and many new immigrants. The Department of Education Quality Review (Fall, 2016) finds the schools Well-Developed or Proficient in every area and the school struggles to meet the 67% graduation rate.

Graduates of the school have college completion rates well above the rates for all other schools. The schools works with a not-for-profit, Comprehensive Development, Inc,

According to CUNY’s most recent Where Are They Now? report, students who receive CDI services average 26% higher in GPA, 15% higher in course pass rate, and 14% higher in first year college retention.

The Board of Regents has widened the path to graduation, created multiple pathways to address the needs of our complex student body and keep standards at a high level.  I have confidence that the commissioner and the board can craft a plan that protects schools that protect our neediest students.



2 responses to “Saving Schools That Save Students: Alternative High Schools Are An Essential Element of School Districts

  1. Ken Karcinell

    I have always been a believer of alternative schools at both the middle/jhs and HS levels. There are any number of reasons for them to exist and they’re not all bad, as is the stigma often attributed to the belief that such schools are not worth it. I hope they flourish in our society. Just think of the thousands of young people and society in general who would benefit from such a progressive undertaking.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. rachel de aragon

    I have worked in the field of assisting ‘high risk’ students move forward in the high school process for more than 40 years. The question for me is not “are alternative schools good?’ but rather– why are we wedded to conformity as a standard of teaching style? What is so “FABULOUS” about the high school day as it emerged as a standard in the early years of the 20th century? Haven’t our job options changed? Have not life styles changed? Aren’t employers today more interested in flexibility than in conformity?
    Although “alternative Schools- transfer schools etc have been very effective in helping the most at risk– it is my strong belief that all students would benefit from alternatives in education that more meaningfully reflect the changes in our economic and social reality/. The big news is; it isn’t 1900 anymore.


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