Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

Alternative schools deserve an alternative accountability measure

I read with interest recent press releases regarding the four-year cohort graduation rates and stories associated with that data. Alternative schools are particularly vilified by the data and by the remarks of the “experts” and many schools are facing sanctions or improvement plans based on this one piece of data. However, the data does not tell the full story, the following is my attempt to put it in proper context.

Bicker Therien

The data nor the writers tell the readers that before a student can enter an alternative high school he/she must be behind and already at risk of not graduating. Also left out of the conversation is the ridiculous notion that high school graduation rates should be reported and tied to the school the student attended last. If a student enrolls in school for their last semester of the four-year cohort, that final school is held responsible for the achievement or lack of achievement the previous three-plus years. Why is anyone surprised that kids who enter an alternative program, already behind, are not graduating at the same rate as their peers? Sanctions and improvement burdens are being placed on the schools that intervene and attempt to correct this deficit.

The following is what the state requires for a student to be admitted to an alternative school:

“An at-risk youth is any secondary student grade sixth through twelve (6-12), who meets any three (3) of the following criteria, Subsections (a) through (f), or any one of criteria in Subsections (g) through (m). Circle or check the appropriate items.

  1. Has repeated at least one grade.
  2. Has absenteeism that is greater than ten   percent during the preceding semester.
  3. Has an overall grade point average that is less than 1.5 (4.0 scale) prior to enrolling in an alternative secondary program.
  4. Has failed one or more academic subjects in the past year.
  5. Is two or more semester credits per year behind the rate required to graduate or for grade promotion.
  6. Has attended three (3) or more schools within the previous two (2) years, not including dual enrollment.
  7. Has a documented or pattern of substance abuse behavior.
  8. Is pregnant or a parent.
  9. Is an emancipated or unaccompanied youth.
  10. Is a previous dropout.
  11. Has serious personal, emotional, or medical issue(s).
  12. Has a court or agency referral.
  13. Demonstrates behavior that is detrimental to their academic progress”

This is a system that can be misused by regular high schools to rid themselves of under-achievers and pawn their struggling learners and statistics off on the local alternative high school. Who can blame them? They have a ready-made scape goat to take the fall. Is this bullying at its finest? Schools are facing consequences because they work hard to provide students one more opportunity to be successful. No good deed goes unpunished.

The federal government requires we report the four-year graduation rates for all high schools. This is understandable and should be honored. However, creating a system that can accurately report the great work being done by alternative high schools should not be difficult and the work should be promoted and not punished. The tax dollars that will be expended to “improve” alternative programs will be better spent elsewhere.

As a specific example, I offer the Idaho Youth ChalleNGe Academy’s results.   On January 13, we enrolled our ninth class. In the previous eight classes, we averaged 2.2 years academic growth in 5 ½ months of attendance and cadets earned 98.9 percent of their credits, yet we have a very low four-year graduation rate. I submit that if our students accomplish, on average, 2.2 GE growth in 5 ½ months and earn 98.9 percent of their credits — we are not the problem!

This class started with 129 candidates and we currently have 117 Cadets on campus. One week after entry we tested all candidates (126 tested) on the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) and placed them in homogeneous academic groups. The total battery average score was eighth grade, second month (8.2 GE). We have six class groups with the following average academic score: Class 1, 22 cadets 3.9 average GE, Class 2, 22 Cadets 5.9 average GE, Class 3, 19 Cadets 6.6 average GE, Class 4, 22 Cadets 8.1 average GE, Class 5, 19 Cadets 11.2 average GE and Class 6, 22 Cadets 12.8 average GE. Based on the academic ability of our Cadets, we have an elementary school, intermediate school, middle school and a high school operating with students 16- 18 years old.

Idaho currently requires a minimum of 46 credits to earn a high school diploma. We started this class cycle 3 ½ years into the four-year cohort for 14 senior cadets averaging 29 credits each. We are on track to graduate 13. We have 68 juniors averaging 23.7 credits, 31 sophomores averaging 11.9 credits and 4 freshmen averaging .38 credits. To be on track, a student should have roughly six credits per semester after his/her cohort begins; in this example seniors should have 42, juniors 30, sophomores 18 and freshmen 6. Our seniors in this class are on average deficit 13 credits, juniors deficit 7 credits, sophomores deficit 6 credits and freshmen deficit 6 credits.

Reporting of the alternative school four-year cohort graduation rate and the state’s response – or lack of response – causes me to question leadership’s commitment to alternative education.

If sanctions are being placed on schools solely based on graduation rate, how will alternative schools ever be able to comply? They won’t! While there has been talk of an extended cohort, no timeline has been offered. This still does not take into account the number of deficit credits a student has upon enrollment.

Wouldn’t schools be better served by also reporting a local graduation rate based on credits earned after entering an alternative program? For example: a high school junior entering an alternative program with 12 credits would be given three more years to reach the 46 credits required for graduation; no alternative school administrator that would balk at that type of practical accountability and a student’s situation may not seem so hopeless. This may enable us to reach many more students that “fall through the cracks”. What is the incentive for accepting a student that is critically behind credits?

Wouldn’t we all be better served by celebrating the successes achieved by alternative school graduates and those at-risk students with the grit to continue their education rather than place sanctions (and blame) upon schools for those that don’t?

Written by Bicker Therien, principal at Idaho Youth ChalleNGe Academy.


Bicker Therien

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