Getting dropouts to re-engage

Catching Butterflies, by Brooke Haycock for the Education Trust, tells the stories of five students who disengaged from school in traditional settings and were drawn back in alternative schools, including a school in a juvenile detention facility.

“Student perspectives, especially from those who have struggled academically, are a largely untapped resource for improving schools,” said Haycock.

By the age of 17, Goldie had attended 11 different schools. Once an average student, she’d stopped caring, showing up regularly or doing any work when she did go. No one seemed to notice. Then she was expelled for fighting.

In a GED program, she set her own goals. “If I need help, I can ask the teacher for help but, basically, I get to do it on my own.”

At effective alternative schools, educators listen to students to find out why school hasn’t worked for them, writes Haycock. These schools offer social-emotional and academic supports, accelerate the development of academic skills so students can “graduate within a reasonable timeframe” and foster leadership skills and independence “by assigning jobs to students and giving them progressively more responsibility in the classroom.”

D.C. plans ‘9th-grade academies’

District of Columbia plans “ninth-grade academies” to separate new ninth-graders from repeaters with bad attitudes, reports the Washington Post. First-time high school students will get extra support in small schools within the school while repeaters may go to after-school “twilight academies,” evening credit-recovery programs or alternative schools.

(Chancellor Kaya) Henderson  says she will be more aggressive about removing overage, credit-short students from neighborhood schools and assigning them to programs, such as the city’s two STAY schools for adult learners, that can provide a different and perhaps more successful path to graduation.

In short, triage.

D.C. elementary and middle schools promote students who lack grade-level skills in reading and math, reports the Post. Then they hit high school: 40 percent of first-time ninth graders have to repeat the grade because they’ve failed English, algebra or more.

The result is a history of freshman classes that bulge with challenged students. There were nearly 4,000 ninth-graders in the city’s traditional schools in fall 2012, compared with just 2,200 eighth-graders and fewer than 2,600 10th-graders.

Dunbar High used a grant to lengthen the school day by an hour and a half for freshmen.  Ninth-grade teachers work with a counselor and social workers to help struggling students. The promotion rate for first-time ninth-graders jumped from 47 percent in 2011 to 71 percent in 2012 and could hit 90 percent this year. Truancies and suspensions are down too.

Repeaters go to a four-hour “twilight” (afternoon) program. They can’t return to day classes till they make up their missing credits. Dunbar officials couldn’t give the Post information on how many caught up, dropped out or transferred.

Ninth grade is a make-or-break year for many students, reports Ed Week. Many districts are trying academies or other ways to focus attention and support on new high school students.

Creating ninth-grade academies proved to be a challenge in Florida’s Broward County, according to an MRDC study. Only 3 of 18 schools implemented the program strongly, MRDC concluded.

In a 2005 study, MDRC found “significant and substantial academic and attendance gains during students’ first year of high school,” reports Ed Week.

Expulsion, transfer or … ?

D.C. Charter Schools Expel Students at Far Higher Rates than Traditional Public Schools, reported the Washington Post‘s Emma Brown. District-run schools rarely expel disruptive or dangerous students, instead using long-term suspensions, involuntary transfers and assignment to alternative schools.

The “culture of compliance” in district offices “has crippled their ability to maintain safe and orderly schools,” writes John Thompson on This Week In Education. It’s easier to transfer a belligerent student to a new school than to fill out reams of paperwork to document “students’ patterns of misbehavior” and “the resulting interventions.”

In D.C., a student cannot be suspended for more than ten days without the approval of an administrative law judge.  When everyone involved – principals, teachers, families and, above all, students – know that it is virtually impossible to follow through with longterm suspensions, then it is harder to draw the line regarding smaller infractions.  It becomes far more difficult to teach challenging kids how to become students.  Consequently, shuttling discipline problems to other schools becomes a rational response.

Troubled schools should focus on “improving learning climates” as the first step to improving learning, Thompson writes.

It’s not fair to charge that charters “push out” troubled students, he concludes. Charter educators sincerely believe they’re doing what’s best for their students by enforcing discipline.

As Brown reports, some charters with “zero tolerance” policies allow expulsion for repeated, minor nonviolent offenses, such as skipping class, or violating dress codes. I oppose those policies. . . . Having experience with the anarchy that often comes from the refusal of systems to enforce their codes of conduct, however, I can understand why some charters have gone too far the other way.

Some charter supporters have slandered educators in traditional schools. They should stop implying that it is “low expectations” that causes the disorder which undermines teaching and learning. But if we do unto them what has been done unto neighborhood school teachers, and charge charters with intentionally pushing out students, we will lose the opportunity to discuss better ways of building respectful learning climates. We will reinforce the impression that neighborhood schools will never become serious about raising behavioral standards, and hasten the day when traditional urban schools are merely the alternative schools for the students who could not make it in charters, magnets, or low-poverty schools.

By refusing to tolerate disruptive students, charters provide an opportunity for strivers, “high-potential low-income students . . . who are committed to using education to escape poverty and are often supported in that effort by supportive parents,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

. . .  the traditional system has been downright hostile to the needs of such striving children and families—as have been many charter critics. Magnet “exam schools,” such as those recently profiled by Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett, are viewed with suspicion; tracking or ability grouping is seen as elitist; any effort to provide special classes, environments, or challenges for motivated or high-achieving kids is cast as perpetuating inequality—even when all the kids are poor, and even though there’s a ton of evidence that high achievers do best around other high achievers.

And now these “social justice” types want to berate schools for asking disruptive students to leave.

For sure, there should be checks on pushing kids out willy-nilly. Thankfully, charter officials in D.C. are already on the case, publicizing discipline data and prodding the handful of schools with sky-high expulsion and suspension rates to find better approaches.

But let’s not forget about the needs (even rights) of the other kids to learn.

Parents like strict discipline policies, adds Eduwonk. That’s why 41 percent of D.C.’s public students now attend charter schools.

The problem is that too little attention is paid to what to do for students who need an alternative learning environment rather than a traditional school and there are too few learning environments like that – and too often alternative schools become the place where you put all the people who struggle in the regular system, adults and kids.

Washington D.C. charter schools are considering getting together to create an alternative school where disruptive students could be transferred instead of expelled. That could be great for troubled kids — or another dumping ground.

Unsafe at Philly schools

Violence plagues Philadelphia schools, reports the Inquirer in its Assault on Learning series.

Teacher Christopher Paslay suggests ways to make schools safer, including requiring conflict resolution classes, rethinking arbitrary discipline policies, opening alternative schools designed for  disruptive students and offering vocational options to students who aren’t motivated by college-prep classes. Schools should “respect everyone’s right to learn,” he argues.

The needs and challenges of the troubled few shouldn’t take precedence over the education of the many. Resources are limited, and the rights of all children – especially those who are diligently pursuing their schooling – must not be compromised.

In addition, he writes, schools should “teach students to be responsible for their own behavior, rather than conditioning them to blame their misdeeds on outside forces.”

Cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, the mother of a Philadelphia teacher, wants parents to step up.

Sucked back into the mainstream

Alternative high schools  “without walls” or schedules may flourish for awhile, but they tend to get sucked back into the mainstream, writes Lynne Blumberg on Education Next. She remembers Alternative East High School in Wyncote, Pennsylvania.

. . . students could create their own courses. As long as the course met college entry requirements, students could develop it, find a faculty member to teach it, and then advertise the class on a poster. If 15 students expressed interest, they could register for the course during master scheduling days held twice during the year. Students seldom sat in classrooms all day. Instead of looking at slides, for example, an art class piled into a van to visit local galleries.

Despite good reviews and a balanced budget, Alternative East closed in 1983 when one of the feeder districts withdrew its students, saying that district schools had “highly skilled, highly paid people, and we should be able to provide for the needs of these [students].”

Even the storied Parkway Program (in Philadelphia), which in 1970 Time magazine called “the most interesting high school in the U.S. today,” fell victim to the changing political climate. Parkway was known as the “school without walls,” because students learned about journalism at local newspapers, auto mechanics at auto shops, and art from museum historians. I spoke with Dr. Leonard Finkelstein, the second director of Parkway, who said that as a concept, Parkway was “magnificent.” But reality did not always match up to its promise. Some students thrived in the loosely structured environment, while it became a “free-for-all” for others.

In 1990, the district assigned a traditional principal who turned Parkway into a traditional school. 

 As Ms. Catherine Blunt, Parkway’s union representative at the time, put it, the school changed “because we were in the district.”

 It’s hard for special schools to stay special, once the original principal or the key teachers leave. In some cases, principals and teachers have taken a school charter to fight against the centralizing, standardizing impulse.

As Michael Lopez says, I’m on vacation and shouldn’t be blogging. But I’m really in Chicago visiting my husband’s relatives. Tonight we set out for Budapest, Vienna and Prague.

What to do with off-track students

Teachers would love to send failing students to alternative schools — aka “transition schools” or “recuperative schools — writes John Thompson on This Week in Education.

Thompson likes the Gates Foundation’s, This Works for Me series, “much of which could have been written by teachers and their unions.”

Neighborhood schools end up with the hard-to-educate kids, Thompson writes. “More than three fourths of teachers and principals supported what researchers described as alternative learning environments as a way to reduce the dropout rate,” a Gates-funded Public Agenda poll reports.

(The) poll also shows that 90% of teachers believe that discipline problems are serious impediments, and 68% believe that alternative placements for those students would be effective.

Researchers say very good instruction “will reduce, but not entirely eliminate, student behavioral problems,” Public Agenda reports. “There is evidence that average student achievement (i.e., overall teacher effectiveness) is higher in schools where student discipline issues are addressed.”

No kidding.