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Shaping a New Accountability System for California Alternative Schools

Jorge Ruiz de Velasco

High school students in California’s more than 800 alternative public schools are invisible to many Californians. State officials collect little data on these schools or their students and report even less. Yet, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) recently estimated that almost 210,000 California high school students may enroll in an alternative school at some point during a typical academic school year. This translates to about 11.5 percent, or roughly 1 in 9, of California’s public non-charter high school students. Last month, the California Department of Education announced its intention to begin the process of developing a robust accountability system for alternative schools. The State Board of Education has put an item on its January 2017 agenda to begin its own deliberations on alternative school accountability. 

Over the past two years, state education leaders have been working to develop a new accountability and continuous improvement system for California’s traditional K-12 schools. Additionally, state education leaders’ decision to now focus on how to integrate alternative schools into the emerging Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP) comes as welcome news to school leaders and equity advocates concerned with students who are most vulnerable to dropping out. 

The Gardner Center has long had a research agenda focused on alternative schools. We embrace this opportunity to lift up and develop new research that may inform state leaders’ endeavors and shed light on emerging efforts in local schools to improve outcomes for all students.

A Bit of Background

California law authorizes — and in the case of community day and continuation schools, requires — that counties and districts create alternative schools with targeted services and accelerated service accrual strategies. As a result, students who have fared poorly in traditional schools might have a renewed chance to complete the academic requirements for a high school diploma. Taken together, the size, scope, and legislative design of our alternative school system make clear that these schools are a cornerstone of the state’s drop-out prevention strategy. 

Yet, the Gardner Center’s 2008 and 2012 examinations, which included site visits to more than 40 alternative schools, concluded that many of these schools were failing to provide the academic and critical support services that students need to succeed. Alternative school leaders reported that they operate within a weaker accountability system that contains fewer incentives for promoting student success than the accountability system applied to traditional comprehensive schools. Teachers and principals, in particular, often lamented that there were few state accountability levers or incentives for ensuring that districts and counties would devote attention or resources to building the instructional capacity of alternative schools or individual principals and teachers to help youth meet new and tougher student performance standards.

Almost five years since the Gardner Center last reported on these schools, new assessments by the LAO and the Public Policy Institute of California confirm that little has changed. The LAO concluded in April 2015 that the state’s current school accountability system continues to fail to adequately address alternative schools. This is because it neither establishes clear, long-term objectives nor sets relevant shorter-term performance expectations for these schools.

Toward a Strong Accountability System

The LAO observed that a strong accountability system for schools would: 

  1. Establish clear overarching objectives as well as set shorter-term performance expectations
  2. Monitor performance to determine if those objectives and expectations are being met
  3. Provide support or intervention to those not meeting expectations

To meet the first and second criteria, state officials need better and more current information about the size and diversity of the schools and students in this sector of the public school system. Prior research confirms that students in this sector are highly mobile across schools and time. As such, the number of students served in alternative schools may exceed by more than double the October census count typically relied upon to estimate the size of school subgroups. Our own research suggests that alternative schools enroll highly vulnerable students at rates significantly higher than traditional comprehensive schools. These include English language learners, students in foster care, parenting students, and the victims of violence or alcohol and drug abuse.

These findings suggest that a strong accountability system would focus on earning a high school diploma. It would also define goals and indicators for academic re-engagement and successful education transitions short of the diploma for overage or under-credited youth. These goals and indicators may include a GED, Adult Education, or postsecondary enrollment in job certification programs. To meet the third criterion, state leaders need better information about promising instructional practices as well as exemplary district policies for the identification, placement, induction, and progress monitoring of students in and through alternative schools.

With support from the Stuart Foundation, the Gardner Center has begun to collect new student-level data on alternative school demography and performance. In the next few months, the focus of our research will be to help state and district policymakers get the information they need to build a policy consensus on how to shape a new alternative schools accountability system and develop relevant LCAP measures for schools that serve students in alternative education settings. Over the longer term, we plan to continue our work to find and lift up promising instructional and school management practices to bring a practitioner perspective to this process of setting standards. Ultimately, we hope this work will inform an equity agenda for students most susceptible to dropping out of school, including the populations of foster youth, long-term English learners, highly mobile youth, and other vulnerable youth who are assigned to these schools.

For More Information

Alternative Education Options: A Descriptive Study of California Continuation High Schools / John W. Gardner Center for Youth & Their Communities, 2008

Raising the Bar, Building Capacity: Driving Improvements in California’s Continuation High Schools / John W. Gardner Center for Youth & Their Communities, 2012

Next Steps for Improving State Accountability for Alternative Schools / Legislative Analyst's Office, 2015

Accountability for California’s Alternative Schools / Public Policy Institute of California, 2016

Introduction to the Development of a New Alternative School Accountability System, California State Board of Education, 2016

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