For most of his 29 years in education, Robert Eiseman worked in California public schools that are largely unknown to outsiders: alternative schools set up to help kids who have fallen behind academically. Many of their students are homeless, in foster care, newly released from prison or learning English as a second language.
It’s not an easy career for any educator. Historically underresourced and poorly tracked, alternative schools were originally designed to help young immigrants in the Central Valley learn while working agrarian jobs. Over the decades, new iterations arose to address different types of challenged learners. But with so much attention focused on traditional public schools, California’s alternative schools have been subject to often conflicting regulations and left to fend for themselves — even as their numbers have grown.
“We’ve been like the crazy uncle in the room that nobody wants to talk to,” said Eiseman, whose multiple roles at Los Angeles Unified School District over the years included stints as a principal and a supervisor overseeing more than two dozen alternative schools. Eiseman says he often felt marginalized.
Today, Eiseman is hopeful about the future of California’s 1,030 alternative schools. In September, an independent task force convened by the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford Graduate School of Education delivered to state regulators its final report on an expansive new accountability system designed specifically for alternative programs. The Gardner Center is also convening alternative school leaders from across the state for an ongoing partnership to help implement the recommendations and measure the impact.
The initiative signifies a new era for California’s alternative schools, according to Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, deputy director of the Gardner Center.
Learning why some perform better
The new accountability system, dubbed the Dashboard Alternative School Status (DASS), will for the first time provide a comprehensive view of how individual schools are performing through a number of measures, among them student graduation rates, academic proficiency and readiness to attend college or launch a career.
“We finally have data that will provide meaningful insights into which alternative schools are doing better and those that are not,” Ruiz de Velasco said. The dashboard mirrors the state system for tracking and measuring performance of traditional public schools, but in ways that recognize the uniqueness of alternative programs and the 200,000-plus secondary school students they serve.
With DASS in place, the Gardner Center has turned its attention to what’s happening on the ground in alternative schools. Earlier this summer, the center launched the California Learning Collaborative on Alternative Education, a four-year partnership with 15 public alternative schools in nine school districts from across the state. The goal is to bring together teachers, principals, administrators and Stanford faculty to better understand why some alternative programs perform better than others. Ruiz de Velasco says it is only one of two research-practice partnerships in the country that are dedicated to alternative schools.
“By diving deep into practice, we will be able to see how these new metrics are taking root at the school and district level,” he said. “We can improve outcomes for a student population that has been invisible for too long.”
The ‘neglected stepchild’ of the school system
In California, there are three types of alternative schools: continuation high schools, aimed at students 16 and older and lack enough credits to graduate on time; community day schools, which serve students who have been expelled or are on probation; and opportunity schools, for those who regularly skip school or behave badly.
In all, state data indicate that roughly 350,000 students enroll in a K-12 alternative programs in any given year. Of those, about 200,000 are in middle and high school, which translates to about one in 16 secondary school students.
“To the extent that these kids have been visible, it’s been in the most negative sense,” said Milbrey McLaughlin, the founding director of the Gardner Center and professor emerita at the GSE. “They’re seen as dropouts, thugs, addicts, throwaways. The problem, however, isn’t the kids. Traditional schools have failed them.”
McLaughlin, along with Ruiz de Velasco, began identifying problems with California’s alternative schools more than a decade ago. They first documented systemic problems in a 2008 report and, in 2012, followed up with comprehensive recommendations for policies for improving them, including revamping existing state accountability measures that were widely seen as deficient, in part because reporting them was voluntary and they failed to take into account key differences between alternative and traditional programs.
Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at the GSE who was then president of the California State Board of Education, said the Gardner Center’s insights proved to be a game changer. “On their own, they recognized that alternative schools have been the under-the-radar, neglected stepchild of the high school system,” he said. “They made state policymakers realize that this was a big problem that nobody was looking at. Their reports did not just gather dust on a shelf.”
When, in 2015, California set out to redesign its accountability system for all public schools, Ruiz de Velasco offered to form an independent advisory task force to help state officials create uniform performance measures for alternative schools that complemented metrics used for traditional schools.
"[These kids are] seen as dropouts, thugs, addicts, throwaways. The problem, however, isn’t the kids. Traditional schools have failed them.”
— Milbrey McLaughlin, Founding Director of the Gardner Center
Next up: Best practices through research
The California Advisory Task Force on Alternative Schools launched in 2017 with support from the Stuart Foundation. Its members included Eiseman, the retired LAUSD leader, and 28 alternative school leaders, education advocates and state regulators. The group’s first act was to help craft a new definition of alternative schools, which then allowed school districts and charter schools to begin developing programs for at-risk youth. Next came DASS, an early version of which the state launched in the 2018-19 school year with the task force’s input.
Now in its third year, DASS collects and displays the same six metrics used for traditional schools — only adapted to alternative schools. For example, graduation rates for alternative schools are assessed based on the percentage of seniors who earn a high school diploma (or an equivalent) within a year. Graduation rates for traditional schools, on the other hand, are calculated according to the percentage of students in each ninth-grade cohort who graduate with a high school diploma within four or five years. The shorter time frame for alternative schools helps accounts for their transience; students often cycle in and out of them.
Another performance indicator tailored to alternative schools measures how prepared new graduates are for college or work. For traditional schools, the “college and career readiness indicator” is based largely on how rigorous the coursework was. For alternative school students, however, starting a career is often a top priority. The task force recommended — and the state agreed — for the California Department of Education to begin collecting new data to also account for how many students complete internships, job training programs and other work-related opportunities. This will enable new measures for assessing student progress and create incentives for school leaders to make rigorous work-based learning opportunities more available in alternative schools.
The dashboard is still a work in progress. The state is now taking up additional recommendations from the task force that would incorporate a number of local measures into the new accountability system. This includes a “positive transition rate” that is intended to better capture the number of students who leave school without a diploma but nonetheless transition to community college or adult education programs, join the military or otherwise pursue a continuing education path.
It’s also too soon to know how effective DASS ultimately will be, said Ruiz de Velasco. But he is optimistic that the new accountability system and the Learning Collaborative combined will finally shed light on alternative schools and the reasons why some perform better than others.
“This story doesn’t end with accountability, which is really about incentives at the top of the system,” he said. “Through our work with the California Learning Collaborative, our goal now is to identify best practices that align with these new performance metrics.” The Stuart and the William & Flora Hewlett foundations are supporting the collaborative.
Eiseman, the retired LAUSD leader, will advise the new research-practice partnership. While he, too, is hopeful that DASS and the learning collaborative can together lead to big improvements in alternative education, he is also excited about what they mean to him personally.
“For the first time,” he said, “I am in an environment where I don’t first have to explain what I did for a living or the reasons I was doing it.”
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