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.