How alternative high schools restore students’ hope

Alternative school educators grapple with the ‘bad kid’ rap and help all students succeed
By: | November 4, 2019
Successful alternative high school programs offer opportunities for learning outside the traditional classroom environment. Here, students at John R. Wooden High School in Los Angeles USD participate in activities on a small teaching farm.Successful alternative high school programs offer opportunities for learning outside the traditional classroom environment. Here, students at John R. Wooden High School in Los Angeles USD participate in activities on a small teaching farm.

It’s a Wednesday morning and only a few days into the new school year. Laura sits at a table on a back patio overlooking a stretch of green behind Conejo Valley High School, an alternative school that serves about 100 students and shares a campus with the other buildings of Conejo Valley USD in Thousand Oaks, California, northwest of Los Angeles.

The CVHS student, who recently turned 17, seems relaxed and, well, peaceful as she awaits the start of her classes.

“I like it here so much more than my original school,” she says, though she concedes that many people believe the alternative school is for the “bad” kids.

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Laura is at CVHS for the same reason most students attend alternative schools: She’s behind. In Laura’s case, it has to do with lacking math credits following a move with her family.

The common misconception is that alternative schools are run-down places housing violent, aggressive and disobedient kids, and employing the unfortunate educators who drew the short stick.

One look around CVHS and it’s hard to square that misconception with neat classrooms; an exercise studio; an outside space for tossing a football and playing basketball; a large art studio with wall-to-wall student work; and fully credentialed, highly experienced educators (more than a few who say they found their dream job at CVHS).

Negative reports

Reports of punitive alternative schools have surfaced, most notably in a ProPublica article last year that detailed mistreatment in an East Coast alternative school run by service provider Camelot Education.

Camelot was contacted for this story and spokespeople acknowledged one incident where action needed to be taken and it was.

Camelot reps also said reporters never visited their schools, and what was written, for the most part, didn’t fairly represent the situation or their educators.

Pamela Bruening, president of the National Alternative Education Association, agrees with this point. “I truly think those reports were a case of cherry-picking,” says Bruening, who has worked for more than 20 years in various alternative education scenarios.

Still, many educators say that more problems tend to arise—real or perceived—when districts outsource their responsibility to educate continuation students.

“I just think districts need to take care of their own students,” says Martin Manzer, principal of Conejo Valley High School, a California-based alternative school.

It’s all evidence that Conejo Valley USD, like many districts, has had a lightbulb moment when it comes to running an alternative or continuation program: If you’re going to save any of these kids, or at least get them to graduation, the name of the game is support, not punishment.

‘Fallen through the cracks’

In a room of 15 or so students, each one has a take on why they’re attending CVHS instead of their assigned district public school.

“They went too fast,” says a young man wearing a Bass Pro Shops cap. Others give variations on “I wasn’t motivated” or “I just didn’t do my work.” Some are here for behavior-related issues.

Officially, states set age guidelines for who is eligible for continuation schools; in California, alternative education students must be between 16 and 18 years old. But districts decide who ultimately attends.

Usually, districts require students to be deemed at risk for not completing their education; that often means they are significantly behind in credits and/or have significant conduct violations or other problems. Sometimes, students are forced to attend the school; sometimes, they opt to attend because they and/or their guardians see that it’s their best shot.

Martin Manzer, who has been the CVHS principal for the past 12 years, says all of his students have one thing in common: “These are the kids who have somehow fallen through the cracks.”

When CVHS gets a new student, the student and guardians meet with an administrator to enroll. Usually, that’s Manzer.

“At the meeting, we discuss and create a written individual learning plan,” he says. The goal is always the same: Get the student up to speed on credits and make sure that the student is demonstrating appropriate behavior and attendance.

Yet over the past decade, there’s been a sea change in the way educators approach that goal, says Pamela Bruening, president of the National Alternative Education Association, a grassroots organization of alternative school educators.

“We recognize now that trauma is related to some of the issues the kids are having,” Bruening says.

So support is provided in many forms. Yes, there’s plenty of structure and close monitoring. But there’s also easier access to counseling or other social support services. Many educators at alternative schools, for example, know what to do when a student is dealing with homelessness or needs a bus pass or a meal, says Bruening.

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And there’s a focused attempt to connect with each student.

“Education starts with the relationship,” adds Manzer. “Our classes are about 15 students to one teacher. We know you need that small classroom size to really establish a connection with these kids.”

Academically, alternative schools have made key shifts. You may not see honors or AP classes, but you also won’t see the mind-numbing work packets of yesteryear.

Many schools have some component of online learning for credit recovery, but the focus is to get students engaged with teacher-led lessons and, in particular, individual or small-group active learning that provides real value.

At CVHS and nearby John R. Wooden High School, an alternative school in Los Angeles USD, practical math classes in which students learn how to calculate compound interest and the way mortgages and credit cards work are popular. Art and graphics classes have an entrepreneurial edge.

At CVHS, students started a business designing and painting custom risers that cheerleaders at the local traditional high schools use during football games. At Wooden, students grow and then sell organic produce to an Ethiopian restaurant downtown, and they can even earn a certificate in organic gardening.

Managing costs

Before Virginia’s Waynesboro and Augusta County school districts launched Valley Academy, an alternative school that opened for the 2019-20 school year, district leaders spent a long time dreaming about it.

“We talked about the importance of social-emotional programming and having on-site school counselors and therapy treatment support,” says Ryan Barber, executive director of student services in Waynesboro. Like Valley Academy, most alternative schools have small class sizes, and their students have far more access to school psychologists and counselors than they would at traditional schools.

What’s the price of that approach? At Valley Academy, it costs the district nearly $15,000 per child annually compared to roughly $10,000 per year to educate a child in a traditional district school, says Jeffrey Cassell, superintendent of Waynesboro Public Schools.

The district holds down costs and provides better supports by partnering with community providers for on-campus counseling and mental health services.

District leaders have also been vigilant about looking at the range of alternative options and placing students appropriately. Valley Academy is for students who need the most support. Only about 0.5% of the districts’ students are enrolled there.

Giant Academy, the districts’ online school, is another option that serves children who may not need as much support but do need flexibility, for example.

Proponents point out that alternative education may be the best deal around. It has been identified by the National Dropout Prevention Center as one of the primary dropout prevention strategies.

‘Feeling good’

Educators know that once students experience the warm embrace, support and encouragement of a solid alternative school, many don’t want to leave.

“For many students who come here, this setting is the best thing for them,” says Laura Novak, principal of John R. Wooden High School. “They weren’t successful in the traditional environment, but they are successful here. That’s what we want.”

But if the goals are reached—for example, the student earns enough credits to be on par with the class—and the student still wants to return to the assigned district public school, it’s a fairly simple process.

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“Our counselor communicates with the home school in advance, and a transition meeting then occurs with the home school, student and parent to establish a schedule,” says Manzer, who adds that CVHS students return to home schools during semester breaks rather than midterm.

However, Manzer agrees that some students are better off graduating from an alternative school rather than transitioning back. And CVHS even offers each graduating student a $1,000 scholarship for higher education. Last year’s graduating class earned $17,000.

“I feel really good here,” says Laura, the current CVHS student. “The teachers are calm, and they really take the time to help you. Now, let’s see if I can convince my parents that I should stay. We’ll see.”

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer in Southern California.