Alternative Schools Raise Graduation Rates

A record number of students graduated high school in the 2010-2011 school year – the highest estimated rate of graduation in the history of the department’s records — according to a recent US Department of Education report.

The improved graduation rates have been buoyed not only by support from the Obama Administration and a renewed focus on the importance of achieving a diploma, but also from educators across the country who have spent years fighting to keep at-risk students in the classroom through the implementation of alternative schools.

Since their inception in the 1970’s, alternative schools and their various forms have risen in popularity across the country, even as funding to operate them has remained relatively stagnant. Alternative schools are designed to ensure that students at risk of dropping out receive the support they need to stay in the classroom through graduation. Whether they cater to pregnant teens, frequently absent students, those struggling academically, or others who just can’t seem to adjust to traditional schooling, alternative schools ensure at-risk students receive the attention and guidance that makes them not only want to receive a diploma, but enables them to achieve it.

While very few long-term studies have been done to corroborate their overall successes, and despite the misperceptions about the abilities of the students, educators at alternative schools have seen firsthand how these schools work to transform lives.

Annie Brewer, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center—an alternative school in Salt Lake City, Utah—has heard all the myths: “All the bad kids go to Horizonte,” “Horizonte is the last chance or last resort,” and “Classes are easier than at a regular school.” The truth, she says, is that the educators at the Horizonte Center work closely with struggling students to guide them towards academic success.

“The most common reason for referral is lack of attendance and falling behind in credits,” says Brewer, who has worked with at-risk youth in the Salt Lake City School District since 1986. “Reasons for non-attendance vary, but we try to find the optimal placement in our system based on the student’s location, scheduling needs, educational goals, health issues, etc.”

Students who are referred to the Horizonte Center have the option of returning to their home school when their outstanding credits are made up, but the majority of them choose to stay until they graduate because of the positive atmosphere that the school fosters. Students at the center are immediately paired up with an academic advisor who is able to forge a close working relationship with the student. Class sizes are small, educators are plentiful, and parent-teacher interactions are frequent and expected—traits that are common to most alternative schools. And what about the so-called “bad kids” that attend Horizonte? They are virtually nonexistent.

“We have the safest high school campus in the district, in large part because teachers and administrators know each student beyond the classroom and interact with them during lunch, in the halls, and at multiple parent meetings and family events,” says Brewer.

Wendy Rice, who taught at a three alternative high schools in Washington State for over 10 years and completed her master’s degree in alternative education, says that it’s the personal relationships alternative school educators are able to build with their students that make all the difference.

“When I taught alternative education, I was able to slow down and listen to my students,” Rice says. “Alternative educators are more than teachers—they are parents and mentors, advocates and listeners.”

During her time as a teacher, Rice had her share of students who inspired her by transcending overwhelming odds. She remembers a student who had high functioning Asperger’s—a young man who was a gifted writer but struggled with personal interactions. He came out of his shell when he walked up to receive his diploma.

“When he graduated, he walked across the stage, stopped and looked out at the audience, and then did a crazy victory pose,” she says. “The audience went wild! Everyone stood and applauded. It was his fifteen seconds of fame, and he deserved every bit of it.”

As states grapple with budget constraints and allocate less money to public education, alternative schools are especially affected in the process. The Horizonte Instruction and Training Center was able to receive a federal School Improvement Grant—one of the first alternative schools in the nation to do so—and the funding has been used to successfully raise the level of academic rigor in the classrooms.

However, most alternative schools remain at the mercy of state legislators, and often a decrease in funding means that alternative schools are closed and the students have to return to traditional schools—often times resulting in more dropouts.

In Washington State, funding for alternative schools has diminished to the point that many have had to close their doors, no longer able to continue transforming the lives of at-risk students.

“In Washington State, alternative education does not receive any special funding,” says Rice. “It is currently funded by the basic education fund. What it needs is funding similar to special education. Students who attend alternative high schools need a smaller class size for the more individualized attention and curriculum.”

Read more about the importance of alternative schools and about the  Horizonte Center on Lily’s Blackboard.