Do California's Continuation Schools Really Work?

California has more than 500 alternative high schools, designed to help students who are considered at-risk of not graduating at the normal pace. Their actual effectiveness is unclear, however.
by | July 6, 2015 AT 6:10 PM

By Sarah Butrymowicz

Jailine Lopez skipped school more often than not her sophomore year.

Eventually, she fell so far behind that counselors transferred her to Jereann Bowman High School in Santa Clarita, a school for students at risk of not graduating. And that, she says, is where her life began to turn around.

Feeling like her teachers and peers cared, Lopez, 18, began regularly showing up for class, earning credits quickly and thinking about college for the first time.

DeShawn Wilkins, now 23, said that transferring out of his regular high school wasn't up to him. He was forced out for fighting and moved to San Bernardino's Sierra High School. Sierra, like Bowman, is one of the state's 480 "continuation schools."

But unlike Lopez, Wilkins didn't connect with his teachers. He did the work, but there wasn't much incentive to show up. After missing three days in a row, he says he lost his spot at the school and dropped out altogether.

Lopez and Wilkins represent two extremes of student experience at California's continuation schools. Although the schools serve the most vulnerable students, the state has no mechanism for determining which schools are doing a good job and which need to get better.

The Department of Education declined to comment on the state of continuation schools; most decisions about the schools are made at the local level.

"I think there are some genuinely good things going on in the alternative sector," said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "I don't want to condemn the whole area. But we just don't know."

Continuation schools are supposed to take students who are far behind in credits and help them catch up in less time than at a comprehensive high school and are only required to offer 15 hours of classes a week, although they can offer more.

A 2008 study by California Alternative Education Research Project found that Academic Performance Index scores were available for three consecutive years at just 229 of 519 continuation schools. Of these, only 23 schools were "beating the odds," based on student demographics.

The same study found that continuation schools generally did at least as well as traditional schools in helping 11th- and 12th-graders pass the state high school exit exam.

According to a Hechinger Report analysis of available data, in 2012-13, more than 66,500 students were enrolled in continuation schools. Of these students, about 12,259 dropped out and 22,681 graduated.

There's no record of how many of those graduates went on to higher education, but less than a tenth of a percent were eligible for admission to the state's four-year university systems.

The lack of concrete information about alternative schools is particularly striking in the age of accountability. Over the past 15 years _ the entire time Lopez, Wilkins and their peers have been in school _ state and federal governments have pushed for more testing and the publication of more accurate information on graduation rates in order to identify and improve low-performing schools of all kinds.

That data could be particularly helpful for continuation schools. Surveys show that these schools have a high number of disadvantaged minority students, many of whom don't live with a parent or have a history of alcohol or substance abuse.

And in a trend that has puzzled alternative school experts, the percentage of low-income students at alternative schools is going up faster than the percentage in the traditional system, both nationally and in California.

Because students at continuation schools move often, the exact number of low-income students in these schools is hard to determine. But a Hechinger Report analysis of California state data found that continuation school enrollment of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal measure of poverty, grew from 35 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2013.

In the same time period, the percentage of low-income students in districts in which these schools are located rose from 47 percent to 61 percent.

"We don't really have any way to tell how much of it is done in a thoughtful manner and how many cases it's really just a dumping process of 'get them out of my school so my graduation rate goes up,'" said Rumberger.

It's not clear how the Department of Education will measure continuation schools in the future, but some advocates worry that holding them to different standards will hurt the poor and minority students the schools serve.

Orville Jackson, an education researcher, formerly with Education Trust-West, argues that it's important for continuation schools to expect the same results of their students as traditional high schools, including giving them the option to prepare for a four-year college.

"If you start putting poor kids in separate schools you're going to get bad outcomes and you're going to disenfranchise a whole population of people," said Jackson, who attended a continuation school himself. "We really need to start thinking about how to bring this all under one umbrella and make sure we're having the same expectations and standards and practices for all kids."