Window opens for improving state’s continuation schools

A contradictory accountability system, insufficient student learning time and a lack of professional development for teachers and school administrators are among factors weakening California's network of more than 500 continuation high schools, according to a new two-year study of the system.

But researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley also provide a series of recommendations aimed at improving conditions and outcomes drawn from the successes they found at some continuation programs - reminders, they said, that we can do better."

The report - by Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, director of education at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley; and Milbrey McLaughlin, director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford - comes at a critical time as lawmakers in both Washington and Sacramento consider major changes to educational accountability systems.

"Policymakers are poised to reshape our school finance, governance and accountability systems to promote universal college and career readiness through a new common core curricula and a renewed focus on the lowest performing schools," the authors posit. "This ferment in public education presents both promise and peril for continuation high schools. The peril is that these schools and programs may remain an afterthought in the emerging curricular and accountability reforms."

The promise, they said, is that within this "window of opportunity" the state can find a way to fully incorporate continuation high schools as a "second-chance pathway" to a diploma.

There are 520 continuation high schools statewide that serve more than 115,000 students - about 10 percent of the entire enrollment and as many as one out of every ten high school seniors.

Students attend continuation schools for many reasons: many are behind in high school credits, some have a job and require a flexible school schedule, and still others pick continuation education because of family needs or other circumstances.

Continuation students must spend at least 15 hours per week or three hours per day at school, taking courses required for graduation and receiving guidance and career counseling.

While some continuation schools provide exceptional services, the report's authors conclude that as a whole they fail to provide the academic and critical support services students need.

"For most students who are not on track to graduate due to poor grades or insufficient credits, alternative schools remain simply early exit ramps from school," the report notes, rather than the "on-ramps" back into school they are intended to be.

Weaknesses with the continuation school system the authors cite include:

- An accountability system that sends mixed messages about expectations and academic goals for teachers and students, with alternative schools held to different standards than comprehensive schools.

- Involuntary student transfers, where school districts involuntarily transfer disruptive students into continuation settings unequipped to meet their academic or support needs.

- Insufficient learning time.

- A lack of reliable data on alternative schools' size, characteristics and performance.

- Unmet professional development needs for continuation school leaders and teachers.

The authors offer ways the state and school districts can improve continuation schools, including:

- Clarifying academic goals to ensure occupational or career training in continuation schools prepares students to meet the mandated common core curricula's academic standards.

- Limiting involuntary transfers to placements in county day or community day schools or other appropriate in-school programs specifically for students with behavioral challenges.

- Giving all continuation students pursuing a regular diploma the option of a state-supported full day of instruction.

- Providing schools with best-practice guidance on how to use expanded learning time to build instructional capacity.

- Expanding learning opportunities via collaboration with regional occupation centers, community colleges and adult education centers.

- Ensuring the State Board of Education requires districts to articulate a coherent set of identification, placement, and school intake procedures applicable to all alternative school options in the district, including continuation schools.

- Using a 5- or 6-year graduation rate as a standard accountability measure for students who complete their education in a continuation high school.

- Requiring all continuation schools that award regular diplomas to calculate attendance, persistence, credit accumulation and graduation rates consistently across schools and districts.

- Encouraging school districts and relevant labor organizations to create incentives to attract highly- skilled principals and teachers to alternative schools.

- Supporting continuation school leaders and instructional staff with ongoing training reflecting the unique demands of alternative education.

- Using data from the California Healthy Kids Survey and the California School Climate Survey to generate usable information on school climate variables found to drive school and student success.

- Investing in a fully functional California Pupil Achievement Data System to enable longitudinal analysis of student performance at the individual and student levels, so educators can assess school, program, and student level performance over time.

"Raising the Bar, Building Capacity: Driving Improvement in California's Continuation high Schools," is the second in a series of reports from the California Alternative Education Research Project, conducted jointly by the Gardner Center at Stanford and the Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

To read the report, see more