By Madelyn Colon
CTLatinoNews.com Political Columnist
They don’t always agree, there is, of course, the occasional turf war, personality issues, and the expected political power plays, but when it comes to our kids, the state’s Democratic Latino legislators aren’t playing politics. They’ve united on HB 6201, aimed at uncovering the mystery of the “off the radar” alternative schools in our state.
There are at least 10 of these schools; no, maybe it’s 50 of them, educating our Latino youth. Nobody really seems to know how many exist. Worse yet, nor do they know what curriculum they offer and how the students in them are faring.
That’s because the Connecticut Department of Education does not keep track of alternative schools. Basic reporting on information on the number of students that actually attend them, and measurement tools such as Strategic School Profiles that track student population, demographics, student performance, drop-out rates and student services provided, is not maintained for alternative schools. Currently, if a school district describes the alternative school as a “program” and not a “school,” it is not obligated to give the state any information. Apparently local school districts have taken advantage of that loophole.
Unbelievable as this may sound in this data driven age, legislators say they can’t even find out what kind of resources the state is providing to students, if any, in alternative schools for textbooks, computers, and decent classrooms. It is even unclear to them how these schools are funded unless they are an extension of a district school.
Any school district in the state can establish an alternative school to provide public education to high school students who are not functioning in a traditional classroom. State law also gives districts the authority to reassign students to alternative high schools, and the process usually involves a final ultimatum by a school administrator to the student that an alternative school is the last best option for a student to graduate.
Students “transferred out” to alternative schools are not succeeding in the traditional school environment. They may have behavioral problems, and many come from troubled homes. As long-term academic underachievers, they are at the very back of the education bus. When they go to school, they are often pegged as “troublemakers” or problem kids.
Alternative schools typically have high Latino student populations. Robert Cotto Jr., senior policy fellow for K-12 Education at CT Voices for Children, says, “We know that Latino, Black, and low-income children are more likely to leave or be ‘pushed out’ of high school before they graduate, and that these alternative schools serve a disproportionate number of them.”
Are Latino kids in alternative schools learning anything there? And more importantly, are they attending these schools voluntarily? We just don’t know.
A 2011 report on alternative and adult education in Connecticut Invisible Students: The Role of Alternative and Adult Education in the Connecticut School-to-Prison Pipeline, by A Better Way Foundation and Connecticut Pushout Research and Organizing Project, is highly critical of the way alternative schools are handled here. The report determined that “because there is no data collection or transparent reporting mechanism that makes information about alternative schools available, it becomes virtually impossible to hold schools publicly accountable even for attendance and truancy, much less academic growth, achievement and graduation.”
Latino legislators want to start with establishing a definition for an alternative school. The bill, HB 6201, introduced by state Rep. Jason Rojas, (D-9th), the state’s nine other Latino representatives and state Sen. Andres Ayala, (D-23rd), also calls for clarity on what these schools offer kids that have left the traditional classroom on basic academic rigor to be able to succeed. Co-sponsors include state Reps. Catherine F. Abercrombie, (D-83rd) House chair Human Services Committee; Toni E. Walker, (D-93rd) House chair Appropriations;
Charlie L. Stallworth, (D-126th) vice chair Human Services; and, Bruce V. Morris, (D-140th) vice chair Black and Latino caucus.
They also want to know about basics, like is parental consent involved before a student is “transferred out” to an alternative school. If there is no parent, does the student fully understand that he or she may never be welcomed back to a traditional classroom once they leave. Some reports of alternative schools that require that students only attend school for four hours and be allowed 20 percent of scheduled classes and still get credit for completion should also be addressed.
Laura McCargar, the author of the Invisible Students Report, says that “we must bring alternative education programs and adult education centers into the core of our conversations about high school reform. If we do not, we will undercut our own efforts by rendering thousands of Connecticut students invisible, quietly diverted into the secret pipeline.”
A secret pipeline that leads where? Most of us can imagine the bleak outcome that awaits them. These invisible students have a constitutional right to a free public education, instead of being warehoused in an off-site facility by local school districts with no safe guards from the state.
By Madelyn Colon