Alternative Schools – The Big Mystery in CT Education

By Madelyn Colon 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.


4 thoughts on “Alternative Schools – The Big Mystery in CT Education

  1. One of the attractions of alternative schools is to contain the costs of special education, which have been soaring according to a Jacqueline Rabe Thomas’s article in the CT Mirror on 9/12/11, “Panel Looks to Tackle Skyrocketing Special Education Costs.” Special Ed students, instead of receiving one-on-one teaching by a special ed teacher, and even have an aide with them the entire day, can be grouped together with a certified teacher in special ed, who may be part-time. Classes may be 3-5 students and also have an aide, and you can see how cost savings are significant. At the high school level, core subjects may be taught like this, while special ed students can attend electives in regular classes.
    I am not objecting to this method of teaching. There are definitely benefits to students if this is done right, especially by offering smaller classes. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the state have information on this, as you write in this article.

  2. I applaud this article and would like to further stress the importance of House Bill 6201, “An Act Concerning Alternative School Programs”, which is greatlt needed to help level the playing field for children and youth in Connecticut, many of whom are children of color.
    Research shows that dropout rates in Connecticut’s urban areas are extraordinarily high, and a significant contributor to this is the proliferation of alternative schools and programs that are often used to remove students with special needs, poor school attendance or other difficulties from the regular public school sytsem. These schools often become “dumping grounds” for vulnerable students and, as the article states, operate completely under the radar. The lack of readily available information about these school’s test scores, attendance, instructional hours, subjects and resources prevents parents from having any idea about the quality of school their children are attending.
    This piece of legislation, if passed, will better ensure that alternative schools offer a comperable level of education to their public school counterparts by requiring there to be a uniform definition for alternative schools and established criteria for the measurement, collection and reporting of school and program data. The bill will also require that there be informed parental consent before a student is placed in an alternative schools to limit “pushout” practices. Finally, the bill will seek to equalize alternative and public schools by mandating that alternative schools and programs provide the same minimum number of school sessions and hours of school work each year as traditional public schools and that they provide similar class hours and access to courses as traditional public schools.
    In short, this is a bill that has the potential to positively impact many of our most vulnerable students across the state and needs our support to ensure that all students get the quality education that they are legally entitled to.
    Leon Smith, Esq.
    Project Director
    Alternative Schools Reform Project
    Center for Children’s Advocacy

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