Overhaul of District alternative schools is on the table

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The District’s numerous “alternative education” programs for dropouts, potential dropouts, and students with disciplinary infractions are being studied by a District task force, and one proposal under review calls for all contracts with outside providers to be terminated and re-bid.

Interim Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones, who convened the task force, said that no final decision has been made, although a January draft lists this proposal under “recommendations” and called for the SRC to issue termination letters.

The District now contracts out to four different providers to manage more than 3,000 slots in disciplinary schools. Four other providers offer about 1,100 slots in “accelerated programs” for out-of-school youth to re-engage and earn a diploma.

The alternative and disciplinary school contracts include some of the District’s largest – for instance, Community Education Partners, a for-profit, has been paid more than $30 million annually primarily to operate disciplinary schools.

In a February 27 interview, Jones said that task force subcommittees are now “getting feedback” to their original recommendations. She said the timeline has been revised and it is “premature” to project what will be recommended to the SRC. “We’re not there,” she said, about the initial proposal to re-bid all contracts in time to have new providers ready to start in September. The CAO said she wants a timeline that doesn’t disrupt the delivery of services to children.

Jones added, however, that the District still intends to have both existing and potential providers respond to a new request for proposals “to make sure we’re considering the best options for all our students” and not simply creating “a separate system” for those who have gotten into trouble.

“That’s been consistent; the question now is how and when,” she said. Sheila Simmons, education coordinator at Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a member of the task force, said it would like to see “a shift in priority toward preventive and in-school remedies for students.”

“We’re asking for a lot more counselors, a lot more behavioral supports for students,” she said. The task force wants to know why “we always seem to have plenty of room for [students] in the disciplinary school system, but we can’t seem to bring the counselor-to-student ratio down below 1 to 500.”

Simmons said that the task force was also interested in addressing the problem of inappropriate placement in disciplinary programs and making sure that there are “different remedies appropriate for the different levels of misbehavior.”

But Simmons expressed concern that at the same time this task force is meeting, another District body – the Safe Schools Advisory Task Force – is calling for “more, not fewer, seats in disciplinary schools.”