Large, varied system of alternative schools serves returning students

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

Philadelphia has created a diverse, privatized system of alternative education designed to recapture disengaged teens, while also launching a first-of-its-kind Re-engagement Center to match those who wish to return with programs that meet their needs.

But it is a daunting task. There are tens of thousands of casualties of the District’s traditional schools, older teens who attended for years but never progressed past a 4th- or 5th-grade reading level or passed many courses.

Once they decide to come back, they are presented with options – the so-called “multiple pathways” touted by the city and District as the best strategy to boost a graduation rate that, at its highest, has barely cracked 60 percent.

“Whether it’s working independently or collaborative group work, every school is different,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, the District’s director of multiple pathways to graduation.

Students who have reached an educational dead end find various models for repairing the damage and launching them on a path to success – from working solo on computerized lessons to building academic skills through intense community projects that often dramatize their own lives and struggles (see related stories).

But the District really doesn’t know yet how well these approaches are working.

For the first time this year, the providers all have performance-based contracts, key to which are requirements that the schools significantly increase attendance and rapidly improve student literacy levels. The contracts hold schools accountable for boosting reading skills by two grade levels for each year a student attends – a feat that few traditional schools could accomplish.

“Our first priority is to see the outcomes of the accelerated schools, and then determine the best way to analyze the data,” said Collins-Shapiro. But the whole evaluation enterprise, she added, is so complicated that it is “mind-boggling.”

In addition to 13 “accelerated” schools, which allow over-age students to quickly accumulate credits, there are eight late-afternoon programs within regular high schools, called EOPs (Educational Options Programs), at which students age 17 and over can earn up to six credits a year.

For those who can read at an 8th grade level or above – and there are few dropouts in this category – there is Gateway to College, in which students can earn high school and college credits simultaneously through courses at Community College of Philadelphia.

Facing the tide of dropouts, the District added nearly 1,000 seats to the accelerated schools this year, for a total of 2,300. It had planned to add more before yielding to budget limitations.

Helping students find the right “match” among the programs is crucial, a process that starts at the Re-engagement Center.

“Part of the engagement is knowing who the young people are, and walking the line between what they want and what they need,” Collins-Shapiro said. While it is most important to find a program that is suited to the student’s learning style, she said, often they choose where to go based on proximity to home, child care needs, or a desire for a shorter day, as with the computer-based options.

“You can try to convince them what is best for them,” Collins-Shapiro said, “but if they have something different in mind, it’s a choice.”

Once settled, keeping the students engaged is another struggle.

“There are different things going on in their lives,” Collins-Shapiro said. “Today they’re motivated, Friday my brother gets shot and that’s that. They disappear. But we’ll start all over again if he shows up again six months later.”

Though there are many options, certain groups don’t fit neatly into any. Many of the accelerated programs aren’t equipped to handle the very low-level reader, 3rd grade or below. Another group not easily served is students with more than 13.5 credits, but still years from graduation.

For young people like Kelvin Castrow, 17, an aspiring artist who moved from New York City and promptly got lost at Lincoln High School, the system is working as intended. At first, he was indifferent when he was one of 150 Lincoln students referred to alternative schools because of poor attendance and few credits.

“I thought it was just going to get worse,” he said.

But at Excel Academy South, an alternative school run by Camelot (which also operates several discipline schools), he says he has found his path.

“It changed my life completely. I never miss a day of school now. And my art – this school is finding a way for me to express myself.”

At the same time, many of the schools have trouble keeping up attendance, even though all – whether computer-based, project-focused, or in between – are very small and have low student-teacher ratios.

Collins-Shapiro acknowledged the burden being put on these programs to rapidly accelerate students’ literacy levels. Even though they theoretically don’t take young people with reading skills below 4th grade, many of the newly re-engaged test below that level.

Last fall, the District took 25 teachers from 12 of the 13 accelerated schools to the University Park Institute for Student Success in Worcester, Mass., which trains educators in using literacy across the curriculum based on its very successful middle-high school, which is affiliated with Clark University.

“The literacy piece is important,” Collins-Shapiro said. “For us, if they don’t move the literacy number, we can’t attempt to have them graduate at a 5th grade reading level.”