District hopes changes boost dismal alternative ed graduation rates

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

More than one out of every 10 students in the School District enrolls in an alternative school at some point during their high school years, according to a recent study of this burgeoning network of schools. But researchers found that low percentages of students who cycle through these schools – many of which are designed to recapture dropouts – actually earn their diplomas.

The study, by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., has led a watchdog committee mandated under the state takeover for monitoring academic performance to suggest that the District might want to rethink its alternative school model, which is nearly all operated under contract by private providers.

Based on the Mathematica analysis the watchdog group, called the Accountability Review Council (ARC), concluded in their annual report to the District that there is a “substantial gap between the district’s vision and the reality of alternative schools.”

District officials including Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and others who have worked on the alternative schools initiative say that with a major overhaul of the system in 2009, they have already begun to address the concerns raised by the research and the ARC report.

Specifically, the District has expanded the provider network, diversified the models, and imposed performance-based contracts that set standards for attendance, achievement, and graduation. Those contracts replace ones that paid providers based primarily on the number of students enrolled.

“The biggest change was negotiating outcomes-based contracts,” said Laura Shubilla, co-president and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN).

The alternative schools studied include two types: accelerated schools designed to help over-age students who have earned few high school credits obtain a diploma within two years, and disciplinary schools charged with preparing students who have committed serious offenses for re-entry into the regular system so they can graduate.

The Mathematica study found that graduation rates varied widely among accelerated schools, ranging from 12 to 64 percent. Overall, only 23 percent of students who attended accelerated schools attained diplomas, and just 5 percent did so within the two-year period.

“Given that most accelerated students who graduate do so in their third year after entry into accelerated schools, it appears that this population has been largely unable to attain graduation at a quick pace – that is, within [the School District’s] original goal of two years after entry,” the researchers said. “….In the long run, the district needs to develop a strategic plan that assesses whether current alternative education is an effective strategy to improve graduation.”

And while more students do graduate within three years, they said, “a larger segment of enrollees does not graduate at all; finding ways to serve the latter group more effectively poses a key challenge for accelerated schools.”

For the disciplinary schools, the Mathematica analysis found that only 32 percent of the students re-entered regular schools. Of those, just 41 percent went on to graduate. In all, 26 percent of students who attended disciplinary schools eventually earn diplomas, it said.

Mathematica studied student-level data for the years 2001 through 2009 and followed outcomes for two cohorts of students, those who entered 9th grade in 2002 and 2003.

When the research was conducted in 2009, the District had nine accelerated high schools and five “transitional” or disciplinary schools that served 2,505 and 3,159 students respectively. An additional 3,875 students were in the District-run Educational Options Programs, which helps students work towards a diploma after school hours. Last fall the number of accelerated schools grew to 13.

The outside providers that run the accelerated and disciplinary schools include nonprofits like One Bright Ray Inc., which operates North Philadelphia Community High School, an accelerated school, and for-profits like Community Education Partners, which now runs three accelerated schools and one disciplinary program for the District.

For much of the period studied, CEP was the most influential provider, with heavy political support. Its contract was based primarily on the number of slots provided, not outcomes or even enrollment, and this dictated how other providers were treated.

“Remember, before last year, the primary provider was CEP,” Ackerman said.

The report said that the number of students attending accelerated or disciplinary schools grew by 436 percent from 2002 and 2009, and that those numbers are heavily skewed toward African American boys, whose academic achievement lags well behind that of most other demographic groups.

ARC members told the Notebook that they commissioned the study because of their concern about the outcomes for this growing population in alternative schools, which is not tracked by other accountability measures like the No Child Left Behind law.

“The achievement gap poses a major concern as alternative schools enroll a large number of African American males,” the ARC report said. In the disciplinary schools, 69 percent of the students are male and 82 percent are African American.

More than nine out of 10 alternative school students score “below basic” in the 11th grade PSSA, but many of them are never tested at all because they never get to that point, Mathematica found. In 8th grade, just 75 percent of these same students scored below basic.

There are two ways to look at Mathematica’s findings. Since virtually all the enrollees in the accelerated schools are dropouts or “near dropouts” who attend school less than half the time, chances are they would have never graduated without the alternative options.

But it is also possible to conclude that the accelerated school model is flawed because so few students graduate within two years, as originally intended. If it takes longer, the schools can hardly be considered accelerated.

Shubilla said that while the time frame is important, speeding the process is not the only benefit of the alternative network. According to Mathematica, the median age of students entering these schools is 17.5 years.

“These schools are designed to do more than just accelerate learning,” she said. “They also provide different and more intensive social and learning support. How fast and under what conditions we can responsibly accelerate learning for kids who are behind academically is an important question. It is not the same for every youth. Whether it is two years or three years, what is important is that kids graduate who may not have graduated otherwise with the skills they need to go on to post-secondary success.”

Brian Gill, one of the authors of the Mathematica report, said there was “confusion as we were doing [the research] whether the target timeline for kids entering alternative schools was two years or three.”

The School District website now describes accelerated schools as an option to “earn credits towards graduation in less than three years.”

Gill said that PYN has commissioned a follow-up study to look more deeply at the data. This study will compare students in alternative schools to a control group of similar students in an attempt to determine whether the alternative schools are helping more students to graduate than would have otherwise. A study in New York City showed that students with similar profiles who stayed in regular schools only had a 10 percent chance of graduating, while those who went to the accelerated schools, called transfer schools in New York, was 40 percent.

The ARC report urges the District to more closely monitor the alternative schools to see which might be more successful than others. It says that school report cards should be created for the alternative schools that disaggregate data.

“In light of the relatively low graduation rate in alternative schools, the District needs to strengthen its accountability system,” ARC said.

It urges “a thorough audit of the curriculum, instructional practices, and staffing and leadership quality of the private providers on a school-by-school basis.”

Ben Wright, who is in charge of the alternative school network, said that under the new contracts, “every school has a performance matrix, and that performance matrix makes sure that kids improve in literacy, are promoted to the next grade and are on track to graduation.”

Wright said that the alternative schools already release yearly “report cards” similar to those released by District schools, and that in next school year these reports will be released quarterly. He also said that the District is in the process of rescinding contracts with providers that have not fulfilled expectations.

“Some of them are very good, but the ones that aren’t so good, we’re taking the kids back as we speak,” he said.