Finding a different track to graduation

Alternative education gives students a second chance at getting a high school diploma.

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

Ann Ceron-Hernandez has dreams of going to college to study to become a nurse. But without a high school diploma, she knows those dreams could be derailed.

So last February, the 21-year-old mother of three, who had dropped out of Bok Technical High School in the 9th grade after having her first child, decided that she would go back.

Like many dropouts, she wasn’t sure what to do, so she asked a former teacher and a neighborhood church group about how to return to school. They told her that she could re-enter through the District’s alternative education system.

Alternative education is a system of varied, second-chance educational options in which over-age, undercredited, or expelled students can resume their education, earn credits toward graduation, and attain their high school diploma or GED. The programs have provided a boost to the city’s high school completion rate.

After seeking the program that was the best fit, Ceron-Hernandez enrolled at the Creative Learning Academy (CLA), one of the District’s accelerated high school programs. These programs allow returning students to earn credits toward graduation in less than three years.

“We have a lot of young people who are looking for another option, a different option. They just want to be successful,” said Benjamin Wright, the District’s assistant superintendent of alternative education.

Located in the back of South Philadelphia High School, CLA is run by the Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America, Inc. With an enrollment of nearly 90 students, it is quiet and contained, consisting of just one corridor of classrooms and a computer lab. At CLA, students can earn their high school diploma, a total of 23.5 credits, in just two years. Ceron-Hernandez is one year away from graduating.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to stay in my home and do my homework with three kids,” said Ceron-Hernandez of the challenges of being in the program as a single parent. But she said she’s determined to finish even though her future is uncertain.

“I want to go to college, but I don’t know if I can because I don’t have the money,” she said.

For some students, the most difficult part of returning to school is being consistent. Many students in alternative education have had truancy issues.

“I’ve been here for just one year, and the way people come and go makes it feel like I’ve been here for three,” said Sihied Barton, also a CLA student.

Every morning Barton, 17, makes the 45-minute trip to CLA from his home in West Philadelphia, near Upper Darby, where he now lives with his aunt and uncle. Barton said he had moved around so much while in school that he was held back twice. He wanted to make up for lost time, so last year he enrolled at CLA, where he is now an A student.

Barton, who wants to be a writer, credits CLA with changing his attitude about school. He did extra work over the summer, and this fall he will be teaching one of the books he read, Ender’s Game, to his English class.

“My first day I came here, I was curious about how the classes were going to go, and if it was going to be too fast for me,” said Barton. “But it went well, and I got the hang of it. I enjoy coming here.”

Finding a program that fits

The District’s alternative education system serves 11,000 students per year, according to Wright.

To get started, students can visit the District’s Re-engagement Center at District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. or apply to one of the programs through the District’s Alternative Education Centers, at 4300 Westminster Ave. or 4224 N. Front St. Some students apply to the programs directly.

At the Re-engagement Center, they take a basic literacy test. Students need to test at least at a 4th-grade level to qualify for an accelerated program. Counselors are then paired with students to help them choose the best option for them.

“Each kid has a personalized learning program, and we not only give students what they need academically. We give them what they must have for their social and emotional growth,” Wright said.

The accelerated programs balance computer-based and classroom learning and have a curriculum designed for students who have previously had trouble engaging in school.

The alternative options are designed as programs that pick up where high school left off, and so most students who graduate from an accelerated program are awarded a diploma from their neighborhood high school.

The accelerated programs are just one route to earning a diploma. There are also Educational Options Programs, or EOPs, which allow students and adults over 17 to continue earning credits toward a diploma through night classes at four locations in the city.

Another option is the Gateway to College Program at Community College of Philadelphia. It is a dual-enrollment program for students who have dropped out that allows them to earn their high school diploma and college credits simultaneously.

Weighing the impact

A 2010 report by Mathematica Policy Research, “The Impacts of Philadelphia’s Accelerated Schools on Academic Progress and Graduation,” found that accelerated programs are improving the city’s high school graduation rates. The report, which compared accelerated school students with non-accelerated school students who had similar academic, disciplinary, and attendance patterns, found that these programs had a “positive, statistically significant impact on both five- and six-year graduation rates.”

In 9th-grade cohorts from 2002-3 through 2005-6, 29 percent of alternative school students graduated in five years, compared with only 22 percent of similar students in traditional schools.

Some credit the programs’ success to the curriculum and personalized attention.

At One Bright Ray (OBR), another accelerated program with two campuses, all the learning is project-based. This means that students pose a driving question, research the topic, and create a portfolio of work.

For example, English students each picked a Harlem Renaissance figure. After four weeks of exploring and writing about this person’s life, each student performed for their class as the person they studied. This kind of learning not only appeals to students who have had trouble staying engaged, but also makes it easier for incoming students to transition into the classroom, even midyear.

OBR also provides support outside the classroom through its “walk out” policy, which allows students to leave class without asking permission, and go talk to a counselor or the principal if they have problems or feel overwhelmed.

Joycet Velasquez, principal of OBR’s Fairhill campus, meets regularly with students and sends personal progress reports every two weeks. OBR, which has about 200 students on each campus, also has a free child care center and many activities found at traditional high schools, including clubs and SAT prep classes.

For many, life after these programs has been positive. Jamil Stokes, a former CLA student who had been kicked out of South Philadelphia High School for bringing a box cutter to school, is now enrolled in a two-year accounting program at Manor College.

His advice to those considering alternative education?

“Do it! Education is the most important thing in your life, period. You should let nothing or no one stop you from getting the education that you need, or reaching higher education.”

For more information on alternative education in Philadelphia, call the Re-engagement Center at 215-400-6700 or visit the School District’s website.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Shied Barton lives in Upper Darby.