Olympia (Fla.) High School was ranked among the nation’s top 1,000 schools by U.S. News and World Report last year. It offers more than two dozen Advanced Placement courses, a great many after-school clubs and an assortment of sports, everything from bowling to water polo. Yet a recent report says that Olympia’s success as a top school with a 90 percent graduation rate is entirely dependent on another school.
ProPublica reports that Sunshine High, an alternative charter school located in a strip mall just 5 miles from Olympia, takes in “cast-offs” from Olympia and other Orlando high schools in a “mutually beneficial agreement.” The schools get to maintain their high graduation records and high ratings within Florida’s school-grading system, and Sunshine collects enough money from the school district to cover costs and pay its management firm, Accelerated Learning Solutions, more than $1.5 million as a “management fee.” That management fee is more than what the school spends on instruction.
There are 455 students at Sunshine, more than 85 percent of whom are black or Hispanic. The students sit in a classroom in front of computer screens for four hours a day with little or no live teaching.
But students lose out, a ProPublica investigation found. Once enrolled at Sunshine, hundreds of them exit quickly with no degree and limited prospects. The departures expose a practice in which officials in the nation’s tenth-largest school district have for years quietly funneled thousands of disadvantaged students—some say against their wishes—into alternative charter schools that allow them to disappear without counting as dropouts.
“I would show up, I would sit down and listen to music the whole time. I didn’t really make any progress the whole time I was there,” said Thiago Mello, 20, who spent a year at Sunshine and left without graduating. He had transferred there from another alternative charter school, where he enrolled after his grades slipped at Olympia.
The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.
As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.
Schools using pushout to pad their numbers is nothing new; The Root has previously reported on the charter school system in Louisiana and the problems therein.