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.
And, of course, there is the link to our new education secretary, Betsy DeVos:
The role of charter alternative schools like Sunshine—publicly funded but managed by for-profit companies—is likely to grow under the new U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, an ardent supporter of school choice. In her home state of Michigan, charter schools have been responsible in part for a steep rise in the alternative school population. She recently portrayed Florida as a national model for charters and choice.
Another issue is charter schools’ manipulation of the accountability system. More from ProPublica:
In Orlando, both traditional and alternative charter schools manipulate the accountability system. The charters exploit a loophole in state regulations: By coding hundreds of students who leave as withdrawing to enter adult education, such as GED classes, Sunshine claims virtually no dropouts. State rules don’t label withdrawals for that reason as dropping out. But ALS officials cannot say where Sunshine students actually went — or if they even took GED classes at all.
Between the day in 2012 when it first opened, and the end of the 2015 school year, Sunshine High coded 1,230 withdrawals as students leaving for adult education. At least nine of the company’s other charter schools statewide—including three in Orange County—followed a similar pattern. Not counting Sunshine, the other ALS schools in Florida reported 5,260 more such withdrawals.
ProPublica notes that while school districts don’t have the power to hire and fire charter school personnel, they are supposed to make sure charter schools are actually helping students.
The Orange County School District is responsible for tracking whether the schools fulfill promises made in their charter contracts related to academics. District officials said they monitor ALS schools by checking metrics kept in “notebooks” at each school site during twice-annual visits.
For Sunshine, those measures include a “completion rate” that considers how many students either graduate or are continuing to work toward a regular diploma—at Sunshine or any other school—each year. The rate was just 42 percent of students in 2014, the school said, but rose to 59 percent in 2015 and 83 percent in 2016.
Although Sunshine’s on-time graduation rate sank to 3.5 percent in 2016, it tested the bare-minimum number of students required, and their scores were just high enough for the school to avoid an “unsatisfactory” rating.
If Sunshine receives poor ratings for two out of four years—or if it fails to test enough students for two of four years—it could lose its contract with the district.
According to ProPublica, district officials said they have never sanctioned ALS or its schools for missing benchmarks.
I wonder why.
Read more at ProPublica.