The Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy in Humboldt Park is one of five campuses throughout the city. Credit: Photo by Grace Donnelly


Although Chicago’s graduation rate has risen markedly in the last 20 years, the city still is home to large numbers of young high school dropouts. Last week, WTTW reported that 42,000 young people in the Chicago area lack a traditional high school diploma. Getting them back on track to earn this key credential remains a daunting challenge.

For years, Chicago’s small, community-based alternative schools labored without any support from the Chicago Public Schools. Their funding came largely from a state grant administered by City Colleges of Chicago. In 1995, CPS CEO Paul Vallas contracted with the schools directly, but the district could not sustain the support.

However, the 1996 legislation creating charter schools in Illinois opened a new revenue stream, and Vallas went after it. In 1997 a new non-profit called Youth Connections Charter School (YCCS) applied for and received a charter from CPS and then subcontracted with the existing alternative schools to keep their programs alive.

See “Alternative schools: will they meet expectations?” Catalyst March 1996 and “Board reaches to retrieve dropouts,” Catalyst 1998


By 2009, YCCS was serving about 3,000 students, fewer than half the total number of dropouts from CPS in a single year. In 2009, legislators passed a charter expansion law aimed at creating more dropout recovery schools, including five in Chicago. However, the law did not come with funding to get them started.

As a result, only Instituto del Progreso Latino was able to take advantage of the additional charters, opening two new schools.  Demand for dropout recovery programs still far outpaced supply.

Former CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made the expansion of dropout recovery programs a priority. In 2013, the district announced plans to fund an additional 20,000 seats over five years through the Alternative Learning Opportunities Program (ALOP), a state pathway for districts to contract with alternative school operators. But Byrd-Bennett appeared to favor national operators, both for-profit and non-profit, over the established local programs funded through YCCS.

A Catalyst/WBEZ investigation into the new ALOP programs found most required students on site for only three hours a day. (To fulfill the state-required 300 minutes of instructional time, students promise to work at home for an additional two hours daily.)

Students spent most of their on-site time taking online courses, which allowed them to complete credits much faster than would be expected in a typical high school program. Experts warned that the rapid expansion of these new pathways to graduation could create a two-tiered system where alternative school graduates would earn lower-quality diplomas.

See “Cash the key question in alternative schools expansion,” Catalyst October 2009 and “Options schools raise questions of quality,” February 2015.


Last month, CPS announced that its dire financial situation warranted putting the brakes on further ALOP expansion. Currently, ALOP programs offer more than 11,500 seats to returning dropouts. Over the last two years, CPS has invested nearly $60 million in them.

Because most are private, it is difficult to determine whether they have relationships with district or city officials. The recent federal indictment of Barbara Byrd-Bennett mentions that she persuaded an unnamed alternative school vendor (“Vendor A”) to “serve as a sponsor” for SUPES Academy in August 2012.

In May, the district renewed the YCCS charter for another five years. Currently, 20 campuses are authorized to serve a total of about 4,000 students.

See “Take 5: Tense charter hearings, Dyett boundaries set, new preschool study,” Catalyst October 2015 and “Mixing profits and performance at alternative schools,” Catalyst March 2015

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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