Brianna Gibson Credit: Photo by Cristina Rutter

On day two of her second try at high school, Brianna Gibson is full of resolve. In a windowless classroom with a world map on the wall and history books on the shelves, the young woman slides into a desk, offers up a smile and says she thinks that the small alternative school she chose is going to be a good experience.

The teachers seem nice, she says. They would take time to explain assignments, something the teachers at her former high school didn’t seem to want to do. Brianna adds that she doesn’t know many of the other students, but in her mind, that’s a plus. Being anonymous should keep her from getting into fights and into trouble.

“I won’t get caught up,” Brianna explains. She was suspended from Clemente High in Humboldt Park last year for fighting, and never returned.

But for all her confidence, Brianna’s expectations signal trouble ahead. At 17, she’s antsy to move on from high school and plans to enroll in evening, Saturday, online and summer courses in an attempt to graduate within a year.




Chicago has some 50,000 dropouts between the ages of 16 and 21. Alternative schools are their last chance at a high school diploma, but often fall short.

  • Most students who walk into alternative schools are 18 or older but have just a handful of credits and reading skills that are below 8th grade. It’s unlikely that these students can earn enough credits for a diploma before turning 21, when they are no longer entitled to a free public education.
  • Fewer than one in four students leaves an alternative school with a diploma. Most of the students who do graduate are young women, although most dropouts are African-American and Latino males.
  • In the age of high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind, alternative schools are under increased scrutiny but don’t receive the additional resources necessary to meet the needs of the students who enroll.

“One year,” she insists. “I guess I would do two if I absolutely had to. But I can’t be here for three. No way.”


Yet Brianna arrived in September at CCA Academy, one of 22 alternative schools operated by Youth Connections Charter, with only one credit. She needs to earn at least 21 to get a diploma—an unrealistic goal, given that most high school students earn about six credits a year. (CCA was formerly called Community Christian Alternative, but has no religious affiliation.)

Increasingly, most of the dropouts who enroll in Chicago’s alternative schools are in similar straits: close to, or even older than, the typical age for graduation, yet too far behind to make quick headway toward a diploma.

The city’s network of alternative schools provides an opportunity for young people like Brianna who haven’t been successful in traditional public high schools. These schools are often the last chance for dropouts to get a diploma before turning 21, when public school eligibility runs out. And the ranks of students who need another chance are growing: The district is making only slow progress in curbing the dropout rate, which still hovers at around 40 percent. A recent study completed for the district by the Boston-based Parthenon Group estimates that about 50,000 young Chicagoans between the ages of 16 and 21 are dropouts; another 50,000 are still in school, but far behind academically.

Meanwhile, the number of alternative schools is set to balloon in Chicago, bringing in a fresh crop of school operators outside the Youth Connections network, which operates all but a few of the city’s alternative schools. But Chicago is still playing catch-up: Over the past decade, other cities, such as New York, have focused more energy and resources on creating higher-quality schools for these students.

For a variety of reasons—ranging from a student’s impatience or personal difficulties to a dearth of resources at the schools—alternative programs often are a revolving door for dropouts. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of data from the district, the state and Youth Connections Charter found that:

These small, intimate schools are most successful with students who are reading at grade level and need less than 10 credits to graduate. Yet roughly half of dropouts who enroll are below 8th-grade level in reading and math; a third are performing at 6th-grade level.
Half of enrollees in a given fall quit school again by the next year. Overall, the mobility rate is a stunning 166 percent.

Of the 31,000 students who enrolled in an alternative school during the past 10 years, only 23 percent earned a diploma. Experts say such programs should graduate about half of their students.

Supporters of alternative programs say that these numbers are not as troubling as they seem. Society reaps substantial benefits for every former dropout who earns a diploma, notes Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, a Chicago-based advocacy group and service provider for alternative schools.

The economic benefit is substantial—more than $208,000 in additional tax revenue for each former dropout, as well as lower social costs for prison and welfare, according to a report released last fall by the Illinois Taskforce on Re-Enrolling Dropouts.

Linda Boisseau-Goodwin, the manager of alternative schools for the Chicago Public Schools’ Graduation Pathways Department, says that when a student drops out of an alternative school, it is not necessarily the school’s fault.

“There are so many factors involved outside our control,” Boisseau-Goodwin says. “You have to look at all the circumstances. You listen to some of these stories [from students] and they will make your hair stand up.”

Students often have long histories at other schools, and whatever prevented them from succeeding back then stays with them, she adds.

Miguel del Valle, who ran an alternative school before he became a state senator and then city clerk for Chicago, says high mobility is par for the course when students have difficult personal lives.

“We need alternative schools to be flexible,” he says. “Coming in, leaving and coming back—I will take that, as long as we are not giving up on the student entirely.”

Counselors and principals say an underlying tension haunts many young people at alternative schools: They want to be successful, yet personal problems, poor academic skills and lack of tenacity hinders them.

Damara Ortiz, a new teenage mom, is one example. She shows up at her school, Howard Area Leadership Academy in Rogers Park, a few weeks before the first day of school.

Immediately, she is hit with a barrage of questions from the two counselors in the school’s office: Where’s the baby? Is he sleeping through the night? And how is she holding up?

“It’s her twin,” says counselor Helen Collins of the baby boy that 17-year-old Damara gave birth to just a few weeks earlier.

Damara patiently answers the questions—the baby is at home, and she is okay but wishes he didn’t cry so much. Then Damara launches into the real reason she came: Her mother was supposed to baby-sit, but now she can’t, and Damara is worried that she’ll have no place for the baby to go so that she can come to school in September.

The counselors immediately rattle off the names of day-care providers that Damara should call to see if they have space for an infant. Damara nods her head.

There’s a sense of urgency in the counselors’ demeanor. Damara took almost a year off after 8th grade, and her attendance at Howard Leadership has been sporadic. Damara admits she wound up spending many days just hanging out with her cousin. Only since she became pregnant last fall did Damara begin attending school regularly, determined to get an education so she can provide a better life for her child.

But Damara has now moved to the South Side, and has a small, squirmy baby to feed, dress and get to day care before she can leave for school. When the year begins, Damara shows up. But by Week 2, she’s already taking days off.

Collins says situations like Damara’s are more the rule than the exception. She and the other counselors at Howard Leadership say they want to stick by their students. But they wonder how much support they can provide with limited resources, and what are the realistic outcomes?

Another factor complicates the discussion: the increasing pressure on alternative schools to offer challenging academic programs and to meet high standards under the No Child Left Behind Act.

This scrutiny is new for alternative schools. Before 1997, they operated independently, typically run by grassroots organizations with deep roots in the community. Many offered a GED instead of a regular diploma and had little structure, cobbling funds together from CPS, the state and various federal agencies, with few requirements for performance.

Pa Joof, the principal of Prologue, which runs three alternative schools, notes that it was founded in the 1970s with a social justice focus. Sitting in an office surrounded by old photos of blond, shaggy-haired people in bellbottoms, Joof recalls how the first school was started by nuns in Uptown to serve disenfranchised children from Appalachia. The idea was not only to provide these students with an education, but also to nurture a commitment to improving the community and “create a level of awareness and activism,” Joof says.

Students did not receive grades, and academic rigor was not even discussed.
But the charter school movement brought the idea that schools with a unique focus can get stable public funding. At the urging of Wuest, former CPS CEO Paul Vallas agreed in 1997 to let the alternative schools form a network and have a charter. They jumped at the chance.

Today, Youth Connections has 22 campuses. (Other alternative schools include Alternative Safe School Program, run by Boisseau-Goodwin; and two Prologue schools, one a CPS contract school and another that operates independently.) The schools got stable funding—about $7,900 per student—but with strings attached: Meet standards set by No Child Left Behind.

Youth Connections schools have never met NCLB standards—but neither have most of the district’s traditional neighborhood high schools. (In 2009, NCLB calls for 70 percent of high school students to meet or exceed standards on state tests, and for schools to have a 78 percent graduation rate.)

Some educators also worry about the consequences of high-stakes testing that NCLB requires. And some observers wonder whether schools will quietly direct misbehaving and poorly performing students out the door, so that performance indicators look better—a criticism that has been leveled against charters in general.

“Charter schools are more restrictive in who they let in or hold on to,” says del Valle.
Indeed, some alternative schools have instituted admissions requirements. And Youth Connections has ejected six lower-performing schools from its network over the past 12 years. Some have closed; others now offer only a GED program.

Prologue’s independent campus, Winnie Mandela in South Shore, was cut by Youth Connections last year. But Joof says Prologue decided that the community still needed an alternative school. The four small schools on the South Shore High campus have high dropout rates, and the community has no other neighborhood high school.

Winnie Mandela’s principal, Jamillah Kareem, started the school and bristles at the suggestion that it is underperforming. Other schools, she notes, turn students away. Winnie Mandela only has enough funds to serve 40 students, and has a long waiting list.
“I take them,” Kareem says. “They have got to have some place to go.”

In 2003, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided $31 million to start alternative schools for dropouts in several big cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Seattle. The question of quality has been front-and-center.

In Philadelphia, the school system and outside advocates were cognizant of the danger of creating a second-class school system, says Laura Shubilla, co-president and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network.

“We thought it would be a disservice to students if they graduated with a diploma that didn’t mean anything,” Shubilla says. “It would set them up for future failure.”

Yet they also worried about the consequences of setting performance standards so high that schools couldn’t meet them and might get shut down. “We want to protect the opportunity,” Shubilla adds. “We understand that it would be real easy to get rid of these schools.”

So Philadelphia wound up with a set of minimum standards that school must meet, and a second list of so-called “stretch” standards that serve as incentives. Schools earn additional money if they meet them.

In New York, the Gates funding sparked a complete overhaul of alternative schools, says Jo Ellen Lynch, who was the head of the New York Public Schools’ Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation, before leaving early this year to become a consultant. No longer were they even called alternative schools.

New York has created about 50 new schools and programs, divided into three types to meet the differing needs of students: Transfer Schools serve students who have few credits and are far from earning a diploma; Young Adult Borough Centers serve older students who only need a few credits to graduate; and GED-only programs are for those who choose that route.

Lynch says these schools have strong community partners, but are not run by outside agencies. Instead, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Education. New York also has a weighted funding formula that provides more money to these schools because of the extra support these students need.

New York also created new evaluation criteria that take into account the difficulties of educating dropouts. One example: School progress reports show how well transfer schools perform with students based on the number of credits they have when they arrive—a unique barometer that is tailored to alternative schools. Officials also looked at graduation rates for off-track students—those who are overage for their grade and have few credits—and found that transfer schools performed much better with this group than traditional schools, posting 56 percent graduation rates compared to 19 percent in regular schools.

CPS, however, has not yet taken a hard look to determine the best way to judge the performance of its alternative schools. And the district provides the same per-pupil funding for Youth Connections as for other charters.

New York had so many out-of-school youth (more than 100,000) that officials there decided to focus on dropout recovery. Chicago has been concentrating on dropout prevention, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Graduation Pathways. But in the coming year, the department plans to shift its focus to recovery.

Alternative schools face a constant battle to balance the need to meet standards with the skills of their students.

Few alternative school principals will openly criticize their counterparts at neighborhood schools. But they complain about the increasing number of older students who have left regular high schools with barely any credits.

“We are talking 17- and 18-year-olds reading at 5th and 6th-grade levels,” says Myra Sampson, principal and founder of CCA Academy. More special education students also are showing up.
Youth Connections offers professional development and support, but does not have a standard curriculum for its schools. And indeed, many of these school principals and teachers say they value being able to use creativity in teaching.

But such freedom can result in uneven quality. When Youth Connections was up for charter renewal in 2007, observers saw many good things happening, including high engagement on the part of students and instruction tailored to their needs. But they noted “ensuring instruction is appropriately rigorous can be difficult, especially when student skill levels are below-grade-level.”

At some of the schools, observers saw lessons that were far below high-school level.

Venson admits schools have a tricky balancing act. She wants principals to stop accepting credits for classes in which students received a “D.” A “D” usually means that a student didn’t master the subject—for instance, algebra—and that makes it impossible to teach them subsequent courses—like geometry and calculus.

Yet Venson adds that alternative schools need significantly more funding if they are to go back and re-teach lower-level skills. Given more money, she’d like to hire reading and math specialists to support teachers.

But principals scoff at the notion that students should retake classes, given that it’s already an uphill battle to keep these students engaged.

Brianna Gibson is teetering on that edge.

The young woman recalls how she ended up enrolling in CCA. One day, she sat on the couch in her living room, the hours ticking by, swallowed up by soap operas and talk shows. Then she realized that she had a choice.

“I could be either a statistic, or somebody,” she says. “I want to be somebody.”

Sampson says that virtually all of the young people who come to CCA desperately want to get an education. “They want to do more and they want to do better,” she says. “They understand the (employment) ceiling.”

But Sampson openly wonders how much she can help her students, given the support they need.

“I would have to pull miracles out of the air,” she says.

Without that support, students begin to repeat the cycle that forced them out of school the first time around: struggling in classes and taking days off.

“They are willing to pay the price,” Sampson says, “until they get so beat down and defeated, they give up again.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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