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A new role for Memphis charters: Educating “nontraditional” students

Pathways, in Frayser - now enrolling
Pathways, in Frayser - a new alternative school that is part of the ASD.
J. Zubrzycki

As Shelby County Schools plans to dramatically reshape its alternative school program, several new charter schools aimed at educating nontraditional students and students who have been expelled or suspended from public schools in Memphis have opened their doors, and more are on the way.

  • Memphis could be one of the first expansion sites for Excel Academies, a charter school run by Goodwill Charities, aimed at getting dropouts to earn high school diplomas that lead to better jobs. The group applied for a charter from Shelby County Schools in early April. (Read more here)
  • The state-run Achievement School District has contracted with Pathways In Education, which serves both middle school and high school students who have been removed from their regular school, and also offers classes for those who had dropped out of school altogether. The state-run ASD has also made public the fact that it is looking for additional alternative school charter schools. (Read more here)
  • Former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is in his first year running the Dubois Consortium of Charter Schools. Two of those were aimed at at-risk students: The school has partnered with the local government to connect to young boys who are on probation. One of those has closed.

Lili Allen, the ‎director of Back on Track Designs at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that consults with organizations working with disconnected or off-track young people, said the flexibilities granted to charter schools – they have control over their budget, hiring, schedule, and curriculum – can be useful for schools hoping to educate students who are off-track, who have been expelled or suspended, or who are otherwise disconnected from school. “We would never say you have to be a charter, but the structure can be quite useful for schools serving this population.”

“Too often, district alternative schools will be asked to just offer exactly what the district offered as repeater course,” she said. “So having flexibility to redesign the curriculum is a critical thing. Similarly, the flexibility around budget is really important. When you’re trying to meet the particular needs of young people coming in behind, who may face additional barriers, having the right budget flexibility can allow you to staff the school appropriately, to get a mix of online instruction and face-to-face instruction, to personalize reports.”

Proponents of the new schools say they will help fill a gap in the Memphis education landscape. Some 120,000 adults in Shelby County do not have a high school diploma, according to data from the U.S. Census, and another 7,200 students drop out each year. About 1,900 students attend the district’s alternative programs, though that number fluctuates, and 3.8 percent of the legacy Memphis City’s student population was expelled in 2012-13, according to the state’s report card.

Just how to reach and serve students who have dropped out or who are at risk of leaving school has been an area of focus in Memphis and nationally. Shelby County is hoping to increase its graduation rate from around 67 percent (legacy Memphis City Schools’ graduation rate for the 2012-13 school year) to 90 percent by 2025. The district’s plan to revamp its alternative school programs includes a stronger focus on returning students to traditional schools.

Both Pathways and Goodwill would offer high school diplomas to students, not a GED. Diploma-holders are more likely to attend college than holders of a GED.

Nelson Smith, a senior advisor to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said that serving at-risk students is a “traditional role” for charter schools – Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington are among the cities that have charter schools for “nontraditional” students. He said most of the models had been developed from the “ground up,” responding to community needs. But these new schools are the first charter schools in Memphis to fill that role.

Traditional alternative schools in Shelby County serve students who have been expelled or suspended from their regular schools. According to the district’s student handbook, Shelby County’s alternative schools adhere as closely as possible to the academic program at a student’s home school, though they may offer additional services or supports to meet students’ “nontraditional needs.” State law requires districts to have alternative schools for these students.

The new alternative schools each aim to work with slightly different groups of students. Pathways and Goodwill have programs for those who have already dropped out of school. Pathways also has middle and high school students who have been remanded from their regular schools or those who may be pregnant, dramatically overage or academically behind, or otherwise at risk of dropping out. Herenton’s schools were focused on students returning from the justice system or students who are currently incarcerated.

Funding the new schools can have unexpected wrinkles. The schools receive state and federal funds for each student they enroll. Dropout recovery in particular means the government may be funding schools for more adults out of money usually slated for children and teenagers. In Indiana, for instance, the state implemented a $25 million cap on spending for dropout recovery charter schools after being surprised by their popularity.

Oversight and accountability in these schools presents unique challenges, too: The National Association of Charter School Authorizers released a report late last year highlighting the specific oversight necessary for alternative charter schools, which it says are becoming increasingly common.

In Tennessee, test scores of students in alternative schools have traditionally been counted for the regular school the student last attended. Kelli Gauthier, a spokeswoman for the state department of education, said that it wasn’t entirely clear how accountability would work for a school like Goodwill’s, which has not yet been approved.

Margo Roen, the New Schools Director for the state-run Achievement School District, said the ASD contracted with Pathways and announced that it was searching for new alternative school operators after analyzing where there was need in Memphis. “There’s a lack of alternative models in Memphis…We need to make sure that just because a student is behind academically, or if they’ve been remanded because of a zero tolerance policy, they still have options,” she said.

Though the ASD believes there is a need for still more alternative school options in Memphis, no additional alternative school operators applied to open schools in the ASD next year, Roen said.

Goodwill is looking to bring its model to Memphis after seeing some success in Indianapolis. “We had great response from their political leaders and community organizations,” Scott Bess, chief operating officer of Goodwill’s Education Initiatives in Indianapolis.

Jobs For the Future’s Allen said it is important that programs are more than just online-only credit recovery programs. “Are they using the charter flexibilities to put in place the right programming that we know these young people are using to succeed? It’s a great potential opportunity but doesn’t guarantee success.”

A closer look at Pathways and Goodwill, visit these links:
Reach this reporter at jzubrzycki@chalkbeat.org

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