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Arkansas Spurns Warehousing of Floundering Students

In much of the country, alternative schools are neglected, underfunded and stigmatized. But one of the poorest states is spending big on them.

As Leana Torres began high school, family crises — her estrangement from her father, her stepmother’s terminal cancer — shadowed her through the hallways. She experimented with drugs and got C’s, D’s and F’s in class.

Torres could have become a casualty of her difficult home life — the sort of student school districts may all but write off because circumstances outside the classroom seem to overwhelm teachers’ best efforts. But she didn’t. When her mother and educators enrolled her in a public alternative school in Bentonville, Arkansas, they were opening doors for her, not shutting them.

“My mom actually sent me here as a punishment,” says Torres, who has long dark hair and big brown eyes, “but it’s actually the best thing that’s happened to me.”

At the Gateway Alternative School, Torres found a close-knit community where she could catch up on coursework and lean on adults and other students who understood what it was like to encounter major obstacles as a teenager.

“It’s kind of like a big support system,” says Torres, 17, who graduates this month with A’s and B’s and wants to become a real estate agent. “You go around the corner and there’s somebody to help you.”

Torres’ success is no fluke. It’s exactly the sort of life-changing turnaround that officials in Bentonville, and the state of Arkansas, expect from their alternative schools for at-risk students.

In other states, such schools are often spare and prison-like, offer computer-based courses instead of meaningful interaction with teachers, and provide little counseling. Many students are subjected to harsh discipline and, some allege, even physical abuse.

But in Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the country, educators have taken another path. The state government has encouraged — and helped pay for — a network of local alternative schools with rich academic offerings, social and mental health support, and standards modeled on what research shows works best to reduce bad behavior, poor grades and absenteeism.

Arkansas allocates an extra $4,600 for each alternative school student — on top of the standard state and local expenditure of $6,700 per pupil. For alternative schools to receive the extra stipend, classes can have no greater than a 1:15 teacher-student ratio (and many are smaller). Even students in small schools often can choose from electives and career-vocational classes and participate in clubs and sports. Mental health counseling is generally available.

It’s difficult to calculate a graduation rate for the state’s alternative schools, because they’re mostly grouped for statistical purposes with regular schools, to which nearly a quarter of their students return. Still, their emergence coincided with a decline in Arkansas’ overall dropout rate from 2002 to 2012, a November state report shows. Another indicator of their success: although traditional schools are encouraged to recommend only about 3 percent of their students for alternative schools, nearly 10 percent of all graduates in the state have spent some time in alternative education.

Some states’ approach to alternative education is to “take the least and give them less,” says state Alternative Education Director Lori Lamb. “We don’t do that in Arkansas.” One of the state’s main goals, she adds, is to erase the stigma of attending alternative schools, and change perceptions so students — and taxpayers — see them as an intervention, not punishment.

Denise Riley, an Oklahoma-based education consultant on the board of the National Alternative Education Association, says Arkansas has become a leader in alternative education by constantly evaluating itself and incorporating new research into its practices, providing strong but supportive oversight of school districts, and fostering programs where adults build solid relationships with students.

“They’ve approached it almost like you would if you taught a gifted class,” Riley says.

In certain ways, Arkansas’ philosophy runs counter to the Trump administration’s. The state urges districts to keep alternative schools’ population “substantially similar” to that of regular schools — a goal that aligned with federal guidance under former President Barack Obama. Yet under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, federal officials are proposing to delay a rule that would discourage schools from over-identifying minority students for special education and segregating them in separate classrooms, or disciplining them disproportionately.

DeVos also favors expanding the roles of charter schools and for-profit education management companies to promote school choice, which she has suggested can lower absenteeism and dropout rates. Though for-profit charter schools specializing in “dropout recovery” abound elsewhere, Lamb says only one charter school chain, a nonprofit, has met Arkansas’ rigorous standards to qualify for alternative education funding.

In a sense, Arkansas has taken alternative schools back to their roots as child-centered, less competitive and more flexible places for students who struggle to thrive in regular schools. That mission was subverted as schools across the country adopted rigid, “zero-tolerance” disciplinary practices in the 1990s and then faced pressure to boost test scores as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Neglected and underfunded, many alternative schools now offer substandard academics in decrepit buildings or trailers, and serve mainly as warehouses for students with behavior problems or bad test scores. Increasingly, they’re run by private companies that profit by providing bare-bones instruction and billing states for potential dropouts who rarely show up for class.

A ProPublica investigation this year found that nationwide, nearly a third of the alternative-school population attends a school that spends at least $500 less per pupil than regular schools do in the same district. Four in 10 school districts don’t provide counseling in their alternative schools, though they do in regular schools. States often hold alternative schools to lower standards than regular ones, too — sometimes providing students far fewer hours of teaching than their counterparts in regular schools.

In some states, students are largely forced into alternative schools, even for minor behavioral offenses like cursing or disrespect. And while just 6 percent of regular schools across the country have graduation rates below 50 percent, ProPublica’s analysis found nearly half of alternative schools do.

Arkansas’ strikingly different approach dates back to 2002, when lawmakers expanded the state’s alternative schools in response to a state Supreme Court decision that declared the state’s education system inequitable and inadequate. The reforms mandated that every school district have an alternative program available for its neediest students.

Arkansas alternative students must meet two of a dozen criteria, which include having been an abuse victim, received inadequate emotional support at home, exhibited disruptive behavior, or repeatedly failed to achieve proficiency in math and literacy. Poor academic performance is not reason enough. Students are referred to the program by educators or parents, and enrollment is mostly voluntary.

Unlike in many districts elsewhere, Arkansas discourages traditional schools from gaming accountability measures by pushing out poor performers to alternative schools. Instead, students’ test scores and graduation status in alternative programs are usually reported as part of their home school’s performance. When they graduate, most students receive a diploma from the regular school.

Under state guidelines, the alternative schools must not be punitive. Academic failures and even disciplinary incidents typically elicit more help — not suspension or expulsion. Schools must offer services — such as access to a school counselor, mental health professional or school nurse — that, at a minimum, are similar to what is available for students in regular schools.

To be sure, the state’s alternative programs aren’t perfect. Some have waiting lists and small or aging facilities, leaving them unable to help as many students as they’d like. Others, like those elsewhere in the country, struggle with student absenteeism.

The state has continued to monitor its alternative schools closely and refine its approach. “I always say students don’t have to meet the program’s needs,” Lamb says. “The program needs to change to meet their needs.”

The state’s approach is visible in school hallways. At four alternative schools I visited in early December, chatter — not forced silence, or chaos — filled the hallways between periods, with students socializing briefly before disappearing into classrooms. In some, student artwork or photos of teens taking part in special events or projects adorned the walls.

At Gateway Alternative School in Bentonville — headquarters to retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where Torres works after school in customer service — students learn business concepts in one course by running a bike repair shop.

They fix bikes mainly for the district’s physical education classes and a smattering of paying customers.

At tables in the nearby cafeteria one Tuesday this month, students talked, worked on laptops, or read. It was a “seminar day,” when time was set aside for students who needed extra help so they could be tutored by teachers in small groups. Those in the cafeteria were caught up, and had earned a few minutes to socialize as a reward. The program is one of the school’s ways to individualize instruction, instead of relying on generic computer courses.

Program Coordinator Kale Eaton said 11 of his 12 teachers have masters’ degrees, and turnover is low. The school experiences few disciplinary issues, he says — even with students who arrive with reputations for misbehavior. “It’s a fresh start and we treat it like a fresh start with them,” he said.

About a half-hour drive from Bentonville is the Archer Learning Center, located in a refurbished furniture store in Springdale. Principal Shawna Lyons and Assistant Principal Coby Davis, who both have doctorates in education, use a host of strategies to ease the transition for newcomers. They include a welcome meeting in which the student, parents and school staff sit in a circle and talk.

The school is dedicated, too, to using alternative options to traditional punishments like expulsions and suspensions. They include “positive behavior supports” — rewards, encouragement and changes in the students’ environment and routines to reduce challenging behavior — as well as “restorative justice,” in which students discuss and make amends for transgressions. The school is also trying to incorporate “mindfulness” into its days through yoga and other strategies aimed at soothing the nerves of students who often facing significant challenges outside its walls.

Lyons and Davis say the measures are paying off: Incidents of misbehavior referred by school staff for discipline dropped from 285 in 2014-2015, to 38 in 2015-2016 and 35 last school year.

Attention to students’ overall well-being helps students such as Mariah Lopez, 16, a junior at Archer. Like many of her peers in alternative programs, she had serious anxiety at the larger high school she used to attend. “Every single day I’d cry and stay in the bathroom,” she recalls. She never raised her hand in class, she says, even when she had a question.

At Archer, she feels comfortable speaking up and seeking extra help. Teachers are patient and approachable. She’s even grown confident enough to return to her regular school early each morning for a dance class before heading to Archer. “They really saved me here,” she says.

The school also builds in time for training its teachers to help kids who are struggling in class, and offers students regular field trips to colleges and technical schools. Of 106 fourth and fifth-year seniors eligible for graduation in 2017, Davis says, 94 received diplomas.

From the outside, the Russellville Secondary Alternative Learning Center looms as a Depression-era monolith with windows that were boarded up long ago, reportedly to save money during the energy crisis.

But inside, the school’s classrooms have an inviting feel. Teachers and administrators have turned the windows into bookcases, decorating them with artwork and knick-knacks. Principal Josh Edgin, a soft-spoken former basketball and football coach, stands in the school’s wide corridor and jokes with staff and students.

“It’s a family atmosphere,” Edgin says. “You build these relationships with kids and they don’t want to disappoint you.”

Unlike many alternative programs in other states, the center doesn’t offer computer-based “credit recovery” courses for students who failed the first time around. All instruction is provided by teachers, and students who need to catch up can attend extra classes after school. “Students need it,” Edgin says of teachers’ attention, “they need that interaction.” A computer, he adds, can’t see frustration.

It also can’t see when students are barely able to stay awake — because they worked late, or had issues at home. But Edgin and his teachers can, and, instead of chastising those who fall asleep in class, they invite them to put their head down on a desk for a half-hour in a quiet room. “We’re not going to ruin a school day over a nap,” Edgin says.

All the personal attention at the center tends to erase discipline problems, Edgin says. Student David Tisby, 17, says he was so confused in classes such as math at his regular high school that he often left questions on classwork blank. He also amassed a disciplinary record for acting up in class, according to Edgin.

But at the center, Tisby says teachers helped him when he needed it and made sure he caught up. The school uses a nine-week semester that allows students to accumulate an extra credit. (Twenty-two credits are required for a high school degree.) “I like it better,” Tisby says, adding he has “perfect attendance” now. He should finish his graduation requirements by March, and plans to walk with his peers in May. Edgin says Tisby doesn’t cause the sort of disruptions that landed him in trouble before, either. “He’s happy,” the principal says, a “big-smile kid.”

Some of the alternative schools in other states that I reported on this year offered hardly any elective classes or career-vocational programs, which many students were interested in. But in a high-poverty neighborhood on the outskirts of Little Rock, students at the alternative school North Little Rock Academy can choose electives such as art, music, psychology and television production. They can take a bus, too, to attend career-tech programs in subjects such as accounting and marketing. The school — housed in a spacious former middle school — has a garden and a hothouse out back.

On a recent afternoon, Principal Charles Jones walked in to a shop class as it was wrapping up. Three students were sitting at a table they had just finished building and singing a gospel song, banging a hammer to keep rhythm. It was one Jones knew. He jumped in, harmonizing with them.

“I’m glad about it,” they sang, “I’m so glad to be here.”

Like Edgin, Jones relies heavily on his personal connection to students. He grew up in one of the poorer neighborhoods where many of his students come from. He matches everyone with a mentor at the school. Many of the teachers’ aides he hires are young African-American men who have faced similar challenges. The goal, he says, is to help students address their problems and return to their home school — or prepare for college.

“I tell people there’s no such animal as a bad kid,” Jones says, just “bad choices, bad neighborhoods, bad influences.”

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