Connecticut's "Alternative Schools" | Connecticut Public Radio
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Connecticut's "Alternative Schools"

Jan 18, 2012

Thousands of students leave their traditional public high schools each year for what are called alternative schools. They’re meant to provide smaller class sizes and more individual instruction for struggling students. But since the state doesn’t define the meaning of alternative and doesn’t collect data from many of these schools, it’s hard to know if they’re achieving their goals. WNPR’s Neena Satija reports in the second of a three-part series. (Listen to the first segment here.)

GEORGE PULLEY JR: “Three-letter word beginning with G.

STUDENT:‘Goo.’

PULLEY: “They’re expensive.’

STUDENT: “Gem.’

PULLEY: “Gem. Very good.’

George Pulley Jr. has taught science at Alta in Southington for over 20 years. Today he’s teaching a unit on rocks and minerals to a class of eight freshmen. The students huddle together around a large table solving a word game as Pulley walks around to help them with their work.

With about 60 students, Alta is the alternative school for those having trouble at the 2200-student Southington High School right next door. Pulley has also taught at Southington High, but he says he felt like there, he was just instructing from a textbook-driven curriculum.  

PULLEY: “And that doesn’t work here. The textbooks don’t work here. The kids need a hands-on approach and their main source material is a workbook. And the reason why is the workbook only has 31 units, but at the end of the year these kids finish it.”

Education policymakers and advocates call Alta one of the best alternative schools in Connecticut. So does 16-year-old Scott Passmore, who was skipping classes and failing at Southington High until he decided to try Alta.

PASSMORE: “When I was at the high school, my grades were probably almost all F’s. And by the end of the one term that I was here, I had all B’s and C’s.”

But finding the data to back up these claims isn’t easy. Although alternative schools are considered a crucial “second chance” for students struggling in traditional public schools, Connecticut law doesn’t define them or require them to collect data such as student test scores, attendance rates, or graduation rates.

Laura McCargar has authored a report on alternative education options in Connecticut for the Hartford-based A Better Way Foundation. She says this lack of data masks the fact that many alternative schools don’t have the resources they need. And she questions how students get placed into alternative schools. She calls Alta a choice school, which means struggling students aren’t forced to go there. But in New Haven, McCargar thinks the lowest-performing public high school students get pushed against their will into the alternative school called New Horizons.

MCCARGAR: “Folks might say it is by choice because at some point in the process students might say, “Yeah OK,’ but I don’t think it’s presented as an authentic choice.”

New Horizons principal Maureen Bransfield disagrees. Bransfield claims since she took over the school last year, it’s undergone a makeover. Grey and drab walls were painted purple, and the school is now free of graffiti. The school had no working computers before; now it has fifteen brand-new ones. Bransfield says she gets calls from parents and students all the time begging to come to the school.

BRANSFIELD: “Any student who is enrolled here clearly hasn’t been pushed out in any negative sense because it’s a gift to get a slot here. It’s a free private education. So, the kids that I get I don’t think are the kids that she was talking about. If she was, then she doesn’t know what the program is all about.”

Still, nearly three-quarters of the students at New Horizons are referred directly by their high school administrators. And according to data New Haven collected as part of its school reform initiative, less than one percent of New Horizons students were on track to graduate in 2009. Bransfield says that data is misleading.

BRANSFIELD: “What is it about New Horizons that perhaps all my kids aren’t getting proficient goal or above-goal? Well, let’s talk about the fact that they are on a third or fourth grade reading level.”

The eighty students at New Horizons come from some of the toughest environments in New Haven, Bransfield says. Last year, three lost their lives to gun violence in the city. This year, four have become pregnant. Two others have returned after giving birth. Yet the school has managed to increase its attendance rate by a third over the past year. And it’s done so, Bransfield says, because the school’s staff has spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to help students.

BRANSFIELD: “They might need to call home three times as much as any other teacher would ever have to. They might need to be able to say to a kid to establish that rapport, ‘you know what? Let me do your laundry for you. We know you’re not coming to school because you don’t have clean clothes. Let me take you to work after school because we know you won’t make it with the city bus.”

That kind of individual attention makes for hefty school budgets. New Horizons’ budget amounts to more than $17,000 spent per student. Compare that to New Haven’s two biggest public high schools, which spend about $10,000 per student annually. And yet, neither New Horizons nor Alta offers basic high school resources like foreign languages and most extracurricular activities. That will make it difficult for many of its students to get into a four-year college.

Laura McCargar from “A Better Way Foundation” is also concerned about the lack of accountability in alternative schools. That won’t get better if the state doesn’t keep track of them, she says, and so far she’s not optimistic. In fact, when the state gave McCargar a list of all the alternative education programs in Connecticut, New Horizons wasn’t even on it.

In the final segment of our series, we visit two adult education programs in Connecticut with an awful lot of teenage students who didn’t make it in high school. But, are they getting the same experience?

For WNPR, I’m Neena Satija.