Last June, Chicago public schools officials announced that the district was on the cusp of setting a new record for graduation: Slightly more than 60 percent of students would earn a diploma in 2012.
Chicago’s record high is still roughly 20 percentage points below the national four-year graduation rate, but some of the progress the city has made in driving down the dropout rate over the past five to 10 years is because of a network of charter schools around the city that for more than 15 years has provided small, alternative programs that specialize in serving recovered dropouts or students at high risk of becoming dropouts.
The Youth Connection Charter School network—with 22 schools located in neighborhoods mostly on the city’s impoverished south and west sides—enrolls some 4,000 students and expects about 1,000 of them to graduate with a regular high school diploma this month. Of last year’s 1,366 graduates, 78 percent were accepted into a postsecondary institution, mainly community colleges, according to Youth Connection officials, whose estimates are based on graduates’ reports and verified enrollments through the National Student Clearinghouse.
The average student at a Youth Connection campus is 18. Nearly all of them are behind in credits, and many arrive with high school transcripts full of D’s and F’s. At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, three-quarters of the network’s entering students were reading at a 6th grade level or lower, says Sheila Venson, Youth Connection’s executive director.
In addition to their twin goals of getting most students to earn a diploma and to enroll in a postsecondary institution, the schools aim to boost literacy levels for every student to at least the 10th grade, says Venson. Most of the schools are partnered with local higher education entities that provide students with opportunities to earn college credits as they finish high school.
“We are doing the heavy lift,” she says. “We are doing the job that wasn’t done in K-12 for these young people. Credit recovery cannot be the only education program we offer our students.”
‘Drop in the Bucket’
Youth Connection’s networkwide one-year graduation rate for 2011-12 was 84.4 percent, according to data from Chicago public schools officials.
In a speech last December at a public forum held to spotlight the city’s dropout problem, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer of the 405,000-student Chicago district, credited Youth Connection for reducing the system’s dropout rate by 7 percent over the past decade. Part of that decrease, Venson explains, is because many students who enroll at a Youth Connection campus are counted as transfers from the city high schools that they leave.
A sound-engineering class at Youth Connection’s Innovations High School helped hook Devonte Perry McCullum on education.
Caring teachers, hands-on work, and a safe environment persuaded Kimberly Mitchell to take another go at high school.
Andrew Delgado got his second chance at a charter school for students who have already left school or are likely to.
Even so, the scale of the dropout problem in Chicago remains daunting. Despite the school system’s slow and steady progress in keeping more students, thousands still drop out or teeter on the edge of doing so every year.
“The seats [Youth Connection] can offer, even with serving more than 4,000 students, are a drop in the bucket for what the need is,” says Elaine Allensworth, the interim executive director of the Chicago Consortium on School Research, based at the University of Chicago.
Across the country, some 700 charter schools are identified as “alternative” and serving former dropouts, those at risk for dropping out, expelled students, and other high-risk students, according to 2012 surveys from two national charter school groups. That represents about 11.7 percent of all charter schools, says Nina Rees, the president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Despite interest among charter operators in serving a greater swath of the recovered dropout and at-risk population, Rees says growth has been slow in part because the schools would “be under the same scrutiny as regular schools for meeting state standards and graduation rates.”
“If there isn’t a different accountability system for these schools,” she says, “they aren’t going to look good.”
Deep Roots in Community
The Youth Connection programs have a long history in the city. Many of the schools have deep roots in the communities they serve and tend to draw students who dropped out of high schools nearby or in surrounding neighborhoods. The Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School, for example, opened in 1972 in Chicago’s heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park.
The CCA Academy, which serves students on the West Side of Chicago in the North Lawndale neighborhood, opened in 1978.
Before the schools were organized under a single charter in 1997, many were programs run by neighborhood-based community organizations that had individual contracts with the Chicago school system to provide an “alternative” setting for students who had already dropped out or who were not succeeding in the traditional high schools. A change in state law in the mid-1990s that would have taken millions of dollars in state aid from Chicago to pay for students enrolled in the community-based alternative programs prompted district leaders to organize them under a single, district-held charter as a way to protect the funding.
In the years since, the schools have mostly kept their distinctive instructional approaches and practices for re-engaging students, as well as the individual governing boards responsible for hiring principals. But within the charter structure, the Youth Connection schools operate under common administrative policies and procedures for enrollment, financial reporting, setting academic and other benchmarks, providing special education services, and setting minimum graduation requirements.
Innovations High School, which had been a fixture in the Bronzeville community on the city’s South Side for years, moved to a downtown high-rise on State Street three years ago.
“We’d been in a gang neighborhood with high unemployment, and we felt strongly that children in an alternative environment need to feel safe coming to school, and they needed to see lots of different kinds of working professional adults,” says LaShaun Jackson, a co-founder and the executive director of Innovations High. The move to downtown also put Innovations’ students closer to Harold Washington College, a community college where they take courses for college credit.
Its graduation requirements are rigorous: Students must complete a “senior portfolio” that includes applying to four- or two-year colleges and snagging an acceptance to at least one.
None of the schools enrolls more than 200 students. All offer online courses for credit recovery and use the same hybrid program that puts a teacher in the classroom with students as they complete their content online. But each school has its own engagement strategies, academic focus areas, and array of support services designed to meet the needs of students in their communities.
At CCA Academy, Principal Myra Sampson and her faculty have adopted urban agriculture and ecology, as well as aquaponics, as a key piece of their strategy to get students engaged not only in science learning but also in mathematics and other subjects. Aquaponics—which combines the raising of fish with the growing of food in a symbiotic relationship—has captivated numerous CCA students, Sampson says. A few years ago, with the help of a local foundation, students began raising perch and tilapia in large tanks, along with a variety of vegetable plants and herbs that are nourished by the nutrients from the water in the fish tanks.
“We’re trying to give them a chance for a different school experience than they’ve ever had,” says Sampson, who founded the school.
It is now home to 600-800 fish and hundreds of tomato, basil, spinach, and mint plants that students harvest and either sell at markets or extract their essential oils. Some students have used their plants to decorate paper and letter stationery to sell.
Imari Bearden, a 19-year-old senior at CCA Academy, dropped out of North Lawndale High School at 17. She struggled to read and fell so far behind in credits that she “didn’t see the point of going back.” Two months later, Bearden regretted her decision, but knew she couldn’t return to North Lawndale. She’d heard about CCA Academy, enrolled, and was quickly drafted by teachers to join the school’s fledgling aquaponics program.
“For the first time in my life, I got to know my teachers,” she says. “And I got help with my reading.”
Bearden says the small school—located in an old bottle-cap factory in the heart of a neighborhood hit hard by drugs and gang violence—is “nothing like it is out on the streets.” She graduates this month and is considering enrolling in Chicago State University’s aquaponics program. (Chicago State is a CCA Academy partner.)
At the end of last year, CCA Academy was one of the network’s top-performing schools on a number of accountability measures monitored by the public school system. The school posted strong growth in reading and math skills and had a one-year graduation rate of 91.2 percent among seniors who had been enrolled in the school for at least 125 days. On measures of student engagement, the academy didn’t rank quite as highly. But by the midpoint of this school year, the school had already shown growth on two measures related to engagement—its attendance rate and its “stabilization” rate, the latter of which is the percentage of students who have remained enrolled for 125 days or more or who have graduated within a year of enrolling.
Gauging Track Record
As of January, two network schools with ratings that put them in the category of “needs improvement” at the end of last school year had moved up one level to “performing.” Thirteen were rated as either “advanced” or “distinguished,” the top two rankings in the accountability system.
And though Chicago school officials last year expressed some concerns that the network had slipped in some performance ratings and decided to renew Youth Connection’s charter for three years—rather than five—the two sides are currently negotiating to extend the accord to five years, Venson says.
Deciding what it means to be a good “alternative school” is a tricky, still-evolving process, says the Chicago Consortium’s Allensworth. “One hundred percent of these students in alternative settings have failed at other schools,” she says.
At the same time, Allensworth says more research is necessary to understand the conditions and factors that lead to success in alternative settings.
Sampson, the CCA’s principal, says there is no magic formula, but every setting needs a few essentials, such as staff members willing to keep their commitments to students who’ve had few positive experiences with schooling.
“All of us who work with this population need to remember that none of this is about their inability to learn,” she says.
Editor’s Note: Because of the differences in calculation methods and time periods, the reported graduation rate for Chicago in this story differs dramatically from the rate reported by the EPE Research Center.