Cuts to alternative education will come back to haunt us

street schoolNothing is as critical to a young person’s future prospects as a high school diploma. Decades of research shows that those who drop out of high school are at significantly higher risk of being unemployed, living in poverty, and serving time in prison.

Over the past two decades, Oklahoma has been a national leader for alternative education programs that keep at-risk students in school and help them to graduate. Despite this proven success, education funding cuts have now slashed support for alternative education in half and are leaving our most at-risk students without the support they need for educational success.

Oklahoma’s model alternative education programs

Alternative education in Oklahoma is a statewide network of programs that provide customized educations for students who are identified as at-risk for high school failure due to various factors, which may include “academic deficiency, behavioral difficulties, excessive absences, pregnancy or parenting, adjustment problems, or juvenile justice involvement.” Building on the successful academy approach developed at Tulsa’s Street School, which has operated since the 1970s,Oklahoma lawmakers phased in a statewide system of alternative education in the 1990s.

Currently every school district must offer at least one alternative education program or join an alternative education cooperative that is available to students who are struggling  in a traditional school setting. These can be stand-alone alternative schools, afternoon or evening programs, or alternative classrooms within traditional high schools. Every alternative education program must offer 17 specific components, which have been proven through rigorous research and evaluation to contribute to students’ academic success, including small class sizes, personalized instruction, experienced teachers, counseling and social services, and clear and measurable program goals and objectives. As Kathy McKean, who leads a center that provides evaluation and support for alternative education programs, has written, “These are engaging, authentic, nurturing environments that provide the kinds of supports researchers (and dropouts!) believe to be necessary: caring teachers, smaller classes, more individualized instruction, the chance to work at one’s own pace, and at least one strong relationship with an adult at school.”

[pullquote]“Data on student achievement consistently finds that students who are enrolled in alternative education programs are suspended less often, miss fewer days of school, fail fewer courses, have higher GPAs, and graduate at a higher rate.”[/pullquote]

In the 2014-15 school year, 267 alternative education programs served 12,332 Oklahoma students. Data on student achievement consistently finds that students who are enrolled in alternative education programs are suspended less often, miss fewer days of school, fail fewer courses, have higher GPAs, and graduate at a higher rate. Between 1998, when alternative education was expanded statewide, and 2010, Oklahoma’s statewide dropout rate was cut by more than half – from 5.5 percent to 2.3 percent. This success has brought national acclaim to Oklahoma’s model of alternative education.  

Data alone doesn’t fully capture the difference that participation in a strong alternative education program can make in a student’s life. Here’s the testimony of one Oklahoma parent:

My oldest daughter was on a downward trajectory her freshman year in a Norman high school with over 2,000 students. She was falling through the cracks. We succeeded in getting her an IEP (Individualized Education Program) based on “Other Health Impairments”, specifically ADD, and we used that and the fact that excessive absences caused her to fail most of her freshman courses as grounds for an application to the Dimensions Academy [the alternative school in Norman]. She made a dramatic turnaround and finished high school a year early. She worked for the next 4 years, but last year after being laid off from her job at a call center she enrolled at Moore Norman Technology and yesterday completed her second semester of the Legal Office course. She expects to graduate in September. It is unlikely any of this would have been possible without alternative school.

Alternative education has been cut by more than 50 percent

That’s the good news. The bad news is that like many proven programs that are making a difference for Oklahoma students, alternative education funding has been decimated in recent years. The Legislature appropriated $19.4 million for alternative education in FY 2010, which included almost $1.5 million for evaluation to ensure that schools were meeting all program criteria. Funding was reduced to $14.9 million in FY 2012, which included a $1.2 million cut for program evaluation. Funding was cut again in FY 2015 and again as a result of the FY 2016 mid-year budget cuts. Now, this year, after the Legislature slashed the Department of Education’s program and activities budget by $38 million, or  29 percent, funding for alternative education is down to $9.8 million – a full 50 percent drop compared to seven years ago.

Even with the reduced funding, school districts are still required to operate alternative education programs. This latest round of budget cuts will likely mean larger class sizes, less personalized counseling services, fewer course options, and an increasing reliance on exclusively computer-based curricula at the expense of teacher-led instruction, according to Kathy McKean. Ultimately, it will mean more students who fall through the cracks as the result of not receiving the personalized instruction and counseling that they need.

How sadly ironic that just when we are finally seeing real strides towards criminal justice reform in Oklahoma, the programs that have a proven track record of preventing at-risk youth away from the criminal justice system are being dismantled.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

3 thoughts on “Cuts to alternative education will come back to haunt us

  1. Thank you for writing this post and pointing out the obvious. There are many areas in the Oklahoma education arena that need attention. It is nice you have outlined the value of alternative education to a population that is under-served. Street School in Tulsa can accommodate 95 students and, on average, more than 130 are enrolled annually. Our waiting list is consistently at 75+/- students who need what we provide. The vast majority of the youth who attend Street School face many personal challenges such as a history of domestic violence, abuse, trauma and lack of family support. Street School provides an avenue for them to be successful.

    We must raise nearly $700,000 or 47% of our own budget EVERY YEAR to maintain program services. Every dollar counts. Our kids are worth it.

  2. I attended Broken Arrow Acedemy from 2001 until I graduated in 2004. Prior to being accepted there I was on the fast track to dropping out. I attended 4 schools my freshman year, and ultimately ended up dropping out when I was told that I already had to many absences to pass. When I was in school, I ate lunch alone in the bathroom because I found the school of over 1,000 students overwhelming, and after so many transfers it became difficult to make friends.

    My first day at Broken Arrow Acedemy was the first good day of school I had had in years. As time progressed, I developed relationships with my teachers and school counselor. Those relationships helped me see school as a safe place, and helped me continue to attend when things got rough.

    Today, I have a BA in Psychology and I work for a program that helps homeless veterans obtain housing.

    I don’t say that to toot my own horn, but to put a personal story behind the merits of alternative education.

    If it were not for the time I spent at Broken Arrow Acedemy, I would have surely dropped out. I was struggling socially, had little stability at home, and I was living in an environment that didn’t emphasize the nessesity of obtaining an education.

    I was raised in a home that relied on food stamps and subsided housing to get by. My mother was pregnant with me at 17, and I’m all likelihood I would have continued to cycle of poverty.

    I know that my success story alone is not enough to convince law makers to fund alternative education. I can imagine that some are of the mind that cutting the funds from “problem kids” will result in less cuts for the rest of the children. I could tell you that most of the people I still have contact with from high school are also doing well. That might move some to consider the statistics on graduation rates and consider there merits, but not most.

    From my understanding of most of our states law makers, the general goal is to cut taxes and decrease spending. So please, listen to me when I say, a cut in alternative education will decrease minimal amounts of spending in the present, and cost the state every dollar it saved, and many many more in the long run.

    If you consider my story alone; I would have ended up relying on SNAP and government housing to survive. If I got sick, I would have visited an emergency room and left others to cover the cost of the bill I could not afford. I would have had children that relied on Soonercare and free lunches. I, very likely, would have continued the cycle for more generations to come.

    Now multiple that by thousands of students every year. Then add in the likelihood that many would be in and out of the criminal justice systems for much of their adult lives.

    Because of alternative education , we are productive members of society. We pay taxes, have health insurance, provide for our families, and make sure they know the value of education and hard work.

    Saving a dollar to sacrifice millions is NOT the answer Oklahoma. It’s time that we start thinking ahead. Preventative programs, like alternative school should be a priority for law makers who claim they want to cut spending. It’s not always as simple as saving a buck.

  3. I had no idea that most school districts must offer at least one alternative school program to a traditional school setting. My nephew is struggling with high school. I’ll talk to my brother about putting him into an alternative program.

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