Nothing 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.”
“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.”
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.