Between 10 to 15 percent of California’s high school students attend alternative schools. Alt-Ed programs vary from community day, juvenile court, to the largest category, continuation schools. These high schools offer a track toward graduation a diverse population of students aged 16-18 who have slipped through the cracks: students who are not exempt from compulsory school attendance and are considered at-risk of dropping out before graduation. According to California’s Department of Education, there were 85,343 students who attended 435 continuation schools in California during the 2017-18 school year (California Department of Education, 2019). Students at these schools have experienced dropping out. They know what it feels like to become disconnected from school. The goal and perhaps the challenge for continuation schools is to find a way to reengage students who have demonstrated disengagement from academic culture.
At a small public continuation high school in Northern California, which we will call Acorn HS, both dropout and truancy figures are disproportionately high considering feedback from state programs and independent review findings. In 2019, the school applied for and was selected for recognition as a California Model Continuation High School by the California Department of Education (CDE). In its most recent Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) regional accreditation review in October 2018, the school earned a 6-year accreditation, the highest result entrusted to a public high school. The WASC study commended the school for its tight knit culture that “gives the students an opportunity to get to know each other, creating a sense of community and belonging, unique in the public educational system” (WASC Visiting Committee, 2018, p. 36. The Model Continuation School report (2019), concurred with this assessment of the school culture (p. 44) and added that robust programs in which such culture exists leads to improving student performance.
Continuation high school classes typically hold approximately 20 students. According to independent assessments of Acorn HS by external evaluators, “teachers know their students’ academic capabilities and often their personal circumstances” (WASC Visiting Committee, p. 18). In the school’s most recent WASC accreditation, the committee applauded the school’s implementation of “technology, blended instructional practices, modified scaffolding, along with Project Based Learning” (WASC Visiting Committee, p. 44). The school holds social/emotional support groups during school hours. Students who seek counseling for substance use issues are placed in counseling groups. Local community agencies are scheduled on campus during school hours. Seventy-five percent of the faculty (9 of the school’s 12 teachers) are highly qualified and hold Master of Arts degrees.
Despite recent honors and recognition of positive school practices, the dropout rate at Acorn HS for 2017-2018 was 51%. The truancy rate for the same year was a staggering 68% (see Figure 1). The discontinuity between these low engagement figures and positive feedback from independent agencies is the inspiration for this study. Why aren’t students graduating from Acorn HS at a higher rate? Why are they skipping class? Can a shift in teaching approach change student engagement?
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