As school districts across California struggle with budget cuts, some districts are cutting back on small schools known as continuation schools that have been a mainstay of high school instruction for more than half a century.
Continuation schools are intended to help students who are struggling academically to stay in school and graduate, but haven’t succeeded in a regular high school setting. But especially in rural areas some school districts are having a hard time sustaining them.
According to state figures on Ed-Data.org, in the fall of 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 497 California continuation high schools — 28 fewer than the 525 that existed two years earlier.
In rural areas surrounding Chico, school districts serving a relatively small number of struggling or failing students are finding continuation schools prohibitively expensive.
In some areas, districts have closed the schools outright and moved students into one or two classrooms on the regular high school campus, said Joe Stits, an education consultant and secretary of the California Continuation Education Association.
“Kids who were not successful at a traditional high school are being placed back on the traditional school campus with very limited options,” said Stits. He worries that sending students back to a campus where they recently may have had difficulties with security staff or administrators won’t help keep them in school.
Continuation schools offer small classes, with an average pupil-to-teacher ratio of 20 to one, and support services to help students prepare for technical careers or college. Created after World War I to provide flexible hours to teens needing to work part-time to help support their families, in California, continuation programs have become a “cornerstone of the state’s drop-out prevention strategy,” a 2008 Stanford/San Diego State/WestEd study found.
Fair View High, the continuation school run by the Chico Unified School District, has been able to sustain a comprehensive continuation program in part by bolstering its enrollment by absorbing students from neighboring districts where continuation schools have been eliminated. Each student brings with him or her state funding, based on a school’s “average daily attendance.”
Officials at some smaller school districts in the areas surrounding Chico say they can’t justify the programs financially. In 2010, Durham Unified, located in a small farming community south of Chico, closed its Mission High continuation school, which served only four to eight students at a time. Last June, in Colusa County, the 390 student Maxwell Unified School District closed its Enid Prine High continuation school, which had been serving only four to six students at any one time.
In Orland, west of Chico, the school district reduced the number of students admitted to the continuation high school from 60 to 40 after losing one of three faculty positions.
Administrators in Durham, Maxwell and Orland all said their continuation programs had been cut or eliminated to save money at a time when massive budget cuts were necessary.
Enid Prine High, for example, was set up for 10 students but only had four to six during its last academic year. The school allowed students to work at their own pace to complete courses and recover lost credits.
The school was costing the district roughly $120,000 per year to operate, Superintendent Ron Turner said. In 2009 the state gave districts flexibility to use funds that previously had to be spent on continuation schools on any educational purpose, as part of a broad move to give local districts more flexibility over state funds. The continuation school funding went right into Maxwell Unified’s general fund. By spending the funds on the regular school program, Turner said, “we can provide services to more kids.” But at a price — the closure of the district’s continuation school “is an unfortunate part of the times,” he said.
Turner said the district still offers students opportunities to catch up. Some students who had attended the now-closed continuation school are trying to make up credits by taking “independent study” online courses offered by Brigham Young University. The courses, Turner said, can be quite challenging.
But if the online courses duplicate ones offered by the district, the students seeking to make up lost credits must pay for the courses themselves. Although they are “reasonably priced,” said Turner, that can still present a hardship. To remove additional obstacles, the district allows students to use on-campus computers to do the work.
To help students who may have enrolled in the continuation program if it still existed, Maxwell Unified offers an after-school tutorial program four days a week.
Other continuation schools are cutting hours. In the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District near Sacramento, Folsom Lake Continuation High School’s program was cut to half a day last fall. Principal Leane Linson said the school day was cut from 8 periods last year to 4 periods this year. School starts at 8:45 and by noon students are done, with an optional 5th period art class and online courses for some students.
And some are reorganizing. In Carlsbad, the Carlsbad Unified School District Board of Trustees voted last week to reorganize and relocate Carlsbad Village Academy, the district’s continuation school, and Carlsbad Seaside Academy, an independent study school, to Carlsbad High School. This relocation of almost 200 students to the high school could save the district about $300,000 per year.
In a statement, board president Kelli Moors said she voted “with a heavy heart” to relocating the programs. “It’s not about school performance, it’s about the money,” she said. “We’re in desperate times.” The district is facing a budget deficit of $2.4 million this year, and a possible deficit of $9 million next year.
Since 1965, state law requires districts with more than one hundred 12th grade students to offer a continuation program, according to the 2008 study cited above. But school districts may be able to comply with the state mandate if their students can receive continuation education in a neighboring district or school.
“It is an option for districts to reorganize their services to meet their fiscal objectives,” Jacie Ragland, a consultant in the California Department of Education’s Educational Options Office. noted. “That’s a local decision.”
Some continuation school students say that without the more intensive support they receive, they would not have graduated, a view echoed by their parents.
Juana Ramirez, 18, was referred by Chico High school counselors in the fall of 2009 to Fair View continuation school, and eventually graduated last May. At Fair View, she says what really made a difference was the support she received from Nancy Medina, a social worker at the school She found herself hanging out between and after classes in Medina’s office. “She pushed me to do better,” Ramirez said. “She gave me the support I never had.”
Ramirez is is now attending Butte College in Oroville east of Chico. She is the first in her family to attend college.
Chico landscaper Juan Cisneros sought out the Fair View continuation program for his daughter, Nayeli, who had struggled with schoolwork at both of Chico’s traditional high schools and at a school in Turlock. At Fairview she ended up getting a lot more attention than she had received in other schools, he said.
Nayeli ended up graduating from Fair View last December and she, too, now attends Butte. For that, her father said, “I give full credit to Fair View.”