California’s continuation schools are failing to provide the academic and critical support services that students need to succeed,  a new report from researchers at UC Berkeley and Stanford has concluded.

A fixture on the education landscape for a half century, the state’s nearly 500 continuation schools  are intended to help students who are struggling academically, but haven’t succeeded in a regular high school setting and are in danger of not graduating from high school.

The report found that some of the most successful continuation schools are “successful on-ramps for re-engaging youth back into school.” But too often these schools “remain simply early exit ramps from school.”

“California is unique in providing these schools, and there is evidence that they can provide an effective pathway to a diploma for a large number of kids who need special and supplemental services,” said Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, director of education at the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law and co-author of the report with Milbrey McLaughlin of Stanford’s John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities. “But most are failing to do that.”

Set to be released at a meeting of the Association of California School Administrators meeting in Sacramento today, the report includes recommendations to improve education at continuation high schools, key institutions targeting students most at risk in making the transition from school to college and careers.

One recommendation is that the State Board of Education adopt regulations restricting school districts from involuntarily placing students with behavioral problems in a continuation school. Instead, districts should enroll those students into other small schools such as  county day or community day schools specifically set up to handle students with behavior or disciplinary problems.

Currently, the state education code sends conflicting messages about the mission of continuation schools — either as “a high quality alternative route to the diploma for struggling students” or as “a dumping ground for students deemed too disruptive” to be in a regular school, according to the report.

Ruiz de Velasco said revamping the process of how students get placed in continuation schools is a key starting point for providing better educational outcomes.

“Too often placement of students into continuation schools is driven generally either by the needs or the capacity of the sending schools and not by the social and emotional learning needs of the students being sent,” he said.

Part of the problem is that the state’s education code contains conflicting guidelines for what kinds of  students should be placed in continuation schools, according to the report.  “It all maps back to placement,” said Ruiz de Velasco. “The state needs to clarify the purpose of continuation schools.”

Other key recommendations include providing a full day of instruction for students. Currently, the state only reimburses for a half day of instruction at continuation schools, a format originally intended to serve students who work part-time. Ruiz de Velasco says most students enrolled in continuation schools are not working part-time and should be offered a full day of learning like other students. Fresno and San Jose unified school districts both offer a full-day of classes to their continuation students, paying for it from their general funds, he said.

There should also be changes in the federal Annual Yearly Progress calculation to reward schools for continuous proficiency-based growth in its students, not just rewarding schools when students move into new proficiency levels.

In the first phase of the study, published in 2008, researchers visited 26 schools districts and 40 continuation high schools in nine counties.  The current report was based on an examination of 23 continuation high schools in Santa Clara, Fresno and San Diego counties to identify “better practices” that characterize more successful schools.

The report does not cite specific schools because they were promised anonymity.  But it does list characteristics of the more successful schools.

  • Strong performing continuation school generally had a principal or administrator who articulated clear academic goals;
  • High-performing  schools “employed a range of strategies to extend learning time,” from operating two back-to-back half-day sessions and letting some students attend both sessions to providing transportation  to “regional occupational programs” where they could take vocational classes. .
  • Principals created more time for teachers to work together in teams to examine individual student performance data.
  • Successful schools also employed more direct instruction of students – or whole class, lecture-style teaching. Teachers claim this method tends to help connect socially isolated students.


The report also makes numerous recommendations.  The following is a sampling:

  • Use a  five or six-year graduation rate as a standard accountability measure for students who complete their education in a continuation high school. Currently, the state counts students as drop-outs if they don’t graduate in four years of high school;
  • Require school districts to more clearly spell out procedures for identifying students and placing them  in all alternative school schools in the district, including continuation schools;
  • Offer more targeted professional development for continuation school administrators and teachers;
  • Bolster  out-of-school support services for students at continuation schools through links with community resources, businesses and post-secondary institutions.

According to the report, the schools that “beat the odds” and succeeded with students “provide valuable lessons for policymakers and practitioners statewide.”  “There is great promise in these schools that is not tapped,” Ruiz de Velasco said.

Going deeper


See this EdSource report for background on continuation schools in California.

This EdSource Extra article describes the struggles of continuation schools especially in rural areas to stay open.

For the state’s description of  continuation schools, see this  California Department of Education website.

The first phase of the research project described in this edpost is reviewed in a 2008 report, Alternative Education Options: A Description Study of California Continuation High Schools.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

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