Small classes. Individualized instruction. Ready access to counselors and a school nurse. The latest technology. Focused students. An expanded school day.
This doesn’t sound like a school of last resort, but that’s just what it is. Those are the characteristics of Broadway High, a continuation high school in San Jose Unified, one of more than 500 such “second-chance” schools in California for students who are behind in course credits and in danger of not graduating.
Continuation schools, which educate about 10 percent of high school students, serve those who have fallen behind in their course work and are no longer on track to graduate.
At their best, these high schools offer a small, supportive environment tailored to the individual needs of students who have not been successful in more traditional high schools. However, researchers from UC Berkeley and Stanford University have found that most continuation schools are far from ideal. The schools often have a short, 15-hour week because that is the minimum required by law. The campuses mix students who want to focus and graduate with those who are sent there as a punishment for misbehaving, and the schools often can avoid being held accountable for their students’ progress because of conflicting rules under state law.
Most of these alternative schools “are early exit ramps from school,” said the authors of Raising the Bar, Building Capacity: Driving Improvement in California’s
Continuation High Schools, the second report on continuation schools published by the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at UC Berkeley and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University.
The researchers hope that the revamping of the state’s school finance and accountability systems will be an opportune time for districts to take a new look at their continuation high schools. If districts choose to do so, the researchers and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who just released a list of California’s best continuation high schools, offer a number of role models.
Both point to Broadway High.
Flexibility is key
Painted an inviting yellow, Broadway is small, serving about 300 students. Principal Stephanie Ogden, who sets the school’s friendly tone by dressing casually in jeans, is careful who joins her staff, selecting teachers who relate well to youth and who are passionate in their belief that all students can succeed.
“There is still a stigma attached to alternative ed,” she said. “Some teachers say they don’t want to work with those kids. Those kids are all our kids. They’ve just fallen through the cracks.”
Ogden believes that most students fall behind because “they need a little more help and they don’t know how to ask for it. So they go unnoticed.
“They don’t have the coping strategies to deal with the bigger, traditional programs,” she continued. “When students first come here, they don’t know how to respond when everyone knows their name and knows what’s going on.”
But in some cases, what’s going on can be sobering. Some students live with parents who are on drugs, Ogden said, or who are dealing with loss and grief with no support system. A few of the girls are pregnant or have a young child.
Ogden does what she can to make sure the school works for all the students, which requires a great deal of flexibility. The campus has made a number of changes to better fit students’ needs:
- Broadway’s starting time was adjusted when the local bus schedule changed so that students could more easily make their morning classes.
- This year, Broadway is offering an afternoon session for students who are not able to come in the morning because of work or family obligations. Many teenagers do not function well in the morning, and some students have to ride a bus for 1½ hours to get to school.
- The campus has an on-site day care center, with a separate room for babies, so young mothers can continue their schooling. Inside, children play with brightly colored toys or pretend to cook in the play kitchen. An outdoor playground has a fleet of plastic cars ready to roll. An evaluation by the state agency First 5 gave the center a 5, the highest possible ranking.
- Class sizes are typically 20 students, but one math class has only 12 students to allow more individualized attention for students who struggle with the subject.
- If students drop out, a Broadway staff member will visit them to find out why. Sometimes students are facing a major life crisis and are allowed to return when the issue is resolved. One student – a 5th year senior – was in a serious car accident. He returned to school a year after the accident, finished his course work and graduated.
Ogden and her staff have also developed a uniquely flexible approach to earning credits that is based on grades. For example, if students complete a course with an A-plus, they will receive full credit for the course, which counts toward graduation, while a D-plus earns only a half credit.
“That was one of the best things we ever did,” Ogden said. “We knew an A with five credits is not the same as a D with five credits.”
Under the new system, “kids are motivated,” she said. “They’re here to get the credits. They started getting better grades.” And because Cal Grants, the state-funded program to help pay college fees, are based on grades, more students became eligible for them, she said.
Almost three-quarters of Broadway graduates go on to college, most beginning with community colleges. This year a graduate was accepted into UC Santa Barbara’s nursing program. The university provided for housing for the student and her baby.
“We have really amazing kids here,” Ogden said. “What’s fun is when the kids realize they are amazing.”
A school of choice
No student is ever forced to go to Broadway. Students who are serious about graduating decide that they want to come. Class control is typically not an issue, even for new teachers. Students focus on what the teacher is saying or work quietly in small groups.
“If a student does have trouble in the classroom,” Ogden said, “we often discover it is an undiagnosed learning disability.”
At Broadway, “you don’t have to worry about jerks,” said recent graduate Michelle Alejo, 19, who survived a rebellious youth before coming to Broadway. “The students come here to do what they have to do. They’re focused.”
Her experiences with the teachers at Broadway were different from those in the six other high schools she had attended.
“You can go to any of the teachers, and they will help you,” she said. “A teacher helped me make a resume, and she was not even my teacher. They help you with life as well as school.”
Alejo, who graduated in February, plans to go to community college and hopes to transfer to Santa Clara University, where she wants to study social work or go on to law school. Broadway staff helped her focus on her goals, she said. “Before Broadway, I didn’t think it could happen.”
Broadway’s smallness attracted Jimmy Nieves, 18, who will graduate in June. “I knew if I stayed at a normal high school, I wouldn’t graduate,” he said.
He remembers being left behind in math class when he didn’t understand a problem. At Broadway, “they wait until you learn it before moving on,” he said. “They care about you. Students who are more advanced are given more difficult problems.”
Jacob Gomes, 18, who will graduate this spring, said if he is missing an assignment, his teacher will ask him about it. “Teachers help you be responsible,” he said.
An expanded day
Although state law requires districts to fund only 180 minutes of instruction a day for continuation high schools, San Jose Unified has supported Broadway expanding the school day to 270 minutes four days a week. On Wednesday, the day is shorter to give teachers time to collaborate or participate in professional development. The UC Berkeley and Stanford researchers found that the higher-achieving continuation schools in their study all expanded the school day in order to help students meet credit and performance standards.
Broadway students are expected to meet the same graduation requirements of 240 units and 40 hours of community service as every other student in San Jose Unified.
The district also fully funds Broadway’s longer day and supports the school in other ways, such as providing bond money for a new multipurpose building. Broadway also receives a grant from WestEd that helps pay for the day care center. Three community organizations provide counseling services on site for the students.
Ogden is pleased that Broadway is once again labeled by the state as a model continuation high school. Her school has been on that list since 2000.
But perhaps one of the best compliments came from evaluators from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, who recently awarded the school accreditation for six more years, the longest accreditation period the regional agency bestows.
The evaluators told Ogden that principals from other continuation high schools had asked them, “How does Broadway do it?”