In summary

Policymakers should look at how alternative schools, which specialize in serving disconnected students, can be models with valuable lessons.

By Hailly Korman, Special to CalMatters

Hailly T.N. Korman is a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners on the Policy and Evaluation team. She focuses on education for special populations and school discipline, hailly.korman@bellwethereducation.org.

Many have declared distance learning a failure. But communities need only to look within their own education ecosystem to see how schools who regularly face challenges address the obstacles that all schools suddenly faced. 

Alternative schools, with their focus on flexibility, can be models with valuable lessons on supporting students in learning no matter the challenges. 

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Nearly 650,000 public school students attend an alternative school. In Los Angeles, 5,200 students attend an alternative school. These schools specialize in serving students disconnected from school, are pregnant or parenting, are in foster care, and face daily or lifelong challenges. The cascading nature of adversity means that many students are managing more than one of these experiences simultaneously. For these students, schools take a different approach, starting with developing relationships. 

In other words, alternative schools already provide learning in a way that most families and students are experiencing in the pandemic. Policymakers would be wise to look at how alternative schools support students and look to bolster these schools, pandemic or not.

Alternative schools intentionally think about the unmet needs for services and learning. Educators spend significant time understanding the needs, wants and constraints of students. As a result, schools operate differently than a traditional school, often with virtual options, different school hours and specialized staffing.

Take Learn4Life, a charter school with campuses in California, which offers a hybrid, part-time model. Flexibility is what makes it an option for the 20,000 students it serves. The program provides credit recovery for students coming back to school and different pathways to graduation, including flexible scheduling for students who work or provide for their family. 

Learn4Life’s flexibility includes completing coursework at home or attending physical sites with qualified teachers, tutors and counselors. Students who attend in-person usually attend two or three days per week and complete additional coursework independently. When in-person, the program offers mentoring, counseling and support for parenting students. 

And like most alternative schools, the focus is on achieving mastery and less on progressing through each school day until graduation. The needs of students dictate that educators think about what learning is and how to adapt.

When COVID-19 caused learning to be exclusively at home, Learn4Life quickly adapted to an all-digital model, providing laptops and hotspots and delivering uninterrupted learning for the very students who were most likely to have previously experienced disruptions.

Yet for many at-risk students, time at school is a much-needed break from unstable or unhappy home lives. Faced with staying at home, students relied even more on remote support from teachers and counselors. Support for students with special needs continued remotely while many traditional schools suspended theirs.

Learn4Life adapted to the uncertainty of COVID-19, but we can do more for schools like Learn4Life so they can continue to provide academic and social emotional support to students and innovate and improve outcomes. That comes in the form of more funding, student supports, recruitment efforts so more disconnected students access programs, and flexibility and accountability to ensure schools meet the needs of students.

Policymakers and school leaders must foster these different models in their communities – be that a magnet school, charter school or alternative school – and look at these models not as the schools of last resort, but as schools of innovation that intrinsically have valuable lessons for all schools to consider and adopt. 

Imagine if every neighborhood school could reframe their vision of learning not to a traditional threshold or timeline, but to mastery of information with a focus on students working independently. Imagine if the social-emotional development and well-being of every student – and tailored individual support, created with deep consideration of a student’s experience – was the norm for all schools.

As we move through this crisis, let’s take the opportunity to learn from schools we tend to disregard. The students they serve and lessons they provide are valuable for everyone.

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