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A safety net for dropouts catches others

In 2012 Chicagoans got some harsh news: there were 56,000 high school dropouts under 21 – enough to fill Soldier Field.

“At the time, we had 5,300 seats to serve them,” said Jennifer Vidis, the head of alternative schools for Chicago Public Schools.  

Over the last two years, the district brought that number up to 12,000. It is the largest expansion of alternative schools ever done here. Most of that expansion has been in schools run by for-profit companies, many that offer half-day programs, with mostly online instruction.

There is a case to be made for letting older students who are running out of time earn their diplomas quickly. There are also a lot of young parents and teenagers working full-time jobs to support their families.

“We want to create opportunities for kids. Whenever they make that decision, ‘I want to go back,’ we want to have a place for them to go,” Vidis said.

Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy in Humboldt Park is one of the district’s 20 new alternative schools opened in the last two years. It’s a joint venture between the NBA-star-turned-businessman, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and EdisonLearning, a for-profit education company. Students come for half the day and do most of their work online. Many can finish a full credit in a matter of weeks.

“I have a good number of kids who are 19 and 20 and 21,” said Ursula Ricketts, the school’s program director. “I mean, do you really want to be 21 and walking into a traditional high school? Not so much.”

Ricketts says not everything is done online. She has about a dozen teachers and counselors on staff to work with students. She also says a big part of her job is forging partnerships with local businesses to help students who don't have jobs, find work.

It is not clear how many students enrolled in the new alternative schools are part of that target population of over-age, out-of-school youth. A CPS spokesperson sent WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago the highlights of an internal analysis from last school year. It says about half of the kids enrolled were aging out quickly and another 30 percent were labeled as “out of reach.” The rest appear to be on-track or young enough to enroll in a traditional school or full-day program.

Students like Linae Mitchell, who never officially dropped out of high school before enrolling at Magic Johnson Bridgescape with 16 credits.

“Actually, I was going to be still attending my regular school, Chicago Talent (Development High School), but they closed down. So I went to the Marine (Military Academy) school, but it wasn’t for me, so I had to find another place to go, so my dad sent me here,” Mitchell said.

The former school she's talking about is Chicago Talent Development High School, a small charter school that operated inside of Crane High School, but was closed because of low enrollment last year. There are still students enrolled at Crane, but because CPS decided to phase out Crane, there is no junior class at the school this year for Mitchell to enroll in.

On this day Mitchell was wearing a Crane Tech High School warm-up jacket. 

“After I finish here, I’m on the drilling team and I actually go there for my service learning hours also,” Mitchell said. CPS allows students enrolled in what they call Alternative Learning Opportunity Programs, or ALOP schools, to participate at their home school, if they choose.

Jack Elsey is CPS’s chief of innovation and incubation. When asked if he’s concerned about kids like Mitchell going to alternative schools when they’re not off-track and haven’t officially dropped out, Elsey responded in this way:  

“It’s certainly something to think about and something we’ll take a look at,” Elsey said. “We are a district of choice and these are part of our choice portfolio and who are we to tell that 16-year-old the school you’ve chosen, especially if she’s doing well, is not the right school for you.”

Still, Mitchell’s situation raises questions about how the choice system may be creating dropouts or “push-outs,” as a principal at one of these new schools called them.  

Conrad Timbers-Ausur is the principal of a school like Magic Johnson Bridgescape, called Ombudsdman. He said alternative schools—whether they’re full-day or half-day—are catching kids who have been victims of the system.

He told WBEZ and Catalyst about one student who enrolled that, when he looked at his transcript, seemed like a pretty bright kid. Timbers-Ausur said the student passed all of his courses freshman year, but got one F in one semester of one class. Then, the student had to repeat the entire freshman year, and taking the exact same classes, his grades dropped, his absences increased and ultimately, he got “kicked out.”

“It just infuriated me and disgusted me, because here it is in black and white,” Timbers-Ausur said. “How are you allowed to (do) that in the name of education and actually you’re setting up more kids for failure?”

Timbers-Ausur wouldn’t say the name of the school—other than that it was a prominent charter school.

CPS’s Elsey said the district needs to do a better job of holding on to students as freshmen and sophomores and keeping them on track. The district’s Jennifer Vidis said it’s as much about prevention as it is about recovery.

“We want to fight the fire on both ends,” Vidis said. “We want to help kids graduate and if kids can move more quickly because they have the skills and ability to do that, great. But we need to make sure when they finish up with us that they’re actually prepared.”

Vidis touches on a debate that’s happening around the country right now. There’s a whole camp of people who believe if students can prove they know the material, they should be able to do so and move on.

Vijay Shah is in that camp. He is the assistant principal at another Ombudsman school on the West Side.

“This is a gifted school to me,” Shah said. “You get to come in here, independently work on your credits and we give you the autonomy, as long as you don’t disrespect anybody. We’re going to set you up and fight tooth and nail for you to graduate.”

But some warn that in the push to graduate more students, more quickly, Chicago may wind up unintentionally creating a lower-level of education for certain students.

“For students who really do need some way to recover credits or who have had some extreme life event where they just can’t complete high school, you want to get them something,” said Tim Kautz, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Economics of Human Development. “But for students who might be able to complete high school, you don’t want to sort of funnel them into a program that might not give them the same skills.”

Kautz did not know about the new alternative schools in CPS, but he has studied the GED - the General Educational Development test many people take if they’ve dropped out of high school as an alternative to their high school diploma. Much of his research focuses on the difference between GED recipients and traditional high school graduates and he’s found GED recipients have many more gaps in their non-cognitive skills.

The new alternative schools in Chicago are not GED programs. Students get CPS diplomas, with the name of their home school or the name of the last school they attended on them.

Kautz said there may be benefits to running half-day programs that also include some kind of mentoring or workforce training.

On a recent day at Magic Johnson Bridgescape, Ursula Ricketts gathered a small group of teenage girls in a classroom to do a research project about beauty, inside and out.

“I try to find anything that can help the kids, just improve who they are,” she said.

This story was co-reported with Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago.

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