A collection of 39 schools in Chicago, known as Options schools, is so large that were it a standalone district, it would be among the 25 largest in the state. All told, these schools serve one in 10 Chicago public school students.
These 39 public schools primarily enroll the city’s dropouts, and they may become more critical as students emerge from the pandemic. This fall, thousands of teens will return to schools after failing multiple classes, putting them at high risk of dropping out.
It’s unclear whether these alternative schools are prepared for the moment.
A new report says students in these schools, which are mostly on the city’s South and West sides, likely need highly resourced programs tailored to their particular needs to be successful.
But Chicago’s Options schools currently offer a hodgepodge of programs that don’t receive more funding than traditional schools, despite serving a high-need student population.
“We collectively — not just the school system — but the city as a whole, need to pay attention to who these students are, what their experiences are, and design appropriate supports so that we make sure they see a difference in the quality of schooling,” said Monica Bhatt, senior research director at the University of Chicago Education Lab, which produced the report.
The study does not assess the quality of the schools, but points out just 39% of students who enroll in them graduate. This is compared to 91% of the students who stay in traditional high schools. Many argue these students would have no chance without these schools.
Most of the alternative schools are run by private providers, including some for-profits, who choose how to spend the money they receive from Chicago Public Schools. They were paid about $47 million last school year.
Some of the schools are located in storefronts, while others are in basements or carved into spare spaces in nonprofits or churches. Some are half-day online programs and others are more like a regular school with long days, teachers and textbooks.
“They all show us love”
What some students say they find at these schools are caring adults, flexibility and connection, which many didn’t get at the larger schools they left behind.
“They all show us love,” Jashawnna Franklin, 18, said of the staff at her small alternative school tucked into a church in Woodlawn, Progressive Leadership Academy.
“They know what we have been through. They understand us. That is important to have a connection, because if you don’t know where I came from how can you understand me?”
But the U of C report shows just how much else the students need. The city’s 11,000 Options students are more likely to have been arrested, victims of violence or have been homeless than other students.
“These rates are astonishingly and staggeringly high,” Bhatt said.
The Options school population is 60% Black and nearly 60% male, though the school district is only about 35% Black students and half male. And these students are among the lowest performing in the district, with 40% testing in the bottom quartile in eighth grade, according to the report. The U of C counts any student who enrolled at an Options school for at least one day to be an Options student. The vast majority of these students never return to traditional school.
The report challenges the school district to think about what resources a school needs when virtually every student demands a heightened degree of support and attention.
Maurice Swinney, CPS’ interim chief education officer, said a review of the data makes him want to see change.
“I think it also elevates the conversation about, ‘Why is this happening? Where does this begin?’ ” Swinney said during a recent panel hosted by the University of Chicago. “What changes in our practices and policies do we need to implement in order to really help these young people get the same outcomes that we want for all students?”
“We are 24 hours a day”
Chicago Public Schools began expanding the number of alternative schools 10 years ago, nearly doubling the number of students enrolled in them on any given day to about 11,000 last year. They serve 10% of all high schoolers, up from 5% in 2011. The Options schools now serve three times the number of students enrolled in the school district’s elite test-in schools. The goal was to give more options and flexibility to students who were struggling and dropping out of traditional schools.
But at the same time, choice was proliferating across the school district with the opening of new charter schools and specialty programs, like international baccalaureate, arts and military programs.
This left behind many neighborhood high schools with few students in attendance and often the neediest student population. Bhatt said those high schools then became feeder for alternative schools.
At Progressive, students mainly come from a handful of South Side high schools, including Chicago Vocational Career Academy and Hyde Park High School.
Many students say they came to the alternative school after finding their first school chaotic, marked by a lot of fights and not enough caring staff. They say they love Progressive because of the support shown by the staff.
But they can quickly list the things they wish the school had — from hot lunches to extracurricular activities, to a way to provide cash assistance to families in emergencies.
Assistant Principal Carol Robinson said she dreams of having a bigger space for her students. The school is in a church and doesn’t have room for some of the programs she wants for her 200 students, like after-school programs and a broader array of electives.
Progressive has about 30 people on staff, including two social workers. That’s more than at a traditional public school, but Robinson said they are still stretched thin because they take on so many non-traditional roles.
They have, at times, babysat the children of their students to give them some relief, tried to find jobs for their students and driven them to school so they don’t have to cross gang lines.
“We are 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Robinson said. “It is very hard because the students rely on you. Even in the wee hours of the night, they come calling.”