Facing Funding Cuts, Continuation Schools Struggle to Serve Students in Need
During her freshman year at Chico High, Diana Chavez ditched all but about 20 days. "We'd go to the mall, do anything to fill up the day," she said of herself and a friend. "Then we'd go back to school to get picked up."
Chavez enrolled at Fair View continuation high school in fall 2009 after failing her freshman year classes. There, she was able to make up lost credits and get on track with emotional and academic support from school staff. Chavez graduated from Fair View May 23 and will attend community college next fall.
Chavez's story of failure and recovery follows an arc commonly heard at Fair View, a four-year high school that has managed to thrive in an era of austerity in public education — even while some California school districts roll back continuation school services.
The school's redemption-is-possible mantra is reflected in the stories students and alumni often tell. Local educators say those stories show what continuation programs — which usually serve a high percentage of disadvantaged students — can accomplish under strong leadership and with funding and community support.
That view is reflected in a new study released earlier this month by the California Alternative Education Research Project. The study says that the state's continuation schools are, as a whole, failing to provide critical services, with the exception of some "beating the odds" schools that are providing "important opportunities and resources for a vulnerable population of youth."
By state law, most school districts must make credit-recovery programs available to students who are in danger of not graduating, even if it's in a neighboring district. California's continuation schools emerged to provide that coursework, and are encouraged to offer small class sizes and make counseling, tutoring and vocational training available.
The schools are required to offer only 15 hours of instruction a week – a school day that is only about three periods -- and receive state funding to do that. But the new study, "Raising the Bar: Building Capacity," says that successful schools visited by researchers "employed a range of strategies to expand learning time."
In rural Northern California, some small school districts say the cost of continuation schooling has become impossibly expensive, and they're dismantling programs or reducing their size. In California as a whole, the number of schools has been declining, according to the most recent state data that's available.
"It does cost a little bit to have a continuation high school," said Maureen Fitzgerald, assistant superintendent for business services in Chico Unified School District, which runs Fair View. "More one-on-one counseling services are needed, there's more truancy, class sizes are lower."
Like other continuation high schools in the state, Fair View struggles to offer extended school days as the district balances the needs of its neediest students with revenue shortfalls.
An Alternative School Evolves
During the past five years, Fair View has lost six teaching positions. But the 44-year-old school has a back story: During the past two decades, school administrators fought program cuts and worked methodically to build community support and win state and federal grants. Fair View evolved into a small alternative high school that students can enter as early as ninth grade.
"I grew up hearing bad things about Fair View," said Cynthia Bryant, who is from a Chico-area farming family and the mother of a Fair View graduate. "The pregnant moms, the druggies, the juvenile delinquents… it still kind of has a little of that reputation, but now it's really for students who need a different kind of education."