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."
Bryant's 16-year-old daughter Sydney had struggled in larger classes at traditional schools. At Fair View, Sydney took advantage of the nine-period day to earn extra credit. She graduated early last week and will attend the San Francisco Art Institute.
Most Fair View classes have 20 to 25 students who are encouraged to work at a pace that ensures success. School social worker Nancy Medina takes students to internship interviews, assists with college applications, and tutors. Beyond their core required courses, students can take electives, such as martial and culinary arts.
There are no Advanced Placement or foreign language courses; math options are Algebra Readiness or Algebra I. "I like to think our curriculum is Butte [community] College prep," said Principal David McKay.
McKay himself was at one time in danger of losing his job — he was then vice principal —when CUSD was eliminating administrative positions several years ago. Fair View's principal at the time, Bernie Vigallon, says he told his superiors that he couldn't run the school by himself because students were arriving with so many needs.
"We had more knowledge of substance abuse, weed was becoming legalized, there was the economy… a whole series of things happened in the last 10 years that meant that a lot of parents couldn't continue to parent," Vigallon said.
McKay's position was spared.
Last week, 104 young people — all of whom were at one time at risk of not completing high school —graduated from Fair View or from an independent study program on the Fair View campus. About half will continue to college, most of whom will be first-generation college students, McKay said.
Increasingly, students come to Fair View as ninth or 10th-graders. Last fall, demand for those slots was so high that some parents were asked to wait for an opening, and in October, Fair View restructured its admissions procedure.
Many continuation schools serve only juniors and seniors who have fallen behind, and in some cases, districts are closing down separate sites altogether and moving the programs into classrooms at comprehensive high schools.
That worries Joe Stits, secretary of the California Continuation Education Association, who says that sending students back to a campus where they've had run-ins with security staff or administrators may not help keep them in school.
In an e-mail, Stits said continuation schools should be considered “schools of equity” that help students “recoup what was lost and gain a high school diploma and a door to the future.”
Senior Josiah Breevaart, an African-American, says he found that door at Fair View; he likes the school’s small classes and racial diversity. During the past school year, Breevaart commuted several hours a day to and from Fair View, taking two busses from his home in the foothills community of Magalia.
In fact, Fair View is one of the most diverse schools in the Chico area. Only half of its students identify as white, and 81 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch programs. More than 50 percent of Fair View's students live with someone other than their parents, McKay said.
Chavez said her mother kicked her out when she was 16 and she moved in with her grandmother. Her chaotic home life often made it difficult for her to get to school on time, so Fair View pushed back her school start time.
Scrambling for Funds
Fair View administrators say the school's extended day is crucial to its ability to work with students like Chavez, who need scheduling flexibility, tutoring or a place to do school work. But Chico Unified is now scrambling to fund the extended day in 2013.
The school has been running its afternoon program until 6 p.m., funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant that runs out in December. Fair View recently lost its bid for new funding; CUSD's John Bohannon, director of alternative education, said the extended day was out-ranked by other high school programs in the state that applied for the competitive grant.
"These are the things that make this difficult — finding ways to continue to fund the programs that help make a school successful," Bohannon said.
CUSD says it's committed to its alternative education "pathway"; it now runs four alternative programs, including Fair View, on a campus that once housed an elementary school.
But administrators admit that the alternative ed track runs on innovative thinking. Fair View, for example, has developed a list of more than 40 local businesses and non-profits that have signed on as "community partners." Those organizations and agencies provide scholarships, internships and financial aid to students who may need groceries or shoes.
The community partners figure prominently in plans to build a facility for construction classes on the Fair View campus that was approved May 17 by the CUSD Board of Trustees. Now, McKay said, they'll be tapped to help maintain an extended school day. But he warns that the afternoon program is "not going to look the same."
Four years ago, the California Alternative Education Research Project produced a study showing that continuation schools were viewed as a "cornerstone of the state's drop-out prevention strategy."
In the 2012 study, authors Jorge Ruiz de Velasco of UC Berkeley and Milbrey McLaughlin of Stanford say that successful continuation schools offered expanded learning time, but the “quality and range of learning time… was determined solely by the accident of local resource availability and the self-determined level of effort at individual sites."