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Alternative schools graded improperly

Each summer educators across the state anxiously await the release of school report card grades. Most leaders of traditional schools are relieved that their grades have improved or maintained.

Leaders of nontraditional schools, however, are more likely disheartened by grades that remain stubbornly low year after year.

Nontraditional schools, such as district alternative schools and many charter schools, are designed to serve students who have failed and/or dropped out of traditional systems. These students bring with them the same skills deficits, addictions, health issues, learning disorders and difficult life experiences that caused their failure in the first place.

They find the courage and motivation to return only because schools like Gordon Bernell Charter School, Cesar Chavez Community School, Nuestros Valores, Freedom High School and so many others throughout the state exist.

The common mission these schools share is to transform failing students into successful students.

By definition an “alternative” school needs to be different. It starts with a fundamental belief that students cannot learn if the barriers that derailed them in the past are not addressed.

Schools do this by creating small learning communities rich with support services, and designed to meet their individual needs. The instructional staff develops curriculum that integrates life skills and employment applications into all content areas. They are trained to understand the populations with which they have chosen to work.

Student progress is measured with short cycle assessment instruments that track growth in academic skills areas. Equally important is improvement in attendance and attitude: healthy habits and lifestyle changes.

None of these success indicators is reflected in the A-F grading system.

Transforming lives does not happen on a predictable school schedule. Hence students may not graduate “on time” or be proficient by the March testing window.

But alternative schools are penalized for not graduating students with their four-, five- or six-year cohort groups. They should be rewarded for reclaiming and graduating dropouts, no matter how long it takes.

They are penalized on student achievement for not having enough students score in the proficiency range on the SBA, yet significant academic growth measured by short cycle assessment data goes unrecognized.

Alternative school leaders know the only way to increase their grade is to whittle away at the square peg, which is their school, to fit into the round hole, which is the accountability system by recreating who they are, what they do and whom they serve. It is a demoralizing annual event for alternative school communities that deserve to celebrate their achievements.

Ultimately, a school that “fails” in our one-size-fits-all grading system risks being closed. There are thousands of students in these schools around the state who would either join the dropout ranks again or be forced into traditional schools that are not equipped to support them.

If for no other reason, we should consider the economic impact.

According to a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, each dropout imposes an economic burden of $258,240 and a social burden of $755,900 over the course of his/her lifetime. New Mexico cannot afford that.

Other states, including our neighbor to the north, have embraced robust alternative accountability systems that honor the heroic work of alternative schools. These systems recognize the appropriate indicators of alternative school success, which are different for each school depending on its unique mission.

School reform cannot happen without economic and social reform. Alternative schools are vital change agents in this state and deserve at the very least, a level playing field.

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