Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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FL Falls Behind National High School Graduation Rate: Alternative Schools Not Helping

TALLAHASSEE, FL – Florida falls behind the national high school graduation rate and the recent proliferation of alternative schools doesn't seem to be helping, according to a new study.

Even though they enroll a small slice of students, the report from Johns Hopkins University finds that charter, virtual and alternative schools account for a disproportionate share of the high schools with low graduation rates, in Florida and nationwide.

Study co-author and director of John Hopkins' "Everyone Graduates Center," Dr. Robert Balfanz says while alternative schools can be a lifeline for some students, that isn't always the case.

"Sometimes what happens is, we let kids struggle too much and they get too far behind, and then we hope that this other school will fix it," Balfanz explains. "And then it's really challenging, because there's just so many high-needs kids concentrated together."

The report lists Florida as having the second-highest number of low-graduation-rate high schools in the nation, and nearly half of those are charter, alternative or virtual schools.

The newly-revised Every Student Succeeds Act requires school districts to provide research-based help for schools that graduate fewer than 67 percent of students in four years.

While critics say some students are simply not capable of finishing high school in four years, Balfanz notes adding a fifth or sixth year only increases graduation rates by very small percentages.

He says today more than ever, it's critical to get kids out of high school on time, and headed in the right direction.

"There's no jobs available that will let you support families if you don't have a high school diploma and some sort of post-secondary schooling, or training or apprenticeships," Balfanz says. "And essentially, if our public education system is not preparing its students to support their families, we have big problems."

Balfanz says in some states, like New York and New Jersey, alternative schools are helping solve the dropout crisis, and he points to strong oversight and accountability as key factors.

But he cautions that with the rapid growth of nontraditional schools, often enrolling high percentages of low-income kids and students of color, early-warning systems for those who are struggling must be in place.

"It's a lot harder to help those kids succeed," Balfanz says. "But the evidence is clear it's totally possible, and we shouldn't accept lower outcomes just because they have challenging life circumstances."

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