19 Oct 2017

Creating choices every student can use

Public schools offer a world of choices, from 8–4 on school days. But what about students who have to choose work or family over going to school?

Say “school choice” to a random group of people and you’ll probably get a loud and contradictory outpouring of emotion. An honest look at public education today reveals a surprising number of choices within our schools, including programs run entirely by the “traditional” model. When you add in the wide range of options offered by nonprofit, public charters and alternative programs, the notion that public education offers students few, if any, choices begins to fall apart.

Choice within traditional public schools

Open enrollment districts, small learning communities, Academic Pathways, Magnets, Linked Learning — traditional public high schools in California offer a surprising range of options for students with specific interests and needs. However, most of them operate within the classic structure of a typical 8–4 school day, which makes it very difficult for students whose circumstances demand they work, care for younger siblings or even care for their own children. If a flexible schedule is imperative, none of those choices makes much difference.

Charter schools: independent, locally controlled public alternatives

When first established, the idea for charter schools was to operate as individual enterprises, separate from district oversight and independent of what many proponents saw as bureaucratic constraint. At their core, charter schools are publicly funded, tuition free and open to all. Charters, like any public school, can’t cherry-pick the best students and must accommodate learners of every ability.

Dwindling dropouts: a clear sign of success

The dropout rate in California has fallen for six straight years for students of every ethnicity. The overall graduation rate increased from 74.7% in 2010 to 82.3% for the class of 2015.

These steady improvements in student performance are excellent news. Sadly, 17.7% of California students still aren’t making it to graduation. Latinos drop out at a rate of 21.5% and African Americans at 29.2%.

The decision to leave school isn’t just a question of academics or ability. It can be a question of real-life survival. When you have to work because there’s no food on the table or stay home to care for a newborn baby, making it to homeroom falls low on the list of priorities.

Creating choices for dropouts

Nontraditional, nonprofit programs like Learn4Life completely flip the classic model. Instead of teaching to a rigid schedule, students work at their own pace, on a one-to-one basis with a dedicated supervising teacher. The entire experience is completely flexible so it can be adapted to the real-world demands the students face.

Sadly, even when they have access to a program like Learn4Life, some students who have dropped out face enormous hurdles that make it very difficult to get back on track.

Meeting them where they are

Helping dropouts recover is often a matter of triage. Basic needs come first: If students are hungry, they need to be fed before they can possibly think about school. Teachers and staff at Learn4Life get to know each student’s true circumstances and connect him or her with social services. Once students overcome these fundamental barriers to learning, Learn4Life staff begin teaching them skills that can help stabilize their lives and build a strong foundation for learning and future careers.

Making small deposits

Many students who drop out lack social skills most people take for granted. For some, basic behaviors like making eye contact, smiling or even acknowledging another person’s presence all have to be learned. Building up their self-confidence and social skills forms the bedrock of their return to education. Everyone at Learn4Life, from the security guards to our teachers, models the behaviors we want to see from students and praises them for each positive change. Elevating these micro-successes is a key step in changing students’ feelings of self-worth, which pays huge dividends as they take on the challenge of earning a diploma.

A choice of learning styles

The rise of innovation within the public system reflects an increasing realization that, when it comes to learning, one size definitely does not fit all. Tactile, kinesthetic learners do best in settings that let them solve problems by manipulating their environments before moving on to theoretical ideas. Abstract learners do best when they can read and study before applying themselves to real-world problems.

Forcing students who’ve struggled and failed in traditional schools into the wrong pedagogy for their native learning styles is a recipe for disaster. Successful recovery programs recognize that dropouts — just like their high-achieving peers — span the entire spectrum of learning styles. That’s why Learn4Life works one-on-one with each student to create individual learning plans that match his or her exact needs.

College and vocational careers are equally valid options

Students’ learning styles extend to the subjects they are passionate about and their plans for life after they earn a high school diploma. Rather than elevating college preparatory subjects or pigeonholing dropouts into vocational tracks, Learn4Life treats the paths to college and career as a single journey, driven by students’ talents and desires. Whether it’s a job or postsecondary education, Learn4Life helps students imagine a future beyond high school.

Every student deserves a chance at success

It’s very easy to label a school — or a student — a failure. It’s much more difficult to do the hard work that creates success. Traditional public schools are making huge strides in graduation rates and academic performance by replacing the old, one-size-fits-all model with options that serve a wider range of students. Charter schools have added even more diversity to the mix and have demonstrated that independent models have a valuable role to play.

Unfortunately, there are some students for whom the choices presented in both models simply won’t work. Often, it isn’t because the school has failed or the young person has given up — it’s the bleak realities of life outside school.

Giving every student a chance — including those who have dropped out — requires innovation that goes beyond the four walls of a classroom. Recovery programs like Learn4Life remove many of the barriers that force students to drop out so they too have an opportunity to choose success.

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Sources

California Charter Schools Association (http://www.ccsa.org/understanding/numbers/)

https://www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/blueprint/college-career-ready.pdf

http://www.ccsa.org/blog/LAUSD_FactSheet_2016.pdf

California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System

http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/sp/cl/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_schools_in_the_United_States