December 15, 2011

Report: Troubled Teens Dumped In Alternative, Adult Ed Programs

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After bouncing from an alternative school back to his regular high school in New Haven, Lonnie Adams said an administrator told his mother if he wanted to graduate, he’d have to go to an Adult Education program.

“I feel like I was treated unjust, like the principal was just trying get me out of his school,’’ said Adams, now 21, who admitted he had been in a “fight or two” in high school before being sent to an alternative school for two years. After three years in Adult Education, he said he is now close to getting his GED, wants to go to community college and hopes to work in video production.

A report released today, “Invisible Students: The Role of Alternative and Adult Education in Connecticut’s School-to-Prison Pipeline,’’ has found that thousands of vulnerable Connecticut students like Adams have been counseled, coerced or involuntarily removed from mainstream high schools and sent to alternative high schools or Adult Education programs.

While some of the schools are viable options for students, too often they serve as “black holes” or “dumping grounds” for struggling students who never return to regular high schools or graduate, said the report’s author, Laura McCargar, a Soros Justice Fellow with A Better Way Foundation and the Connecticut Pushout Research and Organizing Project. The project aims to expose such “push out” practices in Connecticut schools, and the foundation advocates a shift in drug policy from incarceration to treatment.

In 2010, McCargar found, higher percentages of teens enrolled in Connecticut prison programs obtained their high-school equivalency diplomas than those in adult education programs.

Anonymous interviews and focus groups with more than 200 students, educators, lawyers and parents led McCargar to conclude that some schools – under pressure to reduce suspensions and expulsions and to raise standardized test scores – funneled troubled students to the alternative and adult programs to make their statistics look better. She also made 13 visits to seven schools but does not name them in the report.

“Schools are under pressure to reduce their use of documented discipline, and many are secretly back-dooring struggling students out of their schools,’’ McCargar said. “Rather than being overtly suspended or expelled, these students are subject to ‘de facto discipline,’ which happens when schools disguise forced disciplinary removals from school as voluntary transfers or withdrawals.”

Connecticut has been a national leader in reducing an “overt school-to-prison pipeline” by decriminalizing truancy, taking steps to reduce unwarranted school-based arrests, raising the dropout age from 16 to 17 and limiting out-of-school suspensions, McCargar said.

But she asserts in her report that there continues to be a “secret pipeline” in which too many disruptive Connecticut students are shipped to under-funded programs that fail to serve them. In turn, too many drop out and become “entangled in the criminal justice system,’’ she said.

One unnamed superintendent of schools is quoted in the report as saying when it comes to students with behavior problems, “We don’t do what is right. We prefer to do what is easy, and we flush those kids that are hard.”

Alexi Nunn-Freeman, staff attorney at the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C-based legal and advocacy group, praised the report for revealing secret ways in which educators manipulate teens.

“Across the country, far too many students, particularly low-income students and students of color, have been banished to alternative schools or adult education centers that often fail to provide them with a high-quality education,’’ Nunn-Freeman said. “This is a side of the school-to-prison pipeline that is often ignored…’Invisible Students’ gives us a glimpse into this world.”

Other findings from the report are:

• Some alternative programs become “black holes” where students are trapped and rarely allowed to return to regular high schools.

• In 2010, more than 5,000 Connecticut teens enrolled in adult education while less than 25 percent earned a credit diploma or General Education Development (GED) diploma.

• Black and Latino teens were over-represented in adult education programs, but many never got a diploma. In 2010, three quarters of the GEDs awarded by the state Department of Education to black males under age 21were earned in prison.

• Some Connecticut districts operate high-quality “alternatives of choice” programs, but like adult education programs, they tend to be under-funded. In 2009, Connecticut districts spent an average of $13,607 per pupil on K-12 education compared to just $1,602 per pupil in Adult Education.

The report recommends making districts accountable for student performance in alternative and adult education programs; eliminating “dumping ground” placements of students; creating more high-quality alternative programs and making adult education programs more academically rigorous.

It also recommends that a state investigation be triggered whenever minorities, special education students or bilingual students are over-represented in a district’s alternative or adult education programs.

Vicki Gustavson, president of the Connecticut Association of Alternative Schools and Programs, said she has heard reports of many of the coercive practices that the report details.

But she said it is important to note that there are many alternative programs that work for students. The key, she said, is building students’ self esteem, teaching them in smaller settings and giving them the flexibility to earn their diplomas while dealing with work or home responsibilities.

“Many alternative schools are not dumping grounds. They’re not black holes,’’ said Gustavson, who said she has taught at a high-quality alternative high school in Wallingford for the past 20 years. “These schools are cost effective. The kids are getting jobs. They’re not in prison. They’re not on the streets.”

To read the full report click here.

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