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'Alternative' education: Using charter schools to hide dropouts and game the system

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Outside Sunshine one afternoon, students gave the school mixed reviews. Some shrugged and said it was OK. Others complained they couldn't get enough help from teachers when the material was confusing. Dave Casimir, then 16, said that at Evans High, he'd had more access to after-school tutoring. "Over here, there's nothing, nothing, nothing at all," he said. "It's stressing me out."

Mello, who went to Sunshine when it first opened in 2012, said that many students at the time knew how to get around the school's software to log onto gaming websites, or cheat by looking up answers on the web. "A lot of the times people flew by by doing that," he said.

Whitford-Narine said that since 2015, the schools have blocked access to music or video streaming sites that aren't part of classes. The schools also now have web filters that stop students from accessing sites not connected to their curriculum.

Asked how they ended up at Sunshine, several students said their traditional Orlando high schools gave them no choice: School staff told them they had to transfer to a charter school like Sunshine because they had fallen too far behind. Or, if they tried to enter the Orlando schools from outside the district, counselors told them they couldn't enroll because their academic records were too weak, and directed them to Sunshine.

"They said I had to go here until my grades improved," student DeShawn Tinesley told ProPublica while waiting at a public bus stop near Sunshine. He had transferred within the district from Ocoee High School, northwest of Orlando. "I was like dang, I was shocked."

Another Sunshine student, Dai'Quan Sheals, said he tried to transfer to Evans High from outside the school district but staff there told him he didn't have enough credits. He said they told him that "if you're going to spend any longer than four years in high school -- if you fall behind at all -- you're basically out."

In a subsequent text message, Sheals said, "I didn't like what Evans did," but added that he has done well at Sunshine. "I really like the teachers here, they work with me and my schedule, and I have been able to find success here."

In response to questions from ProPublica, the district's chief communications officer, Scott Howat, said that Sheals' guardian had made the decision to send him to Sunshine.

Overall, of 32 students whom ProPublica interviewed at ALS schools in Orlando, almost half -- 15 -- said that because of academics, they had been denied admission to regular public high schools or told they had to transfer from them to alternative programs.

Under Florida's state constitution, students who have not been disciplined have an "absolute" right to attend their zoned regular school, said special education attorney Stephanie Langer of Coral Gables. Schools sometimes push students and their parents to leave by telling them they won't graduate otherwise, she said.

"It's sort of like bullying," Langer said.

Harold Border, Orange County's chief of high schools, said the district's traditional high schools are supposed to monitor and assist students having difficulty, and not send them to alternative charters if they don't want to go. "We take those concerns seriously and we continue to emphasize with our schools that any student who comes to us that's within our zone, we have a welcoming environment," he said.

Students who do not want to transfer to a charter should be permitted to stay at their local high school, he said. The assemblies students described at Olympia were "not a practice that we support or promote."

"When we get to that point, there should be discussions with parents and students in concert well before they're speaking with someone coming in from another school," he said.

Border said schools should monitor students to keep them from falling behind. "I would say it concerns me if their perception is that they weren't welcome at their home high school," he said.

Howat, the district spokesman, said transfers to alternative charters are voluntary. "We're saying this school's available for you to finish your diploma on time with your class," he said. "We're not assigning them."

Former Olympia guidance counselor Sue Gagne said the assemblies angered some parents and students. "There were a few kids, they were offended: 'Why would you put me in this assembly with these losers?'" she said. Some parents would come in and complain to the principal, she said, and "want us fired."

But, she said, counselors were only trying to give students every chance to graduate. Transfers were optional. Pressure from the state and district put immense burdens on teachers, she said, making it hard for them to spare time for struggling students. It seemed, sometimes, as if there were simply no room for remediation, she said.

"It's horrible," said Gagne, who left education to become a real estate agent. "Life's too short to have this kind of stress."

Olympia's principal, Guy Swenson, did not respond to an email from ProPublica, instead forwarding it to the district's communications office. The school district denied a request to tour the school.

***

Orlando schools are not unique in using alternative programs to remove struggling students from traditional classrooms. As far back as 2007, a legislative report in California warned that the state's accountability system allowed traditional schools to shirk responsibility for low-performing students by referring them to alternative schools. The state is currently reviewing its standards for alternative schools.

In Louisiana about a year ago, lawyers for students complaining of discriminatory treatment in alternative schools in a school district near New Orleans discovered student transfers from regular schools shot up just before the state's annual tests were given. Such transfers could be a way to avoid having scores count against students' home schools. The complaint, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center with the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, is still open.

And in Pennsylvania, state officials have for years allowed the test scores of students sent to alternative programs to effectively disappear -- because students' scores no longer belong to any school once they transfer. They are instead absorbed into the district's overall totals. "Sadly, for many students, rather than providing additional supports," noted legal advocates' claim against the state's alternative network, "these programs have become a revolving door which spirals students away from being able to successfully complete high school, ultimately fueling Pennsylvania's dropout rate."

That complaint, filed with the Justice Department in 2013, is also ongoing.

Orlando is one of 83 school districts, from Newark to Los Angeles, where regular schools increased their graduation rates by at least one percentage point from 2010 to 2014 while sending more students into alternative education, ProPublica's analysis found. Such a pattern could indicate that traditional schools are weeding out students at greater risk of dropping out, although there are many reasons why graduation rates rise.

While charter schools have been accused of cherry-picking top students, ALS belongs to a growing and controversial segment of the sector that instead seeks out low achievers. These students "are a little profit center," said Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, a senior researcher at Stanford University.

Companies running schools in this niche often save costs by relying on computer programs that reduce the need for credentialed teachers. The market can be lucrative: As enrollment grew, ALS' management fees from the schools it operates in Orange County more than doubled from $2.5 million in the 2012 school year to $5.4 million in 2015. The company says the fees pay for back-office services, such as human resources, as well as school-based support for areas such as curriculum, reading, math, security, and professional development.

ALS' roots, however, lie in a more traditional approach to alternative schools: one that focused on discipline.

The company's affiliate -- the controversial Nashville-based Community Education Partners, or CEP -- contracted with school districts to serve students with behavior problems. The company, founded by a lawyer and Republican Party operative named Randle Richardson, ran schools for students who had committed disciplinary violations in cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia, Houston and Orlando for more than a decade. Critics called CEP's schools prison-like and dangerous, and charged that their academics were subpar.

Richardson said in 2010 that the alternative school CEP ran in Atlanta was used by the school district to weed out students who scored poorly on standardized tests. "It accomplished the purpose they wanted," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It got disruptive kids out. It got the low performers out. I understand the pressure on school districts ... if you've got a place to put them where those scores are attributed, that's a great temptation."

In 2012, after a spate of critical media coverage, Richardson told Frontline he planned to shutter CEP. In 2015, CEP assigned its management agreement for Sunshine High entirely to ALS, which had previously shared the role with CEP. Also led by Richardson, ALS now has 21 schools in Florida, three in North Carolina and one in Georgia. Its administrative base is in Nashville, though school operations are run out of Orlando.

ALS has hit trouble in some Florida school districts, facing criticism both for academic issues such as single-digit graduation rates and for its financial practices. In 2015, a state auditor accused ALS of overcharging Jacksonville's school district, Duval County Public Schools, more than $200,000. ALS has appealed the audit.

In 2016, a former teacher at North Nicholas High, an ALS school in Florida's Lee County, alleged in a federal lawsuit that staff there helped students cheat and tampered with grades, falsifying course completion forms for some failing students to make it look as if they passed.

The former teacher, Kenneth Williams, also reported to school district authorities that the school's staff sometimes used personal vehicles to drive students to school on days when the state was counting attendance to increase enrollment numbers, and therefore, payments from the district. The school offered students prizes and raffles on those days to boost attendance, the teacher alleged. Williams said he was fired in retaliation for reporting violations to the school district.

The company denied the allegations in a response filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers, Florida. Whitford-Narine reiterated the denial, and said in a statement that Williams was terminated for "failure to perform his duties as a classroom teacher." The case is ongoing.

ALS has waded into state political contests, with the company and its executives contributing at least $45,000 to Florida politicians and political action committees since 2015 -- including sizable contributions to the Republican Party of Florida and a political action committee called Citizens First that has taken in tens of thousands in donations from charter organizations. ALS officials have donated to local school board races, too.

And state records show that since last year, ALS has paid between $70,000 and $190,000 to lobbyists. On the company's legislative agenda: convincing state policymakers to lower the accountability bar further for alternative education, citing students' challenging backgrounds. The company urged state officials, for instance, not to count last school year's performance against alternative schools, because the state made the rating more rigorous.

Whitford-Narine said the company only wants the rating system to measure its schools' performance fairly and adequately. "The current model has multiple inherent flaws that school districts and lawmakers acknowledge," she wrote in the statement. "Our efforts are NOT an attempt to reduce rigor."

Most ALS students are approaching 18 years old and missing more than half the credits they need to graduate, she said. The graduation rate, which requires students to earn their diploma in four years, understates ALS schools' successes, she said.

Staff provide extra help, career counseling and social services referrals to those who need it. Students who are struggling with reading or math can see a specialist. If students have jobs, the schools work with them to fulfill elective credits through work experience. A few students continue to participate in sports or clubs at their zoned school, she said.

Most of the students desperately need the ALS schools' flexible schedule, she said. Some are parents or have job or family commitments that interfere with school.

Whitford-Narine introduced a ProPublica reporter to one student, Charlotte Mims, who said she has been taking classes at Aloma after missing much of high school when her parents fell seriously -- and, in her father's case, fatally -- ill. Mims was working constantly and caring for them, and she said she would not have had a chance at a regular diploma if not for Aloma. "This school is very special to me," she said.

***

One August afternoon after school let out, Sunshine Principal Margaret Olmo spotted a former student in the reception area. The student had quit school, but was thinking of returning. Olmo gave him an animated, urgent pep talk, encouraging him to register again. He could start classes as soon as the next day, she said.

If the school's statistics were to be believed, the student was a rarity. In its first three school years, 2013 through 2015, the school told the state it had zero dropouts (though the district told ProPublica Sunshine's dropout rate was 1 percent in 2014 and 2015).

Several Sunshine students said they knew others who had dropped out.

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