Orange County School Board officials voted unanimously this week to renew a charter contract with Sunshine High School. Sunshine is currently under the microscope after a ProPublica investigation reported the charter school serves as a "silent release valve" for nearby traditional high schools by taking in academically challenged students unlikely to graduate on time, thereby improving those high schools' graduation rates.
The school district has responded sharply to the article, with Superintendent Barbara Jenkins calling it "false" in a statement.
"Orange County Public Schools offers choice opportunities for any student, including those in need of an alternative pathway to obtaining a high school diploma," Jenkins said in a statement. "We are disappointed in the fact that a news organization insisted on telling false stories which ignored facts, testimonials from students and parents, and documentation provided by [OCPS], the Broad Foundation and ALS Education."
ProPublica reports that Olympia High School held assemblies for poorly performing students at which representatives from Accelerated Learning Solutions, a for-profit management company that runs Sunshine and other schools, told them they could catch up on credits and graduate. Sunshine High School, located in a strip mall, has 455 students that "sit for four hours a day in front of computers with little or no live teaching," per ProPublica. The majority of students are black or Latino.
"Olympia keeps its graduation rate above 90 percent – and its rating an 'A' under Florida's all-important grading system for schools – partly by shipping its worst achievers to Sunshine," ProPublica reports.
ProPublica also found Sunshine uses a loophole in state regulations to claim virtually no dropouts from the school by marking students who leave as entering adult education programs, though officials couldn't confirm whether that actually happened. In 2015, Orange County reported 211 dropouts while ALS reported 1,038 adult education withdrawals.
At the school board meeting on Feb. 28, several residents spoke out against Sunshine, including Heather Mellet.
"I think this is a very, very good example of how our broken accountability system pushed down by state legislators has forced school districts to be creative with their metrics," she says. "The consequence being that a population of students become sacrificial lambs in an effort to salvage the majority."
Mellet also pointed out that board members Christine Moore and Pam Gould received contributions from ALS during the 2016 campaign. Each received $500 from ALS last year, according to Orange County election records. OCPS General Counsel Diego "Woody" Rodriguez said this would not be a conflict of interest because board members did not have a financial or fiduciary interest in approving Sunshine's contract.
Others, like Charles Jackson, a former student at Sunshine, and his mother defended the program, saying it was a final opportunity for him.
"My regular school didn't want me; Sunshine took me in," Jackson says. "I worked very hard for it. I'm 23 years old right now. ... It was the last chance for me."
The majority of board members defended ALS, saying they had taken personal tours of the schools and attended graduations. District leaders also argue that Orange County does not benefit when students transfer to Sunshine and drop out because they're still counted in the county's overall graduation rate, which improved 3.7 percentage points last year.
"I'm not even hesitant about renewing this charter," Board chairman Bill Sublette said. "We will follow up on whether there are assemblies held and students are told they have to go to those schools, because that is a very serious charge."
In an email, OCPS spokesperson Katherine Marsh says the district "looked into" whether local high schools were pushing low-performing students to ALS charter schools before the board meeting took place and found no practice of forced placement. Marsh says there was no internal investigation of the subject.