Rethinking Accountability: Lessons from Alternative Education

Jessica KannamJessica Kannam is a Policy/Research Assistant at American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF). Previously, she worked as a junior associate in the enrollment office of DC Public Schools, as part of their Urban Education Leaders Internship Program, and as an intern in the Housing Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services.

In this post, Jessica provides a summary of a three-part blog series originally published in April on the AYPF blog, Forum for Thought. In the series, Jessica, Carinne Deeds (AYPF Policy Associate), and Jennifer Brown Lerner (AYPF Deputy Director) shared insights from a recent study tour to Denver, CO. As Jessica describes in this post, the series highlighted lessons learned on how states can leverage opportunities under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to create accountability systems that support all students, especially those served in alternative education settings.

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In this critical time in which states are creating and revising their plans to meet the requirements written in The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a window of opportunity exists for states to use the flexibility afforded in the legislation to support all students to postsecondary success in education and the workforce. The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) has always been dedicated to ensuring pathways to postsecondary success are available for students, particularly vulnerable youth populations. Currently, much of our work is centered on understanding pathways available to students served in alternative settings, and how those settings can be held accountable under ESSA. Accountability is not simply a means to measure the quality of education in these institutions, but also a mechanism for continuous improvement.

To take advantage of this critical moment, AYPF recently convened national and state colleagues in Denver, CO for a study tour to meet with school staff and students in alternative schools, talk to state and local leaders in Colorado about their efforts to create structured and supported pathways for students, and foster connections both between and within states. The tour allowed us to take stock of what is currently happening in Colorado, further shape our perspective on questions and considerations for further inquiry, and guide our understanding of policy opportunities we should amplify, as outlined below.

Questions We Should Be Asking
During our visits to three alternative schools, despite their diverse contexts, structure, and student body, common themes emerged related to programming and the student experience. Students shared about their struggles in their previous schools due to lack of personalized attention, bullying, family or home issues, mental health struggles, and work obligations. They attributed their success in their current schools to wraparound services, trusting relationships with school staff, and unique and relevant academic and work-based learning opportunities. These schools intentionally structured their programming with the needs of their students in mind, to create mature and empowering environments for students to learn and grow.

These school visits provided food for thought in how we can reframe the conversation surrounding accountability to encourage programming that responds to students’ experiences and needs. Below are a few questions posed by Carinne Deeds in her recent blog post:

  • Who are the students attending alternative schools, and what are the supports they need to be successful?
  • How can we evaluate alternative schools based on their meeting students’ needs?
  • What are alternative schools doing well and what lessons can we apply to all students in all settings?

For a complete list of questions, see Carinne’s full blog post here.

Ideas on Measures 
Another consistent theme observed among the alternative schools we visited was the innovative connection between academic learning and career and technical education and work-based learning experiences. Rather than viewing workforce training and experience as separate or secondary to academic instruction, these schools offered a blended curriculum that prioritized both while maintaining a clear focus on preparing students for success after high school. For a full description of our experience, read my full blog post found here.

One of the schools we visited, Colorado High School Charter (CHSC), works with partners to facilitate opportunities for experiential learning and development of employer-desired skills. A partnership with the Colorado Construction Institute allows students to concurrently enroll in classes like welding and manufacturing and participate in part-time jobs or apprenticeships. CHSC also collaborates with GrowHaus, an indoor farm, food market, and education center where students can participate in classes and work opportunities related to hydroponics, horticulture resource management, and food production and distribution.

District and state initiatives are also taking work-based learning opportunities to scale. CareerWise Colorado, a youth apprenticeship system, is launching a pilot program this summer where students participate in three-year apprenticeships that begin their junior year of high school. These apprenticeships result in a living wage job, professional credentials, work experience, college credits, and the creation of a professional network.

These examples of integrated academic and work-based learning environments in alternative schools make us question, how can states create accountability systems that prioritize and foster experiences like these? Colorado’s statewide accountability system for both traditional public schools and alternative education campuses includes a postsecondary and workforce readiness indicator, with various measures districts may choose to include. States should consider how they can create systems—and measures and metrics—for all schools that value, encourage, and measure integrated educational and workforce experiences that truly prepare students for postsecondary success.

Critical Nuances in Policy
The study tour provided much needed collaboration and communication between and within state teams, and among AYPF and other national organization affiliates and state leaders. Our conversations while on the tour highlighted three nuanced policy issues for further inquiry, in policy areas that often go overlooked.  Click here to read Jennifer’s full blog post.

How can language within legislation and statute create barriers to resources? The use of the word “youth” versus “student” can limit resources accessible to youth who are disengaged from school, and can limit the K-12 funding available to community institutions that support at-risk youth.

Graduation and Completion
Is high school graduation creating a barrier to access low-to-no-cost postsecondary education? In some alternative settings in Colorado, students are encouraged to defer the GED or high school graduation requirements so they can continue to collect K-12 funding for concurrent enrollment in local community colleges in order to earn a postsecondary credential prior to high school completion.  

How can the use of extended-year graduation rates and inclusivity of other high school equivalency metrics in these rate calculations create incentives for the various pathways students take to complete high school? Given the student population served in alternative settings—often youth who have spent time out of school and are behind in credits—extended year graduation rates offer a measure that more accurately represents student achievement and growth. Additionally, in many accountability systems students that fulfill other forms of completion are still considered dropouts, misrepresenting their credential and discouraging districts to support other completion options.

Role of Community Institutions Educating Youth
Traditional public schools are not the only institutions educating youth. Which begs the question, how can these other community institutions leverage the resources they need to provide high quality education to the youth they serve? Additionally, how can these other institutions be held accountable for the services they provide?

For example in Colorado we visited a Gateway to College program, in which students complete their high school diploma while also concurrently enrolling in a community college. This community college- based program is able to use K-12 student funding and receive per pupil operating revenue funds because of state legislation, which doesn’t necessarily exist in other states. Systems-involved youth in custody, such as those in detention and correctional facilities, may also receive educational services outside of traditional public schools, and accountability systems should consider how these institutions are head accountable.

AYPF will continue to pose questions and develop frameworks to aid states in creating accountability systems that support postsecondary success for all students, and provide mechanisms for continuous improvement. We encourage you to visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter to learn about our future tools and resources on this topic.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017 - 8:00am