Principal says success defined differently for students
Nicole Griffin is on track to graduate from high school in December despite challenges most students will never have to face. A single mother of two, she has passed the tests she needs to, earned enough credits and attended enough days of school to get a high school diploma, all while working as many as 40 hours a week at the Rouses Market downtown.
The question for state policy makers in Louisiana and across the country is: How much credit does Griffin’s school deserve for helping her achieve this?
She attends an “alternative” school called the Net Charter High School in Central City, which allows her the flexibility to schedule class time around work and take free online courses. Before she found out about the Net, she considered dropping out of high school altogether, frustrated because she was missing too many days at International High School downtown to graduate at the end of her senior year last May.
“They don’t understand the concept that my kids come first,” Griffin said. “I can’t just not take care of my kids and come to school.”
Still, Griffin’s successes don’t help the Net’s standing when measured by Louisiana’s school accountability system. She had already passed the state’s Graduation Exit Exam when she came to the Net in January, and she will technically graduate half a year late, so she won’t help the school’s official graduation rate much.
In fact, because the Net is one of a handful of schools in New Orleans that actively recruit students who have fallen behind — because they’ve been in jail, have kids of their own or because a typical high school just doesn’t suit their needs — very few of the Net’s students will actually help lift the school’s overall performance score at all.
Last school year, the Net earned a 9.1 on a 150-point scale, where anything below a 50 counts as an F. As a charter school, which is publicly funded and run by a private nonprofit group, the Net could be shut down by the state after just a few years if it can’t get above the failing line.
“When I think about a kid like Nicole, I think, ‘Yes!’ ” said Elizabeth Ostberg, the Net’s founder and principal. “That’s us fulfilling our mission. But right now, the system would not be able to tell you if we’re doing a good job or a bad job.”
It is a problem that raises a series of difficult philosophical and legal issues about what actually constitutes an alternative school, who should attend them and how high to set expectations for students who face the most difficult circumstances.
And it’s one that state officials have quietly begun to tackle. Speaking with reporters about the latest school performance scores last week, state Superintendent John White acknowledged that the existing formula for calculating scores simply doesn’t make sense for alternative schools.
Though he didn’t go into what the options might be for changing that formula, officials with the state Department of Education have been meeting with alternative school leaders in New Orleans and elsewhere for months, trying to sketch out a solution that will give those schools enough credit without letting them off the hook for their students’ performance.
A spokeswoman for the department said officials would not be able to comment on those changes yet, and the exact details remain somewhat fuzzy. But school leaders who have participated in the discussions expect the department to formally propose changes to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education by January.
For instance, Gary Robichaux, whose charter group ReNew Schools runs two alternative campuses in New Orleans, said he expects at least one significant shift: Dropping what’s known as the cohort graduation rate from the formula for alternative schools altogether.
That would make a big difference. A cohort graduation rate measures the number of students at a given school who start at the ninth grade and graduate four years later, rather than the percentage of students who graduate in a given year. It accounts for 25 percent of a school’s performance score.
But at an alternative school, where students often show up already years behind because they dropped out for a certain period or didn’t earn the credits they needed at their previous school, it may be almost impossible to bring that rate up much.
Robichaux’s two alternative high schools will only accept students who are overage for their grade or behind in earning credits they need to graduate. He estimates that under the new alternative grading system his schools will go from performance scores in the single digits to somewhere between 65 and 80 — in the D or C range.
One big hitch, and perhaps one reason why the state is still reticent about the potential changes, is that holding alternative schools to a different standard may run afoul of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which calls for states to measure student progress and hold schools accountable based on consistent criteria.
So instead of receiving a performance score that’s calculated in a different way, alternative schools in Louisiana will likely end up getting an additional snapshot of their performance along with a regular score and letter grade.
Of course, the critical question is which performance metrics will carry real consequences. What will the state board of education look at when it has to decide whether to allow an alternative charter school to remain open? And what will students and parents see when they are looking for the right school?
Even before the state figures all that out, there will be other hard questions to answer, like why ReNew or the Net get to call their schools “alternative” while other high schools don’t.
Students like Nicole Griffin are far from uncommon in New Orleans and other cities. Public school educators have been complaining for years that the No Child Left Behind Act does their profession a disservice by attributing poor exam results or dropout rates to teachers alone, rather than taking poverty or special needs into account.
In part, the charter movement in New Orleans is founded on an alternative philosophy that says schools should be able to help students achieve no matter what — an ethos that may sit somewhat uncomfortably next to the idea of applying a different set of standards for one set of schools.
All of this, in fact, helps explain why so few states have addressed an issue that crops up across the country.
“Any state that is trying to form a coherent policy on this will be in the top 10,” said Nelson Smith, a senior advisor to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “Very few states have one now.”
Smith said that a working group NACSA organized, which published a report on the problem last week, came up with guidelines that might help resolve some of the tensions involved. Charter schools should have to spell out exactly which demographic they plan to target when they apply for their charter from the state, he said, and states should have a clear standard for what constitutes an alternative school population.
In Colorado, for instance, a school only qualifies as alternative if 95 percent of the population is considered “at-risk.”
“Some schools will say, ‘Oh, you just don’t understand our kids, we serve a very tough population,’ ” Smith said. “And yet they’re really serving a mainstream student population. They’re just not doing a very good job of it.”
On the other hand, Smith acknowledged that a clear line in the sand — 95 percent at-risk — doesn’t entirely resolve the problem of fairness.
“I call this the 94 percent problem,” he said. In other words, where do you draw the line and won’t it always be an arbitrary one?
The Net is an alternative school right now because it calls itself an alternative school. It ends up with the population that it does, not because of strict guidelines, but by word of mouth.
Nicole Griffin ended up there because the guidance counselor at her last school recommended it. Judges and social workers across the city are doing the same.
Still, Osberg, the school’s principal, argued there is no reason why a school like her’s can’t be squared with accountability and the charter mantra of “high expectations.”
All it takes, she said, is recognizing that some number of students in any city will simply never thrive in a traditional high school, and that educators who take on the challenge of serving that population need a different set of goals to aim for.
“I just feel the idea that you could have one institution that reaches everybody is a fallacy,” she said. “We have to assume that in any city you need a diversity of options because you have a diversity of human beings.”