HID­DEN DROPOUTS Heather Vo­gell and Han­nah Fresques

High schools game the sys­tem by dump­ing un­der­achiev­ers into al­ter­na­tive pro­grams

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

ucked among posh gated com­mu­ni­ties and metic­u­lously land­scaped shop­ping cen­ters, Olympia High School in Or­lando of­fers more than two dozen Ad­vanced Place­ment cour­ses, even more af­ter-school clubs, and an ar­ray of sports from bowl­ing to wa­ter polo. Big let­ters painted in brown on one cam­pus build­ing urge its more than 3,000 stu­dents to “Fin­ish Strong.”

Last school year, 137 stu­dents as­signed to Olympia in­stead went to Sun­shine High, 5 miles away. A char­ter al­ter­na­tive school run by a for-profit com­pany, Sun­shine stands a few doors down from a tobacco shop and a liquor store in a strip mall. Its 455 stu­dents — more than 85% of whom are black or His­panic — sit for four hours a day in front of com­put­ers with lit­tle or no live teach­ing. The school of­fers no sports teams and few ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties.

Sun­shine takes in castoffs from Olympia and other Or­lando high schools in a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial ar­range­ment. Olympia keeps its grad­u­a­tion rate above 90% — and its rat­ing an “A” un­der Florida’s all-im­por­tant grad­ing sys­tem for schools — partly by ship­ping its worst achievers to Sun­shine. Sun­shine col­lects enough school district money to cover costs and pay its man­age­ment firm, Ac­cel­er­ated Learn­ing So­lu­tions (ALS), a more than $1.5 mil­lion-a-year “man­age­ment fee,” 2015 fi­nan­cial records show — more than what the school spends on in­struc­tion.

But stu­dents lose out, a Pro-Publica in­ves­ti­ga­tion found. Once en­rolled at Sun­shine, hun­dreds of them exit quickly with no de­gree and lim­ited prospects. The de­par­tures ex­pose a prac­tice in which of­fi­cials in the na­tion’s 10th-largest school district have for years qui­etly fun­neled thou­sands of disad--

Al­ter­na­tive schools cre­ated for be­hav­ior or aca­demic prob­lems:

Al­ter­na­tive schools take in stu­dents who have vi­o­lated dis­ci­plinary codes or fallen far be­hind. The schools are sup­posed to pro­vide ex­tra sup­port.

Pres­sure for test scores:

Ac­count­abil­ity stan­dards aim to im­prove public schools by spot­light­ing test re­sults and grad­u­a­tion rates.

Low scores threaten schools:

Schools and their lead­ers face con­se­quences for poor per­for­mance un­der fed­eral and state ac­count­abil­ity rules.

At-risk stu­dents moved out:

Tra­di­tional schools trans­fer un­der­per­form­ing stu­dents to al­ter­na­tive schools, which prom­ise re­me­dial study and a bet­ter chance of grad­u­a­tion.

Reg­u­lar schools may ben­e­fit:

Mov­ing out un­der­per­form­ing stu­dents can al­low tra­di­tional schools to claim their test scores have im­proved. Their aca­demic stand­ings rise.

At-risk stu­dents can lose out:

Al­ter­na­tive schools are of­ten held to lower stan­dards. Grad­u­a­tion rates are typ­i­cally worse, and they fre­quently lack ex­tra ac­tiv­i­ties and sports teams.

ROBERTO GONZALEZ, PROPUBLICA

Jen­nifer Haas be­lieves Olympia High tried to push her daugh­ter, Jac­quline, out of the school and into an al­ter­na­tive pro­gram be­cause of her poor grades.

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