USA TODAY US Edition
HIDDEN DROPOUTS Heather Vogell and Hannah Fresques
High schools game the system by dumping underachievers into alternative programs
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.