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Alliance and other charter students untouched by graduation rate fears

Tracy Dell’Angela | February 26, 2016

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Alliance graduation

Alliance College Ready High School 16 Principal Carmen Vazquez and some of her students.

Melissa Campos says senior year is a breeze for many of her friends and former teammates attending neighborhood high schools in Los Angeles Unified.

Many of them get out for “work study” after a few periods of electives, she said. They are done with math, science and foreign language classes, and there are no AP courses on their schedule. Few have had a single conversation about college applications with anyone at their school.

Not so for Melissa, who is facing her most challenging year yet at Alliance College Ready High School 16, a public charter in the Westlake neighborhood just west of downtown LA. She’s got AP Physics, pre-calculus, a special class in college-readiness skills and weekly meetings with her college counselor to refine essays and applications.

“Going to this school has really given me an identity,” said Melissa, who came to this country from Mexico in fourth grade and now is applying to several University of California schools and selective private colleges. “It’s given me goals and structure, and I have a determination about my future… to make a better life for me and my parents.”

Here’s another thing that going to Alliance has given Melissa and nearly all of the 1,766 seniors attending an Alliance high school: Assurance they are on track to graduate having passed the A through G college preparatory courses with a C grade or better.

This assurance has taken on a heightened importance recently, after LAUSD officials recently acknowledged in an earlier exclusive story that nearly half of their students were not on track to graduate because they have not completed or passed the now-required A-G courses. Credit-recovery courses, many of them online, and an “all hands on deck” command from the new superintendent have boosted that number to nearly 2 in 3 seniors on track, according to LAUSD figures released last week.

With just over three months to go until commencement ceremonies, LAUSD is now scrambling to fix their looming graduation crisis for the more than 12,000 seniors who are deemed “off track.” One fix was to lower the passing bar, so that students could pass their A-G requirements with a D, a bar too low for college admission. The other is with the $15 million credit recovery program, where students take online courses after school and on weekends to earn credits for advanced algebra or chemistry courses they failed or never took.

Alliance—the largest public charter network in Los Angeles with 12,000 students on 27 campuses— projected that more than 90 percent of its 1,766 seniors are on track to graduate this year. This tops the senior on-track rate at even the most selective magnet schools in LAUSD. Every Alliance graduate must pass with a C, and 95 percent of them are accepted to college, according to officials.

Other charter networks provided similar data about their A-G preparation and graduation rates.

PUC Charter Schools has about 400 seniors at five high school campuses, and about 94 percent are expected to graduate with a C or better in all of their A-G requirements. Overall, the network’s high schools have a four-year cohort graduation rate averaging about 91 percent across the five campuses.

Green Dot operates nine charter high schools in Los Angeles and has taught A-G requirements since its founding 16 years ago. Last year, of the 1,713 high school seniors network-wide, all of whom took A-G courses, 89 percent graduated with a D or higher, and 59 percent graduated with a C or above in these courses. Many Green Dot schools are different than other charters in that they “turn around” chronically struggling LAUSD schools and keep all of those schools’ enrolled students.

melissa campos

Alliance College Ready High School 16 student Melissa Campos (Credit: Alliance)

A smaller network, Camino Nuevo, reported that 138 of 140 seniors at two high school campuses are on track to graduate with a C or better in all A-G requirements

The disconnect between the graduation rates of charters and traditional high schools comes at a sensitive and embarrassing time for the district.

The school board issued a symbolic vote last month against a plan by the Broad Foundation to dramatically increase the expansion of charters. The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, recently approved a 33 percent increase in dues to give them more money to fight “billionaires (who) are trying to cripple unions” by expanding charters. And charter leaders are pushing back, arguing in a letter signed by 21 charter operators that the district is unfairly blocking expansion of even the most successful charters.

Melissa doesn’t pay much attention to the politics behind her school choice. She doesn’t care about the comments she gets from her former soccer teammates from nearby Belmont High School, where her Alliance classes were held until the school moved to a newly built campus this year. According to district data, only 56 percent of seniors at Belmont are on track to graduate.

Melissa knows she easily could have been one of those statistics in a different high school, like the ones in her neighborhood of Crenshaw.

She’s got a strong GPA, but she still struggles to improve her reading, with English being her second language, and math doesn’t come easy to her. She doesn’t test well, and sometimes she lets personal problems distract her from her schoolwork. In middle school, she was considered “one of the smarter students,” but she said she just “went along with the pack” and no one pushed her to do better.

“This school, when you need help, they are always there for you,” she said.

With only 100 seniors, Alliance 16’s staff has the ability to offer that kind of personal support, which is important but not always enough to get a struggling student to—and through—college. Principal Carmen Vazquez said many of her students come to her high school reading four or five years below grade level, so the school keeps a relentless focus on the student’s Lexile scores, a test which measures reading ability.

Mastering college-level material is a formidable challenge for many of her students and others in many LAUSD schools, so she knows her staff can’t ease up on the literacy push even in these waning months of the senior year. Vazquez is also skeptical that an 11th-hour push for course completion—which is what’s happening in many traditional high schools—will give students the skills they need to succeed.

“We have a four-year plan for a reason. You can’t get it together in the senior year because it’s too late at that point,” she said. “Our goal is to support our kids all the way through college.”

So even in Melissa’s physics class, where students are reviewing the concept of momentum, she is getting a mini lesson in literacy and American government. Teacher Maya Bakshi pivots the conversation to the 2016 presidential election, asking the students to describe what this headline means: “Is Ted Cruz losing momentum?” The students scribble down their ideas, and then there is a brief discussion about the Iowa Caucus and the Republican Party’s immigration platform. Then Bakshi flips on a YouTube video of MC Hammer performing “Gaining Momentum” and the class pivots back to science.

The single-minded push to college starts in Alliance middle schools, so the idea of waiting until high school—let alone senior year—to make up for academic gaps is incomprehensible to teachers.

“What I love about working in a school like this is because we’re small we can respond quickly,” said Joan Wicks, a sixth grade humanities teacher at Alliance Skirball Middle School in Watts, a midlife career changer who counts herself as one of Skirball’s veteran teacher after six years teaching there. “Every one of our children deserve a place where they can come and learn.”

Tamajai Dampeer, a Skirball eighth-grader, said he’s come to appreciate the very public attention on literacy and achievement at his school. Students’ Lexile score improvements are posted on hallway bulletin boards, and teachers talk to him about his progress all the time. If students don’t do their homework, they are held responsible, with detentions.

“When I went to Gompers (his neighborhood elementary school), they didn’t really seem to care about our academic efforts,” he said. “When a kid didn’t do their homework, no one paid any attention. Here, I feel like everybody’s watching. I actually have to compete with the other students here.”

Tracy Dell’Angela is managing editor at Education Post and formerly a longtime education journalist at the Chicago Tribune. This article was published in partnership with Education Post.

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