I had heard stories about the for-profit, last-chance charter high schools, and I had read the Catalyst article about it, but I had to see it for myself.
One had opened down the street from our school, and students had quickly learned about it from siblings and older friends that attended. A mother of a student was already using it as a threat to her daughter that if she doesn't straighten up, she'd be sent there.
I imagined students in cubicles, harsh fluorescent lighting overhead, instructors walking up and down the aisle barking at students to stay on task, teenagers looking miserable and depressed.
So when my friend, a nationally-known education writer, visited during the Network for Public Education Conference, I took her for a visit. I asked three of our high-risk middle school students to join us on our mini-field trip.
When we approached the school we saw a teenager leaving as his mother berated him. I braced for more yelling inside, possibly violence. I anticipated the doors to the school would be locked and we'd have to be buzzed in, but they weren't. We casually strolled inside to a help desk, where we were warmly greeted. I explained I was a principal down the street and we wanted to check out the school. They didn't hesitate and gave us a tour.
The school consists of large computer labs, and a handful of smaller rooms for TLI, or "Teacher Led Instruction". I'll admit I was disappointed to find the labs were cubicle-free, the lighting soft, and the furniture looked new while the environment was inviting. Most of the labs only had a handful of students, each focusing intently on their computers. Adults sat at desks doing paperwork and monitoring student behavior. There was little interaction. A dean later explained that normally the labs would be full of students, but they were between terms and currently in the process of enrolling.
The staff and administration were polite and welcoming. My guest and I later agreed the dean was impressively passionate about his mission, which was to give students a last chance to graduate from high school. He explained the teachers didn't have to write lesson plans since the curriculum was all online and approved by the district. He alluded to some behavioral issues, but we didn't see any. Then again, the rooms were mostly empty and the ratio of students to adults was about five to one.
My students weren't very curious about the school. One of our students asked if they had a gym or sports teams. And when told they did not, he frowned and looked around, as if he didn't want to show the dean his displeasure.
As we walked back to school, I asked my students what they thought. One immediately quipped, "Looks like a prison." I was surprised by this reaction because, although I knew the students didn't want to enroll at an alternative school, it didn't seem too harsh of a place. It certainly wasn't a high-performing selective enrollment school, but there are only a few of those anywhere in Chicago, especially on the South side. The students explained that they wanted to go to a high school with sports, a gym and other normal activities. The fact that at this alternative school they could graduate in less than four years and go to school for only four hours a day didn't appeal to them one bit. Our students wanted the full school experience.
Two of the three students on our trip were not wearing school uniforms. I took the opportunity to explain that it is the small infractions like that which can add up to larger issues in high school. I reminded them that high schools were under a lot of pressure to compete and they don't tolerate much nonsense, and if students are not on track to graduate, they will push you to a school like the one we visited. I assured them they can succeed, but it's up to them and the decisions they make.
After our visit, I had a lot to reconsider. Maybe these last-chance, for-profit high schools aren't so bad after all. Maybe they are giving people a new chance to succeed, as they enroll students up to 21 years old, so they can have a high school diploma from the last public school they were enrolled, instead of a less-respected GED. The quality of the education is certainly questionable, especially with the lack of human interaction since so much of success in college and careers is dependent on how to work with other people.
Another concern is the dean we spoke with couldn't tell us the percent of their graduates that went on to college, or became employed afterwards.
What concerns me the most isn't the school, which seems like the people are genuinely trying, but the strategy. These schools are the result of a belief that if we get all of our students to be ready for college and a career, we can end poverty.
The statistics suggest this is true, that the average college graduate makes more than a high school graduate, who in turn makes more than a high school dropout. Everyone knows this. What we rarely discuss is unemployment and underemployment, especially when we include factors such as race and gender.
We haven't seen economic development in our school's neighborhood in 10 years, if ever, like most communities of color. Our neighborhood was one of the hardest hit by foreclosures. Recently, a profitable Sears store was closed after the Ayn Rand-loving CEO ran the corporation into bankruptcy.
Our school's neighborhood has a high level of poverty, and there are consequences of this. I grew up in a small, predominantly white and affluent town. There were a plethora of jobs so I delivered newspapers when I was 11, bagged groceries when I was 13, bussed tables and stocked shelves through high school.
This doesn't happen in many parts of Chicago. The poverty is so concentrated that it's the adults that deliver newspapers, work in fast-food restaurants, and compete for minimum-wage, low-stability jobs. This is directly related to the need for these last-chance high schools.
All of my students have potential to go to college, but too many go to high school and drop out. There are many reasons why, from the "choice" model that has been beat into students' and families' minds to the point where they believe that if you go to your local high school, you're a failure. Instead, they take a bus an hour each way across town to a high school that isn't any different, but at least it's not their neighborhood. It's the myopic focus on ACT test scores, resulting in endless test prep and boring, dull and decontextualized instruction. It's also the lack of money at home, driving many to choose earning money, any way they can, over school.
Politicians that believe competition encourages people to work harder are naïve. For many people who are already stable, it might. But for most, it leads to further despair. If you see your mom struggling to put food on the table after getting paid minimum wage on a midnight shift, would you believe society cares about you? Would you believe that if you do well in school that one day you'll be treated fairly, with dignity, and rewarded with a job that pays a living wage? All the statistics and anecdotes won't dissuade our youth from seeing the the reality they live.
We have a choice to make, which is to continue to create last-chance high schools, or invest in our citizens by making policies and laws which end the need for these schools. This includes paying living wages, investing in neighborhoods, ending high-stakes tests which pervert the education process, creating strong neighborhood high schools people are proud of, changing laws that disproportionately affect minority youth, and implementing community policing.
Our country has suffered through 30 years of failed trickle-down economics, the destruction of unions that protected middle class jobs, attacks on publicly owned institutions, and the war on drugs which has resulted in mass incarceration of black and brown youth.
Good policy would eradicate the need for last-chance high schools. Instead, we're seeing them proliferate.