Perhaps Fresno should call them its “invisible thousand.” That is about the annual number of high school kids who fail to graduate from local alternative schools and programs. You won’t find these mostly “at-risk” students listed on the rolls for the Fresno Unified School District.
Instead, they are assigned to schools in the city that are actually chartered and supervised by tiny elementary school districts up to 40 miles away. That makes it difficult to find their results, which makes them “invisible” to the casual observer.
While the debate continues over the district’s version of a “restorative justice” program that tries to keep problem students in mainstream high schools, teachers are complaining about the loss of classroom discipline and threats to their personal safety. Clearly, disruptive students must be removed to allow serious students to study in a safe learning environment.
But what happens to those Fresno-area kids who are – or should be – removed from mainstream high schools?
Let us put some perspective on the numbers. In 2005, Fresno Unified graduated 55 percent of the freshmen who started four years earlier.
Ten years later, the raw data showed the district graduated 76 percent of the students it started with in 2011. It is remarkable progress in a district with an enormous number of students living in poverty and speaking dozens of languages.
But Fresno Unified claims its cohort graduation rate is actually 84 percent. Why? The State Department of Education now allows districts to transfer responsibility for problem students to alternative schools chartered by other districts and holds them responsible only for the results of the remaining cohort.
Fresno Unified reassigned about 1,100 of the kids who started high school in 2011 and graduated 84 percent of those who remained. The local at-risk high school student who is a potential dropout may now simply be reclassified – on paper – as “home schooled” by a district that is 40 or 50 miles away.
In recent years, Fresno Unified refused to renew its own charter for the local New Millennium alternative school. The Raisin City Elementary School District then stepped in to offer a charter for that school to allow it to continue to operate. Last year, this rural district had 300 regular students in kindergarten through eighth grade. It also authorized the Ambassador Sanchez Charter, which is physically located in Fresno and enrolls nearly 600 high school students. State records show this alternative high school had a 13 percent graduation success rate.
Similarly, 231-student Westside Elementary School District, 40 miles away in Five Points, provides the charter for Crescent View Charter South. Over 600 Fresno-area students are registered at its location at Fresno’s Manchester Center. This alternative school has a 16 percent graduation success rate.
In defense of alternative schools, they provide education opportunities for kids who perform better outside the conventional classroom. But many of their kids are “at-risk” students who would almost certainly drop out completely if this resource did not exist. They operate under a different set of state requirements and expectations. We cannot fairly compare their results with mainstream high schools.
Every school district transfers responsibility for some students. While Fresno Unified transferred more than 1,100, Clovis moved only 200, Central Unified and Visalia Unified each transferred fewer than 100. Los Angeles Unified transferred 26,000, which raised its 2015 graduation success rate from 59 percent, using the raw data, to 72 percent, using only the results of its remaining “cohort.”
Celebrate the improvement in Fresno Unified’s graduation success, but don’t ignore the annual invisible thousand dropouts. Those failing, at-risk students may be the biggest source of societal challenges for the city.
The restorative justice program has an admirable objective to keep students in mainstream schools. But when it fails for some students, perhaps the district’s trustees should retain greater local control of the learning environment in the city’s alternative schools.
Unfortunately, keeping them in schools chartered and supervised by Fresno Unified won’t be good for the district’s overall graduation statistics. But hometown oversight should improve local visibility and perhaps drive more involvement by civic groups, which might be good for the students and the community.
Jerrold H. Jensen is a resident of Visalia. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.