It has been more than a year since Graduation Achievement Charter High School closed its doors, leaving roughly 1,700 students—many of them poor and considered academically at risk—to find their own path to a high school diploma or join the workforce without one.
The phones are dead. The website is gone. After graduating about 330 seniors in June of 2018, the largest class in the six-year history of the online alternative high school, Graduation Achievement shuttered its 11 learning centers and both staff and students moved on.
Some students attended different learning facilities or returned to their local public schools. Some obtained a GED or simply went to work. “They disappeared into the woodwork of the world outside public education,” said Monica Henson, the former superintendent at Graduation Achievement, who is now a consultant.
Education experts say lessons can be learned from Graduation Achievement about how alternative schools with high-risk student populations should be addressed by state accountability systems.
States like Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Texas, Utah and others—though not Georgia— have developed alternative accountability laws that are designed to measure schools serving high-risk populations. Rather than failing against traditional measures, new standards are set that allow schools to monitor progress in a population that faces major barriers to academic achievement.
Many of the students attending Graduation Achievement dropped out of the public school system and a majority were living below the poverty line. Some were also dealing with problems such as foster care, pregnancy or homelessness. Almost all were what education experts call over-age and under-credited. The average freshman at Graduation Achievement was 17 years old, Henson said.
Alternative schools with high-risk student populations like this often perform poorly when measured by standard accountability systems. While alternative schools make up about 6 percent of all schools nationwide, they account for 23 percent of school closures, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Graduation Achievement closed because its board voted to do so when it became clear that, after achieving an F grade on accountability measures for several years, the State Charter Schools Commission was unlikely to renew its charter. Commission officials stated at the time that students could enroll in other schools, and while Graduation Achievement presented students and families with an option catered to their needs, it wasn’t a good enough option since the school was failing. Yet others argue that alternative schools require alternative accountability measures in order to succeed.
A study commissioned by Graduation Achievement and performed by Momentum Strategy and Research, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to alternative school assessment nationwide, showed how these systems work. The organization took Graduation Achievement’s performance data and measured it using the alternative standards in Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Texas, and Utah. In no case did the school receive a failing grade.
“We need to be looking at it through a lens that adjusts for where these kids start,” said Jim Griffin, co-founder of Momentum Strategy. “It’s a question of whether we want to know how these kids are doing. I think we do want to know. There’s a benefit to knowing where these kids are. I don’t think anyone is served when kids operate in the shadows of high school.”
But one year on, with the students and teachers gone, the question remains how best to serve students struggling with traditional options. Graduation Achievement had aimed to expand its operations to serve up to 5,000 students if its charter had been renewed, reflecting a demand for alternative schooling when public schools are failing individual students. Whether the state is able to find needed alternatives remains to be seen.