New rules aim to shore up alternative schools

By Katheran Wasson Published:

Kentucky’s alternative schools and programs could become more consistent – and easier for state education officials to track – when a new regulation takes effect next year.

The latest rules set minimum requirements for programs that typically target at-risk kids, stipulating that they meet or exceed the offerings found in traditional classrooms.

They also standardize accounting procedures and student data collection statewide, processes that vary from district to district now.

The Kentucky Board of Education approved the document earlier this month. It’s the first comprehensive regulation of Kentucky’s alternative schools, says Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

Slated to begin with the 2012-2013 school year, the regulation could have a minor impact on some alternative programs, including those in Frankfort and Franklin County – and spur bigger changes for others.

State officials seek a better understanding of what’s going on in Kentucky’s alternative programs, like who is attending, why and for how long, said Dewey Hensley, associate commissioner of education.

Local school districts keep data on their alternative programs, but they don’t report the numbers to the Department of Education. State education officials don’t know how Kentucky’s alternative programs are performing – or even how many exist.

Beginning next fall, school districts must report data on the students who attend their alternative programs, their entry and exit dates, why they left and whether placement was voluntary or involuntary.

Local educators say that’s the biggest change they will deal with under the new rules.

Alan Spade, director of Wilkinson Street School, says his staff must develop a plan for reporting the now-required data.

“They are asking for a lot more data than we’ve given before,” he said. “It is going to put a little bit more of a burden on us because we will have to keep another set of records.”

But he hopes the additional oversight will improve public opinion of Kentucky’s alternative programs, and boost legislative efforts to raise the state’s minimum dropout age to 18.

“I think people make some assumptions that alternative programs are holding pens and not a lot of education goes on there, which is not the case at all,” he told The State Journal.

“I would put our education up against anybody’s, so hopefully this will allow people to understand that if they’re going to an alternative program, they are getting services as good as in a traditional setting.”

Every Kentucky school district has access to at least one alternative program for at-risk kids – either their own, or one in a nearby county.

Gross says it’s easy to identify alternative programs that have their own school building – as both Frankfort and Franklin County have – but others are more elusive.

The state defines an alternative program as a classroom, center or campus “designed to remediate academic performance, improve behavior or provide an enhanced learning experience.”

In the past, the state has had “mixed results” monitoring alternative schools’ records, said Hensley, who oversees the turnaround efforts of low-achieving schools, digital learning and alternative programs for the state.

Better record keeping will help educators gauge how demographic groups are performing, and facilitate better placement and planning for students, Hensley said.

He says Kentucky’s alternative programs should prepare their students for college and career readiness, and the regulation allows them greater flexibility to meet kids’ needs.

“What we’re hoping to do with this regulation is to create multiple pathways for students who don’t fit well into the traditional notion of school, but still need to be supported and given the opportunity to get to graduation day,” he told The State Journal this week.

Hensley says people have traditionally viewed alternative schools in a negative light, a perception he hopes changes.

“We have a wide variety of alternative schools in Kentucky – some that are on par with any school nationally, and others that certainly need to improve to get higher graduation rates and meet the needs of the kids they serve,” he said.

“What we’re hoping for is a greater sense of mission, higher quality and higher standards for our alternative programs and schools.”

Gross says it’s unlikely the state would publicly report test score data for alternative schools; they typically serve a handful of students, and officials worry individual kids could be identified.

But school administrators could receive the results and use it to improve their programs, she said. If a program reports weak academic performance, it would be up to local education leaders to improve it.

“Because they aren’t accountable entities, we (Department of Education) couldn’t step in … but there are resources we could offer if an alternative program was struggling,” Gross said.

Along with more student data, the regulation requires better tracking of alternative program finances, setting a single accounting code to be used statewide.

Some school districts track alternative school budgets and expenditures differently now.

“This is a better fiscal policy, and that’s what this is all about,” Gross said.

The new regulation also establishes “placement teams” to plan for each student’s time in the alternative program, including his or her needs, and the criteria for returning to his or her original school. Parents will be invited to participate.

The team must also review the student’s progress throughout the school year.

Hensley says some of Kentucky’s alternative programs already plan for students when they walk through the door, but others don’t have clear-cut systems in place.

The regulation requires that local school boards establish goals for their alternative programs, eligibility guidelines, a process for moving kids in and out, and collaboration with outside agencies like the court system and social services.

Local alternative school leaders Spade and Melissa Rogers, principal of The Academy, say they have processes in place for admitting students and developing plans for learning, behavior and therapy once they arrive.

The schools serve about 70 students combined right now, though the numbers change throughout the year.

Though both local alternative schools must make adjustments to abide by the new regulation, Spade predicts that programs that operate as part of another school – without a separate building and staff –face bigger changes.

Wilkinson Street School, for example, previously operated as a day treatment center for kids with more serious issues, and as such it was subject to audits each year by state agencies that provided funding.

Rogers sees the new rules as an opportunity for her staff to be more innovative in how they educate teens.

The whole concept of alternative education is changing, she says, as the focus shifts from a temporary fix to a path toward graduation and future success.

“As we move toward thinking about how to get kids to graduate, it’s meant to be helpful to us,” she said.

The regulation does not apply to day treatment centers, which are under the oversight of the Kentucky Educational Cooperative for State Agency Children.

The Academy may house up to 30 kids in its day treatment program, which moved to the county from Frankfort Independent this summer.

As implementation of the new regulation approaches, state officials will train local educators on how to enter data, handle students with disabilities, and incorporating parents into the planning process for students.

They are also informing school districts of the best practices for operating an alternative program and referring them to exemplary sites across the state, Gross said.

“There’s a lot of information sharing that needs to happen.”

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