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Bill contains new assessment methods for ‘last chance’ schools

Many are the best or last option for students who otherwise would drop out, but they’re perpetually at risk of being closed or radically restructured.

The education omnibus bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Pat Garofalo, contains provisions that will help 'last chance' schools.

Tucked inside the perpetually morphing education omnibus bills now before state lawmakers, House File 2949 and Senate File 2482, are a handful of tweaks that would hand a largely overlooked population of educators relief they’ve sought for six years.

Boiled down to the simplest summary, the measures would allow schools that serve uniquely challenged populations to use alternative methods for demonstrating that their students are making meaningful progress.

Many are the best or last option for students who otherwise will drop out. Under current rules, they are perpetually at risk of being closed or radically restructured. Of all the ironies, disconnects and Catch-22s embedded in No Child Left Behind, few have been as cruel.

It’s not a local example, but a terrific story in last week’s New York Times illustrated the conundrum perfectly. It profiled Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn, “a last-chance school for last-chance kids.”

Twin Cities examples

Closer to home, St. Paul’s Humboldt High School, where one-fourth of students receive special ed services, is doing great things with students whose IQs extend below 50, who have some of the thorniest learning disabilities and who just arrived and speak no English. Because of this unique population, Humboldt has been labeled perennial failure under the law.

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In addition to a similar percentage of special ed students, the charter Blue Sky Online High School serves students whose mental illnesses make it impossible for them to attend a bricks-and-mortar school with other students. Its NCLB test scores are terrible, but it does keep kids in school who would otherwise drop out.  

The list could go on: Minnesota is home to schools where staff’s first job every morning is to go out and find their homeless pupils; schools populated by young adults who dropped out in their teens, nowhere near ready to graduate, and then had a change of heart.

By its nature, NCLB was a no-excuses mandate. It put schools on notice that blaming poverty and race for academic failure was no longer acceptable.

And it did change the conversation: It’s now widely accepted that socioeconomic issues put large groups of students at disadvantages they need help overcoming, and maybe someday soon we will do a better job giving schools the resources to overcome those hurdles.

The proposed changes to state law enjoy the support of the Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs, whose members operate a number of dropout and recovery charter schools throughout the state.

‘Meaningful, root-cause assessments’

Its immediate past president, Steve Allen, read the New York Times story referenced above, clicked through to Bushwick Community High School’s website and looked at the accountability measures to which the school, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg would like to fresh-start, holds itself. It’s a good example of the evaluation methods his group would like to see [PDF] instituted.

“You’re talking about meaningful, root-cause assessments,” he said, “and things that we have a chance to change with our students.” (Root causes being things like attendance, delinquency and incarceration, homelessness and pregnancy.)

So why the traction this year? Possibly because MAAP gained some muscular company. The provisions in the omnibus bills approved by both chambers this year started out as legislation drafted by Charter School Partners, a local nonprofit with a mission toward strengthening the quality of Minnesota’s charter schools.

CSP’s original proposal for overhauling accountability measures would have forced the closure of persistently underperforming charters and bolstered support for the standouts. The provisions granting some relief to charter credit recovery schools and those with high special ed populations started out as exemptions to the proposed closure rules.

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A third group, the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, also supported changing the accountability measures but opposed the automatic closure of underperformers that did not qualify for the exemption.