Dropout recovery charter schools: Dayton’s needles in a very messy haystack
For most of Ohio’s youngsters, school’s out for the summer. But for the girls and boys who have dropped out of school, school may be out for good, with devastating consequences.
In its annual “Diplomas Count” report, Education Week claims that around a million students drop out of school annually. Not surprisingly, these dropouts’ prospects are bleak: diminished earnings potential, greater likelihood of unemployment, and greater likelihood of incarceration. In addition to these jarring facts, EdWeek’s interactive graphic soberingly depicts the journey from “student” to “dropout,” and how dropping out has effects that linger for a lifetime.
The report also provides a handful of examples of states and localities, which have implemented dropout intervention and recovery programs. Ohio is one such state. Since 2011, the Buckeye State has encouraged, through state law, the growth of charter schools that serve mainly students who have either dropped out of school at one point, or are at-risk of dropping out. These “dropout recovery” charter schools, of which there were seventy six in 2012-13, enroll approximately 12,500 students statewide.
In accordance with state law, the Ohio Department of Education approves “dropout recovery” charter schools, and under legislation passed last year (House Bill 555), these schools will be held accountable for student results through an alternative report card system, starting this year.
What do we know about Ohio’s dropout recovery schools? The following statistics are taken from the Ohio Department of Education’s 2011-12 data:
1.) School size varies. Some are relatively large (Phoenix Academy Community School in Toledo is the largest at 580 students); but many others are small (twenty three schools enroll less than 100 students).
2.) A majority of dropout recovery school students (roughly 65 percent) are African-American and Hispanic students. An even higher percentage of students are economically disadvantaged (over 80 percent).
3.) The academic performance of these schools is clearly less-than-stellar. Consider the charts below, which show the number of schools in each rating category and the number of students attending each category of school (“academic emergency” is the lowest rating):
Chart: Academic rating of dropout recovery charter schools, by the number of schools (left) and the number of students enrolled (right), 2011-12
As a group, Ohio’s dropout recovery schools struggle to move the student achievement needle. But, there are a few exceptions. Of the five schools that earned an “effective” rating—equivalent to a “B” and a significant accomplishment given the challenges facing these students—two are Dayton-based charter schools: Mound Street IT Careers Academy and Mound Street Military Careers Academy. A third Mound Street school, Health Careers Academy, earned a “continuous improvement” (“C”) rating. Taken together, these three vocationally-focused schools enroll nearly 300 students, a sizeable majority of whom are African-American and/or economically disadvantaged.
To re-ignite their students’ interest in education, the Mound Street charter schools have developed close partnerships with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (Dayton’s largest employer), the Reynolds and Reynolds company (software development firm), and Sinclair Community College (for details, check out the Fast Forward program website). This has all been accomplished through the backing of a strong and well-connected board of trustees alongside energetic and highly competent school leaders. With these partnerships in place, there is little doubt that Mound Street students are armed with greater motivation to perform academically and to persist on through graduation and into gainful employment.
To be sure, youngsters deserve second chances. Second chances are a great part of American education. If they’ve dropped out, they deserve a second shot at getting the education they need to succeed; if they’re behind in coursework, they should have opportunities to catch up. Yet, it appears from the achievement data that very few at-risk students receive a “good” second chance at education in Ohio. Indeed, Ohio’s charter schools can and must do better when it comes to serving dropouts or students on the precipice of dropping out. To do so, perhaps they ought to look to Dayton’s Mound Street charters for clues about how to best educate this segment of Ohio’s student population.
 However, as our friend Jody Ernst argued last spring in the Ohio Senate, achievement is only one barometer—and a relatively marginal one at that for dropout recovery schools—of school performance.