In his gravelly voice, one he’s learned to never raise, principal Joe Gonzales explains how students come to his high school in East Austin. Almost always, it happens against their will, or after everyone else has given up on them. Or both.
Usually, they buck his faculty's first attempts to reach them, and often their second and third. One student recently threatened to “knock the gray out of his hair.”
“Students come to us in one of three ways,” he explains. “They get sent here by the courts because they've gotten in trouble. They get denied admission to another ISD. Or their parents get tired of them sitting around on their behinds and force them to go to school.”
Many come after getting addicted, attacked or pregnant. The typical student arrives with a third- or fourth-grade reading level. Most will not stay. He and his teachers know this, even as they labor desperately to prevent it. He never raises his voice because he knows his charges come from a world full of yelling and cursing and hitting.
Occasionally, students come to him in a fourth way: They realize that they’re headed for a life of misery, and that they damn well better do something about it, and quickly.
“Sometimes," he says, "the light bulb goes on."
Austin Can Academy Charter School, part of a nine-school network of “drop-out recovery” schools with additional campuses in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, has come to specialize in taking the students that many other schools shun. They are charter schools, but that’s not necessarily what most defines them. In recent years, after much fruitless hand-wringing by public officials and business leaders about the dropout crisis, a patchwork of last-resort schools and programs, both charter and traditional, has emerged statewide.
The charter movement has become an unlikely hub for such schools. At least 113 charter schools statewide, about a third of the total, now serve students who have dropped out elsewhere, according to the Texas Charter Schools Association.
Gauging their performance is complicated, to say the least. The Texas Education Agency doesn’t track them as a group, or even specifically define their missions as dropout recovery. Almost all such schools, however, come under its alternative (read: easier) accountability rating system. Only schools with more than 75 percent of their students in the state’s “at risk” category qualify for the lower standard. In all, 190 charters operate under the alternative state standards, but 51 of those operate in resident treatment centers, usually for drug addiction, and are not dropout recovery schools. Of all the charter campuses under alternative accountability, 31 are rated "academically unacceptable," the association reports.
School districts have their own dropout recovery efforts, but they tend to be smaller programs rather than whole schools. Public schools under the alternative accountability system tended to focus on prevention rather than recovery, which specifically seeks students who have already dropped out.
Austin Can is among those with the state failing rating. That’s perhaps not surprising, given the way Gonzales describes the history of the students his school aims to teach — or rescue, in many cases.
“They’ve dropped out between two and four times, either formally or informally, before they come to us,” he says.
For most, it’s a victory they are enrolled in school at all.
The politics of dropout recovery
The reason the Texas charter movement has embraced such last-resort schools may lie in two sets of incentives. One encourages charters to recapture dropouts. The other, in an unintended consequence, discourages other schools from taking them.
In 1995, when the original charter legislation passed in Texas — against fierce resistance from the traditional public school establishment — many argued charters would become harbors of elitism. The compromise: the Legislature capped the number of charter holders at 100 — but waived the cap for any school that agreed to take on enrollments with more than 75 percent of students meeting the state's definition of "at risk" of dropping out. So founding dropout recovery schools became the path of least resistance for charter advocates looking to prove that autonomous public schools could succeed where district bureaucracies had failed.
The message was clear enough: If charters wanted state money to compete with public schools, they had to take their hardest-case students.
Meanwhile, under state and federal accountability systems, all schools get punished statistically for every student who drops out — multiple times.
“You get dinged every time they drop out — and you don’t get extra credit for getting them back,” said state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. “So it’s a lose-lose.”
That policy remains in federal accountability provisions under the No Child Left Behind law. But the Legislature changed state rules last session, said Angela de Leon, who manages a new grant program that finances dropout recovery programs statewide, in charters and noncharters. Under the new rules, which don’t take effect until the 2011-12 school year, schools that accept students who have previously dropped out won’t be penalized statistically if they drop out again.
State officials believe many school principals, whether overtly or covertly, found ways to reject likely dropouts who wanted to return to school, so they could avoid getting marked down in accountability when those students dropped out or posted low test scores. Ironically, that seemed to create a market for the emerging dropout recovery charters.
“That’s huge,” de Leon said of the accountability rule changes. “People have been doing dropout recovery schools, because a lot of schools didn’t want take a chance on these kids.”
The TEA plans to spend a total of about $30 million over the next three years on drop-out recovery pilot programs, hoping to find and replicate programs that prove they can staunch the bleeding of students from high schools, de Leon said.
The program doesn’t discriminate among types of providers. In the first year, the state gave grants to 14 school districts, one county department of education, three nonprofits, two charter schools and two community colleges. The first study of the programs’ effectiveness simply recommends giving the programs more time, but noted they have “achieved important early outcomes.”
The programs are small, averaging just 53 students and totaling just 1,173 among all providers.
By comparison, using the federal method of calculating dropouts, each year’s graduating class in Texas does not include about 130,000 students who quit before the finish line.
The state’s drop-out recovery charters are taking on a massive chunk of an even more massive problem. In all, they enroll more than 22,000 students, according to the charter school association. The question, of course, is how many students they can push toward graduation, a GED (general educational development certificate, equivalent to a diploma), or at least deeper into high school. That’s a question not easily answered in state data. The state last week couldn't provide any easily searchable electronic files for aggregating performance data on the schools. Further, the transient nature of the schools' students, along with and the notorious subjectivity in dropout data, complicate any analysis.
Hochberg expressed skepticism that charters can make a big dent in the state’s dropout crisis.
“To say that their success has been varied would be an understatement. They run the gamut from schools shut down for fraud and mismanagement to... I guess there are some good ones, but I haven’t seen any around here,” he said, referring to his Houston district. “As hard as it is to open and run a charter anyway, running one for dropouts just makes it that much harder.”
Gonzales knows the challenges. The state provides no money for facilities; he needs his teachers to work after school, but can’t pay them for it; he scrapes to find private money for extra-curricular activities. He struggles to recruit teachers with both the talent and desire to work with students in crisis, as well as the extra tutors and counselors he needs, which also don't squeeze easily into the budget.
The latest available state data, from 2008, lists the annual dropout rate for Austin Can at 21.9 percent, about ten times the state average. But that data may mean little. The school has grown from 88 students two years ago to about 400 today, Gonzales said. (Of course, that’s in average daily attendance, as the principal acknowledges students come and go continuously.)
Though he knows many students will quit on him, he nonetheless gets weary of watching the revolving door. He has sought to focus on retaining rather than recruiting students, even if that ultimately means serving far fewer kids. Lately, he has seen a small trend that gives him hope the school has gained traction.
“We’re starting to see something we’ve never seen before: Kids who aren’t in trouble, coming to us through word of mouth,” he said. “They’re just having trouble academically, and they’ve heard we care and we can help.”