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Study Looks at What Works Best for Schools

August 5, 2008

By Debby Abe, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

Aug. 5–Flexible school hours, self-paced lessons, student internships and high expectations are hallmarks of the state’s best alternative schools.

So are staff training, time for teachers to collaborate, and strong leadership, according to a soon-to-be-released report on alternative schools.

The state Superintendent of Public Instruction commissioned The BERC (Baker-Evaluation-Research Consulting) Group to conduct the study.

“We think alternative education is important,” said Arcella Hall, the state superintendent’s director of secondary reinvention. “We don’t want to see it go away, so that’s why we want to see which are effective at getting students to standard.”

Studies and data on alternative schools are scarce, said BERC senior vice president and researcher Candace Gratama, who presented preliminary results of the study last week in Tacoma. There’s no standard definition of an alternative school, which can include home schooling, GED preparation and online programs. After consulting with the Washington Association of Alternative Education, the state decided to focus on the state’s 188 traditional alternative schools that typically serve students with lagging academic needs, medical or other issues, and not include parent-partner or magnet schools such as Tacoma School of the Arts.

The study compared alternative school performance to the statewide average of test-takers on the 10th-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning from 2004 through 2007. Alternative schools generally performed 20 to 30 percentage points below the state average.

After factoring out the influence of student-poverty rates, the study also determined the 10 highest-achieving, the 10 lowest-achieving and the 10 middle-achieving alternative schools.

The top 10 steadily narrowed the achievement gap, even scoring higher as a group than the statewide average in reading and writing in 2007.

In visits to the top 10 schools for staff, student and parent interviews, researchers found common traits. At Challenger Secondary Schools, Gratama found Bethel district administration supported Challenger by including principal and alternative education director, Dave LaBounty, in decisions affecting secondary students and giving him the power to hire staff, unlike some of the lowest-performing alternative schools.

“They have a very strong leader that’s brought in a lot of the change,” Gratama said of LaBounty, Challenger principal since fall 2002.

Challenger staff members offer lots of individual academic help, tailor instruction to student needs, and hold high expectations. “They have a school that’s very future focused,” Gratama said.

“College is kept out in front of the students, and every focus group mentioned that,” she added.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.

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