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Lesson 5.4

At Risk:
When Regular School Doesn't Cut It

Many parents don’t even know these schools exist.

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In high school it can be easy to see trouble coming. If a student is persistently absent, or starts getting in trouble, or his or her grades plummet, or she becomes pregnant, something needs to change. It makes little sense to proceed as if the status quo is working.

Continuation Schools

Continuation schools (also known as "alternative schools") are designed to serve the educational needs of high school aged students who are not succeeding on the normal path. 

There are about 800 continuation schools in California, including continuation programs within high schools. At any given time, these schools might be serving 4-5% of the state's public high school students, but California state school officials estimate that twice that number —perhaps one in ten— pass through these schools each year. The data about these schools are imprecise because their population is relatively mobile.

In a review of alternative education options, Jorge Ruiz de Velasco points out that students tend to "pass through" continuation schools, "either on their way to a diploma, or to dropping out of school altogether." He led a study of continuation high schools that described concerns about these schools and made recommendations for improving them:

"Originally designed as part-day placements for students who needed to work part-time, most Continuation schools are now designed to serve students who are over-aged and under-credited... Since 1965, state law has mandated that most school districts enrolling over 100 12th grade students make available a continuation program or school that provides an alternative route to the high school diploma for youth vulnerable to academic failure. The law provides for the creation of continuation schools that provide more intensive services and accelerated credit accrual strategies so that students whose achievement in comprehensive schools has lagged might have a renewed opportunity to complete the required academic courses of instruction to graduate from high school."

Students who are pregnant or parenting are often counseled toward continuation schools, which makes some sense — but there is a catch. Many continuation schools don't offer the college-prep courses that students must take to qualify for access to a four-year university. Pregnant and parenting students on the college track may prefer to take up to eight weeks of parental leave instead, a right created for them in 2018.

Alternative schools are designed to serve students that aren't on the normal path. Does it make sense to hold these schools to account in the same way as "regular" schools? In 2015 the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) took up this question in its report Next Steps for Improving State Accountability for Alternative Schools. In 2017 some specific recommendations took shape about ways to incorporate alternative schools into California's school accountability system, summarized by Policy Analysis in California Education (PACE). For a great summary of why this issue is so challenging and what might change in 2017-19, read this summary by Edsource.

Schools for kids in REAL trouble

The law requires that young people receive educational services regardless of their behavior. A student who is expelled for violating the law or charged with doing so may be placed in a facility that bears a stronger resemblance to a jail than a school. Those convicted of serious offenses are usually educated in schools run by juvenile courts, counties, or the California Youth Authority. Once known as "Juvenile Hall," these facilities are now often called "Community Day Schools". The number of these facilities in California has been very significantly reduced, along with the number of incarcerated youth, in part because of a string of scandals and abuses, but also because research showed that supportive approaches are more effective than youth jails.

The Oakland-based Ella Baker Center, a former Full Circle Fund grant recipient, supported the "Books not Bars" movement that helped accomplish this change.

Updated May 26, 2017 to summarize uncertain figures about the number of alternative schools in California and the changing ways that they are held accountable, referring to PACE and EdSource. Further updates: June 2018, October 2018 (adding new parental leave law)
March 2019.


California has over 500 "continuation schools" that provide an alternative option to "regular" schools. For which ONE of the following is continuation school NOT a good option?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
David Siegrist1 June 3, 2021 at 9:54 am
Pasadena City College offers a wonderful “second chance” educational program for formerly incarcerated individuals: known as CORE, it includes a host of resources, including financial aid, counseling services, and even tutoring.
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Kelley Mccarty November 20, 2019 at 7:53 pm
Continuation schools or Day Schools are not just for High School students. Elementary and Middle School students also attend these schools. They do have school inside the locked down Juvenile Halls and students who are on probation attend the alternative and or day schools. Unfortunatly the thinking of, books are better than bars does not fit a lot of our students who come from families who have several family members in jail, or both. They tend to follow along with the family theme. A lot of students attend schools that are alternative or continuation or schools inside Juvenile Halls is the only way they will get an education and be able to succeed in life.
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Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 5, 2019 at 9:41 pm
At my upscale suburban high school in New York, we had an alternative school on campus. I never understood that it was for any of the purposes listed above. In fact, the students believed that it was just for more creative, artistic types. Looking back, it is interesting to consider that it attracted both kids who were at risk of dropping out and kids were very high achievers.
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Susannah Baxendale January 25, 2019 at 3:49 pm
My impression from our city's school district, is that the continuation HS also accommodates students who really 'learn' differently, who can't cope with the regular HS schedule, demands etc. It isn't that they aren't bright for example, but that their coping mechanisms with regular schooling are lacking (some perhaps always had trouble, some develop them as teens). In the same way that we now recognize different ways of learning in a classroom, it seems to me that at least some continuation HS offer the same flexibility, enabling students to succeed because the environment works for them.
user avatar
Caryn January 30, 2019 at 8:53 am
Hi Susannah, you make a good point. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work in education let alone for students who struggle, for myriad reasons, with a typical high school schedule. Often administrators and counselors can work with a family to help their student navigate successfully but that isn't always the case. Having a positive alternative for these students where they can also remain on track to succeed in college is essential.
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