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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 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).


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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