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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. A student is persistently absent, or starts getting in trouble, or has plummeting grades. Maybe she becomes pregnant, or a family emergency takes center stage. When things really need 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 students who are not in a position to succeed on the normal path. These schools are a more flexible option for under-credited students in danger of not graduating, working students requiring more flexible hours, students with children, and more. Students are required to attend for at least 15 hours a week.

There are about 800 continuation schools in California, including continuation programs within high schools. There is probably a continuation school that serves your area. California state school officials estimate that about one student out of ten— passes through these schools each year. Data about these schools tend to be imprecise because they serve students with needs that can change quickly and can cause them to move. The pandemic made it even more difficult than usual to keep track of students and maintain investment in continuation schools.

In a review of alternative education options, Jorge Ruiz de Velasco, a Stanford professor, 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. The state addressed the problem by modifying the accountability dashboard. Alternative schools are assessed using Dashboard Alternative School Status (DASS).

Schools for kids in REAL trouble

The law requires that young people receive educational services regardless of their behavior. For many years, students who were expelled for violating the law or charged with doing so were placed in detention facilities managed by the California Youth Authority (CYA). In 2021, responsibility for incarcerated students was transferred to counties in an effort to keep incarcerated students closer to their families. The CYA was closed and remaining responsibilities were transferred to the state Division of Juvenile Justice.

Updated May 2017, March 2019, October 2021, August 2022.


Continuation schools do not serve which ONE of the following groups?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 23, 2021 at 11:22 pm
I appreciate this demographic being given attention to and included in this course.
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.
user avatar
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.
user avatar
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.
user avatar
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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