Tag Archives: Washington DC

A New Way to Classify — and Learn From — “Alternative” Schools

Nearly every district in the country uses the term “alternative” to describe a broad swath of schools, including those that serve students who are pregnant and parenting, students who are new arrivals to the United States, adult learners, youth in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, or students who have previously dropped out. In short, it’s a way to classify schools that serve students who have needs that are not met or addressed by typical K-12 learning environments.

These and many other “alternative” schools meet student needs that are not going away. In the wake of COVID-19, in fact, these needs are more acute than ever. But because these schools are poorly understood by many sector leaders, their distinct strengths are at risk of going unnoticed and untapped. Rather than remaining the quirky outliers, these schools should become models for modern ways of learning, especially when flexible, hybrid, part-time, and distance learning programs are more relevant than ever. 

The reality is that within the big bucket of “alternative schools,” programs differ widely: some may be quasi-virtual or residential programs while others offer evening classes or deliver two-generation support for parents and young children. Ultimately, the big label of “alternative” obscures more than it illuminates. I would like to offer a more sophisticated definition and challenge the idea that these schools are fungible alternatives to conventional education opportunities. 

I have identified three defining features of alternative schools based on my research and experience, including many visits to schools across the country:

  1. They align to an otherwise unmet need for services. For the most part, the alternative to many of these schools is not attending school at all. 
  2. They are intentionally designed to meet a set of specific student needs. This may be a complex constellation of needs, but the designers of the school’s programs and services are guided by the needs, wants, and constraints of the young people that they serve. As a result, they may look much different operationally from a traditional school.
  3. They set mission-aligned learning and outcome objectives (e.g., improved parenting skills, increased school attendance, or developmental milestones of social and emotional learning) and may adjust the thresholds or timelines for traditional metrics of school success (for example, using a six-year graduation rate rather than a four-year measurement).

I believe that schools meeting all these criteria can safely be called “alternative,” but even within that category, I’ve discovered further useful distinctions. Below I offer an overview of three common types of programs, each with its own real-world illustration. 

Schools that offer intensive in-person services

Although many charter models tout their unique in-person school culture and the intangible learning experiences that they create in their buildings, few programs offer the kind of in-person service delivery that a school like Monument Academy, a five-day-a-week boarding school in Washington DC, delivers. With a weekday boarding program for nearly 100 youth, many of whom are in formal foster care or informal kinship care, the physical aspect of the program model is foundational.

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A Q&A With Five Parents of Color on What Matters When Choosing a School

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Policy conversations around school choice often center on “quality,” defined narrowly by academic measures found on school report cards. But families aren’t always drawn to a school because it’s effective at producing a test score or highly rated on a school performance tool. And for parents of color, there can be tough tradeoffs to make in any school decision.

In advance of the 2020 relaunch of our Eight Cities project, we spoke with nearly a dozen parents of color to understand their decisions, frustrations, and victories. We’ve compiled some of their responses here to provide perspectives on what motivates parents when evaluating multiple school options.

These conversations reveal some of the often unspoken factors that drive school choice. The truth is this process is complicated, and policymakers hoping to create more high-quality seats in cities across the country need to better understand what parents value alongside strong academics and student achievement outcomes.

These quotes have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Miguelina Zapata, a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), describes why a non-traditional school model was important for her and her children:

“Two of my three children are at [a Montessori charter school] here in D.C. I knew my older daughter wouldn’t thrive in a regular school where she would have to sit down for 30 minutes at a time. My daughter is very active and has always been more advanced than other kids her age. I like the Montessori model because they let kids go at their own pace with their own materials depending on what they want to do. She couldn’t get that kind of freedom in a regular school.

I learned about local Montessori schools at the DC bilingual education fair and the annual public school fair and found [two schools] I really liked. But the waitlist numbers were so high for both schools, there was no way we were going to get in. So I applied through the lottery and found my current school.” Continue reading

“I Didn’t Realize How Much Work It Takes to Find a School for Your Child”: Q&A With Shaniola Arowolaju of Washington, D.C

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Families with children in the Washington, DC school system are currently on the edge of their seats: Open enrollment through the MySchoolDC lottery closed earlier this month, and results will be released in late March.

As discussed in our Eight Cities profile of D.C., one of the most unique features of D.C.’s education system is its emphasis on parent choice, within the traditional public school system (DC Public Schools, or DCPS) and the city’s large charter school sector.

Shaniola Arowolaju, a D.C. native with three children enrolled in a charter school*, is a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE). In this conversation, she talks about the barriers that she and other parents face when choosing a school and offers advice for parents and district leaders to make the enrollment and choice system more equitable for D.C.’s most vulnerable students.

quote card from DC parent Shaniola Arowolaju: I’d suggest that general resources about school choice and quality are placed inside each and every school, recreational center, and library. I believe that we need to give parents whatever resources they need — they shouldn’t have to fight for them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You grew up in the District and attended public schools here. Can you talk more about the process of finding a school that was the right fit for you?

When I was in school, you had to go to your neighborhood school. If you wanted to go school outside of those boundaries, then you’d have to get special permission and request a change. As a student, I attended my neighborhood elementary and middle schools that were no further than a short bus ride. When I got to high school, I requested and received special permission from the district to attend another high school which had a legal services academy and a marching band. It was also located on the other side of town. So I had some choice as a student, but it required a long commute. Continue reading

Building a School Performance Framework for System Management and Accountability? Lessons From Washington, D.C.

At its core, a school performance framework (SPF) is a data-based tool to support local decision making. An SPF designed for system management and accountability provides data and information about system-wide goals to district- or city-level leaders overseeing multiple schools, helps leaders hold schools accountable for student outcomes, allows leaders to understand which schools are performing well and which are not, and informs system-wide improvement strategies and the equitable allocation of resources. 

Our recent publication “School Performance Frameworks: Lessons, Cases, and Purposeful Design,” a website and report available at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, identifies system management and accountability as one of three primary “use cases” that can shape SPF design decisions. A “use case” (a concept borrowed from the field of technology and design) helps designers think through their end users’ needs. Our work imagines local leaders as designers and considers how the choices they make can meet the needs of different end users, including parents, school principals, and district leaders. Among the five long-standing SPFs we looked at in detail for our project, four prioritized the use case of system management and accountability in their SFP design. 

We also found that too many SPFs try to fulfill multiple uses at once, without clearly thinking through priorities and potential tradeoffs. This post is the third in a series that looks at SPFs through the lens of each use case to highlight design considerations and relevant examples.

SPFs built for system management and accountability can inform consequential decisions made at the district level about which schools should be rewarded, replicated, or expanded, and which ones require improvement, intervention, and possibly closure. These SPFs get the most attention when the data they produce result in school closures or other highly visible consequences. While closures may grab headlines and garner resentment for SPFs, a well-designed SPF can actually inject transparency, equity, and fairness into even the most challenging decisions and increase opportunities for students and families by highlighting success and supporting the expansion of quality school options. 

An SPF created for system management and accountability should include:

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