Georgia online school’s closure means one less option for high-risk students 

When Georgia’s first online statewide charter high school closes next month, it will leave behind roughly 1,700 students without a diploma— many of whom have struggled in school — and a mixed legacy as an education pioneer that ultimately perished.

Graduation Achievement Charter High School failed to meet state academic standards, which raises the question of whether online or alternative charter schools that serve a high percentage of students with problems can succeed. School administrators argued unsuccessfully the state ought to give them more leeway to meet academic goals, given their student population. Supporters say those young men and women will have fewer options to help them flourish because the school has been forced to close.

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The state commission that gave the school its charter says its measurements of success already allow for disadvantaged students. Sending students to a state-funded school that is failing to meet standards is a disservice to the students and taxpayers who fund it.

The school’s last class, as many as 271 eligible seniors, graduates in June.

Timeisha Liggins, a 20-year-old who lives near Tucker, worries about how the closure will affect students like her. Personal problems prevented her from finishing high school on time. At age 17, she didn’t grasp the importance of a diploma. Graduation Achievement’s virtual program allows her to work and go to school. Now, Liggins is finishing her remaining classes so she can graduate before the school closes.

“I know I am not the only one, and I know I’m not the last one that is going to need this kind of help,” she said. “I’m not saying there weren’t other options, but this was hard to find.”

Graduation Achievement opened six years ago and admits students from across the state — a significant number of whom are poor, past troublemakers and dropouts, as well as those drawn to a flexible, virtual learning approach. It also runs learning centers where students can receive services such as special education support and tutoring.

The school’s average graduation rates are under 10 percent. It did not meet any of the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia’s academic standards in any year of its charter contract, prompting commission staff in February to recommend the charter not be renewed. That led school officials to withdraw their petition for permission to operate for five more years.

“It is possible for an alternative school to succeed, and there is not a reason that the types of students you serve, under our accountability system, should be an excuse for a poor academic program,” said commission spokeswoman Lauren Holcomb.

Commission officials said Graduation Achievement students have other places to continue their education — including re-enrolling at high schools in their local districts and other state charter schools that have had success with high-risk students. They contend that while charter schools such as Graduation Achievement offer students an option, if that school is failing, then the option isn’t a good one.

But Superintendent Monica Henson frets for students who won’t be able to attend a school she said is unique in its wide acceptance, regardless of academic or discipline problems.

“The commission is not curing anything. They’re not saving the state money. They are not solving a problem. They are removing a choice from families,” she said. “There’s a much bigger policy question [than] whether my school stays open: How do we as a state deal with the children who are least able to advocate for themselves?” she said.

As a state charter school, Graduation Achievement receives the bulk of its funding from the state, about $8.8 million this year. It also receives federal support, but as a charter school authorized by the state instead of by a local school district it does not receive local tax dollars.

Henson said that from its start the school sought to serve students who needed another chance.

Last year, 77 percent of its students were eligible for free or reduced meals, which is a marker for poverty, had they attended a traditional public school. That’s a higher percentage than the state average or either of Georgia’s other two online state charter schools. Though its enrollment is smaller than the other two, Graduation Achievement also enrolled more students who had dropped out or been expelled from other schools.

The school’s data shows that more than 60 percent of its students are over-aged for their grade; the average ninth grader is nearly 17 upon enrollment. Henson points to other challenges: 3 percent of current students have been incarcerated, and the school serves small numbers of students who are in foster care, pregnant or parenting, or were rescued from sex trafficking.

Graduation Achievement is the only state charter school that has sought designation from the Georgia Department of Education as an “alternative” school. The label doesn’t give the school any special treatment when it comes to the chartering commission’s review.

The commission’s deputy director and general counsel Gregg Stevens is confident that allowances for disadvantaged students are baked into its measurements. He said they consider student characteristics that allow for fair comparisons even among schools that serve very different populations. One calculation weighs factors such as whether a student is eligible for free and reduced meals, the number of schools attended in the current year and prior year disciplinary incidents and attendance. That is one of the main ways schools that enroll high-risk students can still show academic success and that they deserve to be renewed.

Stevens said the commission has tweaked the formula to add risk factors recommended by Graduation Achievement, but the school still did not meet the standard.

“There’s no doubt that every single charter school serves at least one of its students appropriately and provides value for that student. But there’s a saying on the national charter scene that anecdotes aren’t enough — that there needs to be true accountability from the broad student population to insure that the school is providing a quality educational service for those students,” he said.

Henson argues the formula doesn’t account for high-risk factors for which the state does not collect data and said the measurement does not take into consideration that schools with “abnormal student populations may perform differently than those with typical student populations.” It also leaves out a huge portion of her students because the analysis is based on test scores of just those students who have been enrolled for the majority of the school year.

“There is no way for a school like ours to succeed in the commission’s universe,” Henson said.

There is a bigger number at stake than Graduation Achievement’s study body. About 30,000 Georgia teens ages 16 to 19 were not in school and not high school graduates, according to the latest numbers from Kids Count, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation that tracks child-related data.

Those young men and women are less likely to land a good job and more likely to ask for social services. The median earnings of full-time workers ages 25 to 34 who finished high school were $30,500, compared to $25,000 for those who did not, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Had its charter been renewed, Graduation Achievement planned to push further into the “alternative” market to reach more of those endangered youth. In its application for renewal, the school wanted permission to expand to serve 5,000 students.

Graduation Achievement will be missed because other state charter schools have not been as receptive to admitting expelled students, said Jimmy Stokes, a school hearing officer and executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders.

Online schools often take students having problems in traditional public schools. Those students generally are not as successful and can pull down a school’s academic performance, he said.

“If you serve these students, which is the ethical and right and moral thing to do, you endanger the success of your school. And if you close the door and say you are not going to accept these folks you are denying the mission of the charter school,” he said.

Stevens said online schools across the country also struggle to meet charter authorizers’ standards.

“I think the question that we are seeing is whether the charter model of increased accountability for increased flexibility is the right way to go about virtual education,” Stevens said.

While school officials wind down operations, the state Department of Education is developing “more standardized criteria for a school to be designated as alternative” as well as performance measures “that would take into account the unique populations these schools serve,” said DOE spokeswoman Meghan Frick, in a written statement.

She declined to make anyone at the department available to discuss that work. Stevens said the state commission is not directly involved in the effort and will adapt if it needs to change anything to better assess charter schools.

Henson thinks the fate of Graduation Achievement has shined a spotlight on alternative schools and the students they aim to help.

The state’s obligation never ends. It’s a matter of how we are going to pay and for what we are going to pay,” she said. “Are we going to pay for an education to salvage as many as we can?”

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