The dropout crisis has been marked a priority by the federal government. According to national estimates, only 7 out of 10 Latinos and African Americans graduate high school. A charter school in Texas is dedicated solely to teaching students who previously dropped out of school and helps them graduate. But the state is about to close the school because it says it doesn’t meet academic and financial standards set for all schools. Should schools that serve students at risk of dropping out be held it the same standards as all other schools? Joy Díaz reports from Austin, Texas.
Debbie Ratcliffe is a spokesperson with the Texas Education Agency, or TEA. She says the state’s new law pretty clear, among other things it gave the agency teeth to revoke the licenses of failing charter schools.
RATCLIFFE: If a school has received the state’s lowest – either academic or financial rating for 3 straight years – it automatically is closed.
Six schools throughout the state are failing. One of them is American Youthworks, one of the few charters nationwide that specializes in helping dropout kids graduate.
Parc Smith is American Youthworks’ CEO and he says his school is pretty a-typical
SMITH: Most of our students come here average 18 — half the credits they need. That’s why it’s a credit recovery program – drop out recovery program. We get them to catch up and move on to post-secondary education or to career pathways.
Smith says unconventional students require unconventional teaching methods. For instance, it takes some of his students 6, 7 or even 10 years to graduate. On a tour through the school, Smith stops to open a door.
SMITH: This is not your typical classroom. We have rocking chairs where the mother can sit with their baby if they’re nursing in that moment. We have carpets and toys for the children.
Inside this classroom, teen moms can be seen taking care of their school-work. While they work on their laptops, the babies get to have some mommy time too. These are babies under a year old.
The classroom is an example of American Youthworks’ successes — out of the 12 teen moms enrolled in the program this year, 8 will graduate on time and 1 will graduate early.
Now, the Texas Education Agency is aware of some of the successes American Youthworks over the last 30 – plus – years. But Ratcliffe is not impressed
RATCLIFFE: Well, there’s rarely a school that’s completely bad. There’s always some bright spot.
Over the last 30 years, the school has only had a couple of disciplinary issues. That’s one of the school’s bright spots. But the state agency does not focus on school’s bright spots. Instead it takes points off for each of the charter’s failures. In the case of American Youthworks, CEO Smith explains the school lost points for another campus it owned before.
SMITH: We had a negative academic mark for a campus that we chose to close ourselves back in 2010.
The education agency also believes the school has too many teachers per student ratio. And that’s something the school takes pride on since it not only has the mandatory number of students. It also has instructors for things like auto-mechanics and environmental architecture.
Lastly, the state says the school is failing financially.
SMITH: This whole issue boils down to – basically – $7.62.
In order to understand what Smith is saying it’s worth mentioning that the TEA tells schools where it’s OK to invest their money and where it isn’t. That’s because in the past, schools have lost money. But, for years, American Youthworks invested in programs that paid more than what TEA allows. The school says at times they made almost 1000 times more than what they would’ve made had they invested in a TEA approved account.
SMITH: So, in the end, we could be shut down over $7.62 worth of interest when instead we earned $7 thousand dollars. Something is wrong with this measuring tool.
Smith no longer invests in TEA approved accounts. He says the school is correcting all of its wrongs. But, so far, the state is still pursuing closure.
So, the school is doing everything it can to prevent that from happening. First, it’s appealing through the court system. Then, it’s encouraging current and former students to become some sort of school ambassadors. One of these embassadors is Ruben Castro Jr. He graduated from American Youthworks 14 years ago
CASTRO: We are building a 5 star rated solar sub-division, equipped with rain water.
Castro is a construction manager for “La Casa Verde” – a green-house building company. Like the majority of students at American Youthworks, Castro had a troubled adolescence – his Achilles heel was drug-addiction – and since there was no help available in his native Lulling, his parents sent him to Austin.
CASTRO: I think I’m happy —- actually, I’m not going to think – I KNOW I’m happy where I’m at right now. I’m pretty much running this whole subdivision.
Now, Castro has become a mentor to other kids at American Youthworks. He’s even hired a couple of them. And he sees his old self in them – he remembers how he too wanted to give up and drop out of school. That’s why he tells them
CASTRO: There’s also option A instead of B and C. Choose option A if it’s going to benefit you – you know?
Castro and many of the school’s current students and teachers hope the agency and chooses another option for the school. Now, it’s up to the courts. If the courts rule in favor of the state, the school will close its doors by the end of this school year.
For Edicion Semanaria de Noticiero Latino, I’m Joy Diaz, in Austin.
This report is part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen! – a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.