Climate of hope: Successful continuation schools share many commonalities

March 16, 2020
RYCA_AlarconJamie Alarcon, Ed.D., completed her doctorate in K-12 Leadership at California Lutheran University in 2019. The following is a summary of her dissertation, “Leading a Climate of Hope.”
In California, continuation high schools are the largest dropout prevention program yet are often dumping grounds for problem students, teachers, and administrators (Kelly, 1993; Austin et. al, 2008; Ruiz de Velasco, 2008). These factors combined make it necessary to seek the assets of successful continuation schools throughout the state. The research question used to understand what was working in continuations schools was: What practices and strategies do leaders use to promote a positive school climate in continuation schools? Using a qualitative case study, three high achieving model continuation schools were investigated to better understand their success. To better understand continuation schools, Austin et al. found students enrolled in California continuation high schools are more likely to be minority males, English language learners, and in foster care or transitory living situations. They are twice as likely to be truant to school, and 25 percent of continuation high school students self-reported as being drunk or high at school seven or more occasions. Enrolled students were three times more likely to be in four or more physical fights at school, three times more likely to have carried a gun to school, and twice as likely to have ever been in a gang when compared to their comprehensive peers. Continuation school students are more likely to report being depressed or have perceived mental health problems and be physically overweight. The characteristics of continuation school students present a challenge to both continuation school leaders and teachers in creating a positive school climate on school campuses. In researching the assets-based commonalities of the schools studied, they shared many positive characteristics within the philosophies of the schools. First, was the evolution of their schools from dumping grounds for problem students and educators to schools with strong core values. Once this goal was established, these transformations were made possible through hard work, strong district support, and strong school leadership. Second, the schools had strong leadership. It was clear during the interviews with teachers and counselors, it took a special person and strong leader to ensure the success of the schools; many interviewees described leaders that were not the right fit and the schools subsequently weakened in academic achievement and morale. Lastly, when looking at leadership it was clear that all three of these principals not only had a passion for their school but a personal connection to the work, which drove their passion. The philosophical changes provided were key attributes to the school’s success.  Hope
In addition to the philosophical transformations mentioned above, there was a notion that hope was provided when students entered these schools. C.S. Snyder describes hope as “the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways.” Each of these schools described the hard work it takes to build hope in students by structuring pathways to the desired goal and providing multiple pathways to graduation via strong relationships, advocacy, and purpose.  School structures
The structures of continuation schools allow the use of time as a flexible resource. Students enrolled in these schools must spend 15 hours per week or three hours per day at school but are not limited to these hours. In the schools studied, students’ schedules were individualized and varied. It might be that some students needed a shorter schedule due to demands at home or severe anxiety, while other students might need a full-day schedule as they did not work and had no obligations keeping them from school. Time is a resource that is rarely used creatively and it is something alternative schools, like continuation schools, can use to thrive.  Other similar structures include accelerated learning. It is an unspoken rule of continuation schools to offer accelerated learning. These schools created a rigorous curriculum that prepared students for college and career and offered students a hopeful pathway toward graduation. These schools also offered a strong orientation program that met with students individually or as a class to create a graduation plan that focused on the whole child and taught prosocial skills.  Other common structures were the beautiful facilities the schools were housed in. All of the schools were not set on a comprehensive school campus, which provided them with their own identity. They had an adequate or better allocation of resources, particularly with technology. These schools also regularly and meticulously collected data. Particularly noteworthy was the data collected around student growth while at the school and the use of data-based decision making. Relationships Relationships within these schools were both purposeful and abundant. The leaders of these schools noted relationships as being the cornerstone of their success. The relationships within the schools were cultivated by the leaders of the schools. They cared for the teachers and noted the fatiguing work of educating vulnerable students. The leaders created a familial atmosphere. They valued positive caring relationships which equated to supporting small class sizes (not exceeding 25:1) so teachers would be able to build those relationships. Hiring was an important aspect that spoke to cultivating relationships within the school. Purposeful hiring was at the forefront of school improvement efforts. All three schools expressed a need to hire the right person for the job. Over and over again, interviewees described that it takes a special person to work at a school like theirs. In addition, there was also regular professional development to support educators within the school. It should be noted, however, that none of the professional development was tailored toward academic accelerated learning or alternative education. There is currently a dire need for research-based training for alternative education.  Advocacy The advocacy of the leaders was one piece that was evident in all three schools. The schools regularly advocated for adequate funding, to keep their program intact and their teacher allocation to ensure small class sizes. In addition, these leaders were strategic with their funding and with their political capital in regards to fundraising and working with community partners. School culture It was clear in all three of the schools studied that school culture had evolved by creating a school philosophy of doing “whatever it takes” for students, being devoted to a whole child approach, and committing to a culture of increasing hope. Ensuring that students were able to make goals, have multiple pathways to that goal, and have caring adults and community to both support those goals and model resilience all helped to establish their school culture. Discussion The preceding practices and strategies serve as a guide for schools looking to learn from successful continuation schools. However, there is further need to advocate for additional funding for continuation schools and alternative schools that are not funded as full-day programs. This would allow equitable time in school for students that need additional time, but the flexibility of a shorter day for those students with that need. School districts should not bear the burden of providing students with a full-day program when funding is allocated as a half-day program. In addition, there is an urgent need to create professional development that speaks to accelerated learning and working with a concentration of at-promise learners.  References Austin, G., Dixon, D., Bailey, J., & Berliner, B. (2008). Continuation high schools and their students: What the data tells us. Los Angeles, CA: WestEd. Kelly, D. M. (1993). Last chance high: How girls and boys drop in and out of alternative schools. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.     Ruiz De Velasco, J. R. (2008). Alternative education in continuation high schools: Meeting the needs of over-aged under-credited youth. Stanford, CA: The John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities Stanford University
Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13(4), 249-275.

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