SAN DIEGO — Zaire Wallace looked forward to playing sports in high school. But within a few months of his freshman year, he’d gotten into three fights. After his second suspension, he enrolled at The Charter School of San Diego, an alternative school serving many students at risk of dropping out.
His new school didn’t offer sports. But there were fewer distractions. On a recent day, Wallace, now 17, sat quietly reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and looking up information about the poem on a computer. He misses being a student-athlete, and he’s still behind on credits, but he’s sure that had he stayed at his old school, he’d be worse off.
“This [place] gives you the opportunity to graduate faster,” he said. “What you learn in a regular high school in a year, you could learn here in six months.”
Like many alternative schools, The Charter School of San Diego allows students behind on credits to complete courses online at an accelerated pace. While credit recovery is one of the fastest-growing fields in online education, many programs are little more than diploma mills hastening students through the curriculum with insufficient support. Critics complain that the schools lack rigor and often use software programs vulnerable to cheating, such as Edgenuity.
The Charter School of San Diego is one of the schools using that program, yet its educational model has drawn praise. Part of Altus Schools, a network of K-12 alternative charter schools in Southern California, it even won recognition from the federal government for its operation.
Since opening its first school in 1994, Altus has gone on to open six more, including four in the last three years. Now, the founder is in early discussions with a school in Arizona to replicate the Altus model there.
The Altus network relies on a self-paced, independent study program and a personalized, blended learning model they’ve built up over a quarter century. Students spend 80 percent of their time learning from home. Most do the majority of their work online, though some choose to learn with a standard textbook. Students spend the rest of their time at resource centers receiving in-person instruction or tutoring. The typical student pops in two to three times a week, with each session lasting two to three hours, according to staff.
Altus officials say they have protections in place to prevent cheating online. Tim Tuter, executive director of Altus Schools, said course completion is not defined just by the amount of time a student is logged in, but by the quality of the assignments they submit. And students must take their end-of-course exams at a resource center, where they are under constant supervision.
“This is not an online school where we don’t see kids. Our kids are required to come to the resource centers multiple times a week,” Tuter said. “We have designed a number of mechanisms in place so that we know when a kid is potentially cheating or not giving their full effort.”
His remarks come amid heavy public scrutiny of online programs, as schools and districts pressured to boost their graduation numbers increasingly turn to computer software to get students over the finish line. Nationwide, high schools offering credit recovery used online courses 71 percent of the time, according to a 2018 U.S. Department of Education brief.
Despite what skeptics say about online courses, Altus administrators insist that their curriculum passes muster. Most Altus classes meet the University of California’s “A-G” course requirements for admission, Altus officials say. Many of the courses have also been approved by the College Board and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Instead of rotating through half a dozen or so classes each day for an entire academic year, as students would at a traditional middle or high school, here they take one or two classes at a time for three to four weeks. Some students reported finishing a course in two weeks. School is open year-round, allowing students to continue their studies throughout the summer.
Keeping students engaged who by definition have had trouble sticking with school is a challenge. When they first arrive, 60 percent of Altus students are behind on credits. The majority are two to five grade levels behind in math and two to three levels behind in English language arts, according to Tuter.
But Altus administrators believe that their formula — using online learning without sacrificing one-on-one interactions between students and teachers — works. At-risk students receive support from teams of individuals who care, the schools have a strong culture of teacher-driven professional development and the result is a high level of student and staff engagement, they say.
Indeed, in 2015, when The Charter School of San Diego received a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a prestigious federal award recognizing businesses, health care systems, educational institutions and nonprofits for performance excellence, the school was cited for high levels of satisfaction among parents and students.
In addition, at Altus, teachers are required to make home visits if a student stops showing up to the resource centers. They email and telephone parents and call families in to meet with the instructors, a social worker, case manager or other support staff if a student is struggling.
Staff say that they try to be strategic with locations, setting up shop within strip malls and sites that are easy for students to access and that are close to other resources like the public library.
The organization also has established partnerships with local businesses and other community groups. It invites representatives from colleges to the resource centers and arranges for students to tour local colleges on a regular basis.
ussell Rumberger, author of “Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It” and director of the California Dropout Research Project, has studied alternative schools. He said there is strong research to suggest that a blended learning approach, like Altus’, with actual student-teacher interactions, is preferable to programs where students only learn online.
Moreover, for alternative programs to successfully serve at-risk students, they need to provide support services, such as counseling, that go beyond academic instruction, he said.
“You often have to address the students’ nonacademic needs. It’s not just an issue of reading and math,” said Rumberger, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Although Rumberger views the extra support services for at-risk students as a positive, and said that Altus appears to meet certain academic standards, he questioned the rigor of any program in which courses are condensed from 180 days, or a typical school year, to a matter of a few weeks.
“You can’t expect to cover the same amount of material if the instructional time is significantly less than a regular class,” he said.
Such criticism — along with testimonies from students and teachers that many programs lack rigor — has largely fallen on deaf ears in recent years as administrators throughout the country have turned to online credit recovery programs.
Altus founder and CEO Mary Bixby, however, rejects “credit recovery” as a label for her schools.
Rather, she describes them as “redirective” schools, where staff help at-risk students to change the downward trajectory they’re on. About 500 of the 8,000 students that Altus serves each year transfer back to the San Diego Unified School District, while others choose to graduate from the alternative school and go on to college or the workforce, according to Altus officials. (District officials did not respond to a request to confirm transfer numbers prior to publication.)
Bixby also pushed back on the idea, expressed by some alternative school critics, that students in traditional classrooms, with teachers who each see over 150 pupils a day, are assured a more meaningful experience. Altus students are assigned to one main teacher who becomes responsible for each of their students’ progress throughout their time in the program. The network aims to assign no more than 40 students to each teacher so that they have time to get to know them. And all instruction is delivered one-on-one or in small groups.
Bixby also likened Altus’ course-intensive program to what students would experience in college. “There’s nothing to say they read fewer books or cover less content. The difference may be that they may spend less time in their classroom, but they’re taking responsibility of their own learning,” she said.
State performance indicators showed mixed results for Altus schools. During the 2018-19 academic year, the six Altus schools in San Diego County for which data was available reported student math proficiency levels significantly below those in the rest of the county and state. The percentage of students meeting grade-level standards in math ranged from 3 percent to 19 percent at these schools, compared to 45 percent in the county and 40 percent in the state.
In English language arts, four of the six schools lagged behind the countywide rate of 57 percent by more than 5 percent.
But the picture looks less dismal when only alternative schools are considered. Three of those six Altus schools ranked in the top 10 percent of San Diego County alternative schools in English proficiency, and five were in the top 20 percent, according to data shared by the network. Altus schools also claimed the top two spots out of 41 schools. The results were similar in math, with three schools in the top 10 percent, five in the top 20 percent and Audeo Charter School first overall.
Given the mostly at-risk student population they serve, Altus officials say that those results and their schools’ virtually nonexistent suspension rates and low dropout rates — less than 2 percent at schools for which data was available — prove that they are successfully re-engaging students.
Mirna Santos, 16, spent two years at a traditional high school before transferring to The Charter School of San Diego this fall. She describes herself as someone who enjoys learning, but said that students were disruptive and disrespectful to teachers at her old school. As a result, instructors were forced to repeat lessons over multiple days. Soon, she lost interest.
“I got bored and I didn’t have any motivation,” she said. “Toward the end, I just stopped doing my work.”
Students interviewed for this story all spoke positively about their experiences at Altus, though a few said they wished the schools offered clubs and sports. Altus officials have said they don’t plan to offer extracurricular activities because the focus of their program is getting students on track academically.
Aaliyah Williams, a junior, said she prefers Altus’ course-intensive program, in which she doesn’t have to worry about juggling more than two classes at a time. Still, the 16-year-old wants to eventually transfer back to her old school, where she played softball, basketball and golf and ran track.
“I miss playing sports for my school,” she said.
Zaire Wallace knows that some students wish that Altus schools would hold rallies or other social events, but he’s more focused on catching up on credits by the end of the school year so that he can graduate on time. He’s looking ahead to community college, where he’s considering studying mathematics — and playing sports, of course.
“I finally figured out my future,” he said.
This story about The Charter School of San Diego was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.