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Maryland looks to Texas alternative high school strategy

Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High has more than 300 students enrolled at the alternative high school.
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Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High has more than 300 students enrolled at the alternative high school.

Lessons learned in a Texas school district may help more alternative high school students in Maryland get access to early college preparation programs. In 2006, Daniel King was superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District, one of the lowest performing school districts in Texas. King, who has since retired, crafted a plan to get high school dropouts in the alternative high school to return to the classroom. They would not just earn a high school diploma but take some college courses through dual enrollment.

King leveraged an early college philosophy to lure students back.

“Our message was, you didn't finish high school. Start college today,” King told PBS NewsHour in 2012.

Now Maryland State Superintendent of Schools, Mohammed Choudhury, hopes to bring similar programs statewide. But it’s going to require leaders to change their strategy.

In Texas, state law mandates that school districts serve at-risk students but often early college programs in high school are reserved for “high performing students,” Choudhury said during the State Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

“We need to move away from that,” he said. “I will find grant making opportunities to put up challenges to school systems that want to do that.”

State education board members were responsive to the suggestions to change policies and move forward such an initiative if it means more students will finish high school.

Carroll County Public Schools teacher and state board member Rachel McCusker said that when introducing new programs, the board must prioritize accessibility for all students and not widen the economic gap.

“We have to make sure that there aren't added fees, that there aren't transportation barriers that those things that might leave our economically disadvantaged students out don’t become barriers they need to overcome,” McCusker said.

On average, there are more male students who are economically disadvantaged, have a disability and are English language learners in the alternative high school network, according to Maryland State Department of Education data.

Across the state there are 28 alternative high schools and more than half of the students are enrolled in programs in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, state data shows.There are also more Black students enrolled in alternative high schools than in traditional high schools.

Dropout recovery is a challenge nationwide, it’s expensive and difficult to accomplish but possible if the state offers flexible schedules, wraparound services and college courses, Choudhury said.

In Baltimore City, Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High is already offering such student services. There is a wellness boutique at the school which provides students with toiletries, household cleaning supplies, clothes and shoes and attendance incentives. Excel Academy also has social workers, a free washer and dryer for students, and opened a daycare center this past year.

“These students can thrive,” Choudhury said. “You just have to think outside the box in terms of how you define their experience.”

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education. @Zshekinahgf
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