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Five years ago, Raynard Gillispie dropped out of Crane Tech High School on Chicago's west side and nearly died. He'd gotten wrapped up in gang violence and was shot. Ultimately, Gillispie knew he needed to finish school, but he was anxious.
"Because people was going to laugh and say, 'Oh, you in high school? You 20, you almost 21.' I was always worried about what other people would say."
Now 21, Gillispie is about to graduate from EXCEL Academy of Englewood, a so-called "alternative school." Though it's a public school, it's run by Camelot Education, a for-profit education company, and it's full of students who have not been successful elsewhere.
Chicago, like many cities, has increasingly turned to alternative schools to try to re-engage students who have dropped out. Over 9000 Chicago students attend alternative schools, a third of which are run by for-profit companies. That's 8 percent of CPS high school students. Many of these schools run half days, with mostly online instruction. And critics argue they're often less rigorous than traditional high schools.
Jack Elsey, Chicago Public Schools' chief of innovation and incubation, says the alternative model is about giving students options. "We are a district of choice, and these are part of our choice portfolio."
But Russell Rumberger, a dropout expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that, in many places, alternative schools function as a way for traditional schools to "farm out their lowest-performing students."
As such, it's important to look at how alternative schools affect Chicago's reported statistics. Historically, alternative school graduates were considered dropouts and not included in the district's graduation rate. But, since 2007, Chicago has counted them as regular graduates. And, according to documents provided to WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago as part of a FOIA request, the district is misclassifying hundreds of students who enroll in its alternative schools. Although they attend Chicago public schools, these at-risk students are labeled "out of district transfers."
Why does that matter? With that label, students essentially disappear from the district's rolls. If they do drop out from their alternative schools, it won't hurt Chicago's graduation rate.
Further complicating matters, some of the new, for-profit alternative schools don't award their own diplomas. Instead, graduates get a diploma with the name of the traditional school they left. In short, when a Chicago student leaves her traditional high school for an alternative school, the district doesn't have to count her as a dropout. But, if she manages to earn a diploma, the district gets credit for graduating her.
In the most recently available data, a WBEZ and Catalyst analysis found alternative school graduates pushed up Chicago's publicly reported graduation rate by four percentage points.
Chicago Public Schools' chief of accountability, John Barker, insists CPS is aware of this dropout loophole and is working to address it through a district-wide audit. "We're not planning on losing students intentionally," says Barker. "We're not planning on having any data that would be erroneous. That's not our plan."
The good news for Raynard Gillispie is that his school, EXCEL, may be an outlier among these new, alternative operators. It runs an almost 9-hour school day and awards its own diploma, which Gillispie says is how it should be.
"This is the first [such school] in Englewood, and I want to be the first person as part of something new," he says. "Since I came here, it's been life-changing."
For more on this story from WBEZ and Catalyst, read the series.