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Throwaway kids: disciplined California teens struggle to school themselves

Strict district policies, distance from alternatives leave some no option but 'independent study'

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Erick Araujo, 13, was disciplined and removed from his middle school in Lost Hills, California, through next fall semester. But he was sent to an alternative school that’s so far away – 38 miles one way – his farmworker mother reluctantly agreed to put Erick on independent study at home four out five days a week. She is worried because the 7th grader began talking about dropping out.

John Harte/For the Center for Public Integrity

LOST HILLS, Calif. — On a blistering May day in California’s Central Valley, most other 13-year-olds were in classrooms down the road. But Erick Araujo was under strict orders from his mother to stay inside with a U.S. history textbook.

Despite the orders, the 7th grader didn’t really have much to do. Over four days, while his buddies were finishing up the school year, Erick’s only task was to read three chapters from the book and answer, briefly, a few questions per chapter.

“Pretty easy,” the boy with braces shrugged, leafing through pages.

He had no math. No English. No science. And no other books to engage his love of history.

But this could be how Erick gets his education for months to come, at least until he’s half way through 8th grade in early 2014.

That’s because in February, Erick was expelled for a year from Lost Hills’ only junior high, A.M. Thomas Middle School, and told to enroll at a “community school” for kids with discipline problems that is run by Kern County. But that school is 38 miles away — so far away that staff there suggested Erick’s mom put him on independent study at home. She would only have to drive him to the North Kern Community School in Delano one day a week, so he could get in a minimum of 4½ hours of weekly face time with an actual teacher.

For Erick’s mom, Nereida Vasquez, this seems a strange way to expect her son to fulfill his “rehabilitation plan.” Instead, she said, she feels educators have cast Erick adrift in Lost Hills, a hardscrabble town surrounded by some of the world’s richest groves of fruit and nut trees, vineyards and vegetable crops.

 “He’s already told me that he should just drop out and go to work in the fields,” an exasperated Vasquez said in Spanish, her dominant language.

Erick’s circumstances aren’t unique. Hundreds of disciplined kids his age are put on independent study in Kern County. Youth advocates say Erick’s situation typifies a troubling pattern of authorities removing students from regular school, and dispatching them to alternative campuses, where plans sometimes seem disturbingly casual — including long stretches of stay-at-home independent study.

The 7th grader’s experience also reflects national concerns — concerns about the effectiveness of harsh school discipline and about a widening school-achievement divide between affluent children and lower-income, often Latino or black students.  

While 86 percent of white and 91 percent of Asian-American students in California graduate high school in four years, for example, just 73 percent of Latinos — who represent half the state’s school population — and just 66 percent of black students get diplomas on time.

Vasquez, already worried that her son’s grades were slipping before his expulsion, glanced at his textbook on that recent May day. “That seems like very little work he is getting,” she said. “Doesn’t it?”

Minimal expectations

Across America, alternative schools have become institutionalized as the proverbial safety net for troubled students when all else fails.

But while such campuses are certainly needed, some education experts say it’s become too easy for regular schools to “dump” kids there who might arguably benefit more from counseling, special-needs testing and more nurturing and tutoring at schools near their home neighborhoods.

In California, youth advocates say, they’ve seen more than a few cases of students like Erick — and older — put on learning plans with minimal expectations that can leave them farther and farther behind.

California’s state Department of Education doesn’t track tens of thousands of alternative school students after — and if — they return to home schools from temporary placements, so it’s hard to measure how they fare. Nor does the state require that these county-based alternative schools report how many of their students are put on independent study programs.

But the state does provide one rough estimate suggesting room for improvement.

During the 2011-2012 school year, more than one-third of the tens of thousands of students enrolled at more than 75 county community schools statewide dropped out of those same campuses.

It’s a big number. There are other alternative programs, but the state estimates county community schools alone serve about 43,000 pupils on average over an academic year in California. Most kids are low-income, large percentages are Latino or black, and many have done poorly in some, if not all, core subjects.

That’s why advocates are confounded by school plans that put the onus on many of these same kids to self-educate on independent study, sometimes with only a few hours of time with an instructor each week.

“You take a kid who has already demonstrated that he’s not being successful in conventional school, and then you impose on him the duty that he’s going to self-study, to me that just seems insane,” said Tim McKinley, a former FBI agent who is now an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), a legal aid group. He is based in the Kern County city of Delano.

During the 2011-2012 school year — despite a 40 percent drop from the year before — the Kern High School District alone expelled 1,096 students. That’s more than expulsions of all students from all districts in Los Angeles County, which has nine times the number of pupils.

The pace at which Latino and black pupils in Kern are expelled and referred to alternative campuses, McKinley said, raises questions about whether they are getting an equal education, and if their constitutional rights are being violated.

In 2009-2010, the most recent year for which Kern made ethnic data available, black students represented 15 percent of all students at Kern’s Bakersfield High School, but 29 percent of those expelled. At Stockdale High School, Latino students were 29 percent of those enrolled, but 43 percent of expulsions.

Under California state law, students who get expelled from a regular school district must still be offered a public education. County schools are often the only place they can enroll. Students at county schools can opt to do independent study — but only if a parent consents.

Based on what they hear from clients, CRLA lawyers contend that it’s not hard to convince families to take the independent study option for children when parents speak limited English, are upset and tend to defer to the professional educators.

Fighting to stay in class

Back in Lost Hills, Erick said his independent study teacher was nice, and gave him a choice of textbooks to take home: history or science. He just didn’t see the instructor much this past semester — just that one day a week.

Erick’s self-study regimen began in April, more than a month after the 7th grader was officially expelled for having a knife in his backpack. Until then, he sat at home on suspension.

The school did not accuse Erick of taking the knife out at school. He said he put it there days earlier because a carload of older boys followed him one day and scared him into thinking he might need to “protect” himself. The knife was discovered after Erick’s teacher ordered him to the principal’s office to discuss provocative words on his backpack.

The law only requires that schools recommend expulsion if a student actually “brandishes” a knife.

But Lost Hills administrators, who would not discuss details due to privacy laws, said that safety concerns compelled them to expel Erick. They also claimed that “other means of correction” had been tried before. Records show he was punished for misbehavior such as talking in class, and for one fight Erick said he had when a cousin pushed him at a water fountain.

Erick’s mother — who works in fields and packing houses here — begged in two separate hearings for the Lost Hills and Kern County boards of education to reject expulsion. She asked for schools to impose a lesser punishment or different conditions on Erick so he could still remain in a classroom. She lost both times.

Out of options, she was left scrambling to figure out how to get Erick to the county school in Delano, for the rest of spring semester and again in the fall.

There is no public transit available for the nearly 80-mile round trip. She and Erick’s father are separated, and he doesn’t live in town. Neither the Lost Hills school nor the county school said they were legally obligated or could afford to help out.

Desperate, Vasquez said the only choice was independent study.

For a couple of months, Vasquez was on maternity leave with a new baby — she’s now back working full time — so she began driving Erick to Delano on Mondays, the appointed time for his 4½-hour session with a teacher. He said there were usually a few other kids there as well.

The rest of the time this past semester, Erick admitted, he usually slept late. He helped mom or a sitter take care of his baby brother. And it didn’t take long to do assignments marked down for him on a Post-it sticker.

When Erick first went to school on Mondays, he took tests on a computer. He did some multiplication — easy, he said — vocabulary lessons and worksheets. He received a math assignment once to do at home. But for most of April and May, all he was told to do was read three chapters in his history book each week at home, and answer corresponding questions. His neatly written answers ranged from a couple of words to a sentence.

He did finish the history book, which he proudly said some high school students also use.

As it turns out, Erick’s routine may not differ much from many other kids his age — kids who have also been removed from Kern’s regular schools.

Kern’s nine county community schools enrolled about 4,460 students in the last school year. Some had been expelled. Others were there for truancy, or because parents agreed to an “involuntary transfer.”

County school administrators told the Center for Public Integrity that two-thirds of these Kern students — more than 3,000 — were put on some sort of independent study. Their arrangements varied, administrators said, with some students seeing teachers once a week, some more and some on home-study only temporarily.

More than 320 of the independent study students were 6th, 7th and 8th graders.

Administrators said some parents chose self-study because travel was a problem. Other parents agreed with teachers that it was better to put children on independent study rather than in a daily class with kids with whom they didn’t get along. Some kids were put on self-study until behavior problems were resolved and they could join a class, administrators also said.

The Kern community school system requires independent study students to meet with teachers a minimum of 4½ hours a week – all in one day, if agreed. But parents are encouraged to bring kids to a school for more than one day a week, administrators added. They said students must be given material to do at home that matches the curriculum options used at regular schools. The aim is to try to give kids assignments and enough credits to advance to the next grade.

James Bartleson, president of the Kern County Board of Education, was surprised to hear that more than 320 students from 6th to 8th grade were on a self-study program.

“That’s an awful lot of students on independent study,” Bartleson said in an interview.

He’s wanted to overturn some expulsions, and keep kids in home schools, Bartleson said. But he said the county board’s power is limited if local district boards have followed laws and procedures correctly to approve expulsions.

It isn’t ideal to put some kids like Erick on independent study, Bartleson said. But if they are “good readers,” he believes they can do fairly well in these regimens.

Shadow system

Russell Rumberger, director of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s California Dropout Research Project, isn’t so optimistic.

“It’s shameful,” Rumberger said, commenting on Erick’s circumstances.

Struggling young students, in particular, should not be left to their own devices, he said, guided only by brief meetings with teachers.

“It’s exactly the wrong prescription,” Rumberger said. “Kids like that need more class time, and more time with teachers, not less.”

Rumberger also said that without more tracking and accountability, alternative education is a “shadow system” that can harbor negligence.

Byron Fairchild, an executive board member of the California Consortium for Independent Study, is quick to take issue with opinions like Rumberger’s.

The consortium collaborates with state education officials to offer training and information to educators to improve independent study programs.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Fairchild admitted. “The courts don’t look favorably on independent study.”

Fairchild, director of business for alternative education in Orange County, explained that judges get upset when kids on independent study commit a crime during school hours. But students in regular schools, Fairchild countered, can cut classes and get into trouble, too. He insisted that self-study can be just the right answer for students who are “problematic” in traditional classroom settings. Of the 8,500 students sent to Orange’s county community schools last year, he said, about half were put on independent study plans.

Even infrequent meetings with a teacher who is exceptionally caring, Fairchild said, can serve as “the hook” that inspires a student to get serious about learning.

Counties and teachers have a lot of freedom, he conceded, to set expectations and minimum hours for student time with a teacher.

But counties are subject to state codes requiring that students be given material “substantially equivalent in quality and quantity to classroom instruction” in regular schools. Outside auditors must certify annually that schools keep written self-study agreements on file, along with work samples showing that students complied with agreements.

If schools fail to keep files in order, Fairchild said, they risk being penalized for receiving state funding based on claims of daily attendance.

County community schools can collect funding based on five days’ worth of attendance for independent study students whether the kids are in a classroom or at home. And that funding, to help counties cope with troubled kids, is usually more per student than a regular school gets.

Fairchild acknowledged that it can appear that some students have little to do at home.

But he said some students are so behind academically when they enter independent study that a teacher exercises discretion not to overwhelm the student by assigning too heavy a load.

“I’m not saying all independent study is blemish-free,” Fairchild said. “There are going to be bad apples in the barrel no matter how much oversight you have.”

Paul Warren, author of a research report in 2007 for California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, said the audits Fairchild described are “mechanical,” designed to root out cheating to qualify for funding rather than negligent teaching.

Warren also argued there is “no rational reason” for allowing students in county schools to be put on independent study, while students who are sent to a different, smaller system for troubled kids — district-run community day schools — are not allowed to be put on self-study.

Warren’s report featured damning conclusions that some alternative programs were “structured failure,” with low-performing students put on independent study with no clear plan to return them to regular school.

The report urged the state Department of Education to start collecting data on independent study students, but five years later, the state still doesn’t track how many students in county schools are placed on independent study, let alone their progress.

Kern County’s struggles

There’s little doubt among administrators at the Kelly F. Blanton Education Center in Bakersfield that the county campuses and their learning approaches are working for some.

Carlos Rojas, the Kern director of alternative education, said the system’s goal is “always have [students] transition back to the school that referred them. Do we have kids come back to us? Of course we do. Do we have kids that come for one semester and never come back to us? Yes, we do.”

“I feel very confident that we’re preparing kids to go back,” Rojas said. “Do I have the data that proves that we do that? Well, no. No hard data.”

This spring, county community schools shepherded about 200 students enrolled in their sites to high school diplomas. One of them, a 20-year-old named Patrick, said he was indeed grateful to his teacher for helping him. He already had a job, and the flexibility of self-study helped him finally get his diploma.

But administrators recognized that parents like Erick’s mom are not happy.

“In an ideal world you have great public transportation that the community can access,” said Steve Sanders, chief of staff for the Kern County superintendent of schools.

“When a parent tells you ‘I’m working nights and weekends, and I don’t have transportation, and I can’t get my kid there,’ ” Sanders said, “of course you feel for that family.”

Classrooms are preferable, he added, but if independent study were not available for kids, “they would have nothing.”

Out of luck in Arvin  

That’s not much consolation for Laura Martinez.

Martinez, is furious that her son, 15, was expelled from Kern County’s Arvin High School in January and referred to the Community Learning Center county campus about 20 miles away in Bakersfield — so far away that she and her husband had no choice, in her view, but to put Juan in independent study.

Soft-spoken and athletic, Juan said he fell victim to what he said was an Arvin High policy of expelling students if they get into two fights during the school year.

Juan, a sophomore, admitted to defending himself once when another student hit him. But the second time, he said, he hadn’t thrown a punch at all. He told school authorities that he just happened to be standing near a fight that other boys got into.

“They didn’t believe me,” Juan said.

He said a security guard who accused him didn’t actually witness the fight. Arvin High declined to comment on Juan’s case or its policies, and referred questions to the Kern High School District.

Martinez wept, recounting in Spanish how she originally thought the purpose of Juan’s expulsion hearing was to come to terms to keep him in school. The family didn’t pursue an appeal after losing because they didn’t know how to find a lawyer and were worried it would cost too much money.

In a written response, the Kern High School District didn’t address questions about Juan.

But assistant superintendent of instruction Michael Zulfa had a general comment:

“Each of the school sites carefully weighs the impact of expulsion for each student prior to determining the ultimate recommendation for that student. The family circumstances of the student are taken into account, [and] there are logistical considerations for meeting the student’s needs.”

Juan’s parents didn’t agree.

They both rise before dawn to labor all day in vineyards, so neither was in a position to drive Juan 20 miles to the county school and wait for him, five days a week, while he attended classes for 4½ hours.

Administrators of a federally funded Migrant Education Program did offer vouchers to help pay for getting Juan to Bakersfield on public buses. But Martinez didn’t feel it was safe to put Juan on a bus in Arvin alone at 5 a.m. every morning, only to have him switch buses in a neighboring town and then switch buses once again in Bakersfield.

“Maybe I’m wrong. But it’s my decision as a mother,” Martinez said. “I’m not going to put my son at risk.”

And so Juan’s parents agreed, reluctantly, to independent study. Juan’s father negotiated one day off a week from work with no pay, a hardship, to drive his son to Bakersfield for his session with a teacher.

During his once-a-week class, Juan found his teacher friendlier and more helpful than most teachers at Arvin High. But he was floundering in English and science before his expulsion. Now he’s worried he’ll be more behind when he eventually goes back to regular high school.

Since Juan turns 16 this summer, he was told, he might be allowed to finish his expulsion through next fall semester at a “continuation school” that’s closer to Arvin. Typically, these are considered last-chance schools reserved for failing kids between 16 and 18 years old who are scrambling to assemble enough credits to graduate high school.

Just before summer break from his self-study regimen, the only work Juan had to do at home for one week was to read parts of a physical education book, summarize content in his own words and answer vocabulary questions.

Juan’s family is not the only one in working-class Arvin that’s had to grapple with how to ensure their kids get educated if they’re expelled.

During the 2011-2012 school year, according to data obtained by the Center, Arvin High School expelled 56 students.

At the state Capitol, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat from Bell Gardens, southeast of Los Angeles, said he’s alarmed by such stories.

“We don’t want to paint them all with broad brush,” Lara said of community schools. Some do a good job, he said.

But legislators could take some steps to try to strengthen parents’ rights.

Lara is the author of Senate Bill 744, which has already been approved by the state Senate and is now before the state Assembly, and subject to amendments.  

The proposal would prohibit educators from adding new criteria to “rehabilitation plans” that could keep students from leaving community schools and returning to regular campuses as originally scheduled. And while it would not apply to expelled students, the proposal would also prohibit placing truant or “involuntarily transferred” students in community schools unless those campuses are “geographically accessible” or if home districts cover extra transportation costs.

A search for solutions

In Lost Hills, Erick’s mom said she knows he did something wrong. But she wishes educators would keep Erick in a classroom.

Erick had been failing in some classes before his expulsion. But certain subjects were capturing his interest. He liked art, and dreamed of college at an art institute in San Francisco. He also discovered a passion for history, and was proud he read The Diary of Anne Frank and earned praise for bumping up a reading level. 

After his expulsion, Erick’s biggest disappointment was missing a field trip to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. He’d like to read more books about World War II, but the only library in Lost Hills is at school — and he’s been warned not to step foot on a campus.

In a last-ditch appeal to reverse Erick’s expulsion, CRLA attorney Elizabeth Aakhus argued that Erick’s school had not adhered to relatively new state legislation requiring administrators to exercise discretion and non-punitive, age-appropriate measures to address behavior problems before resorting to expulsion for offenses that do not require it.

As Aakhus noted, the school gave Erick’s mom a referral to a community-based counseling service only after he was expelled.

The arguments didn’t work.

Harrison Favereaux, Lost Hills’ chief administrative officer, told the Center in a letter that he understands getting Erick to a school nearly 40 miles away is “inconvenient.”

Perhaps a church or neighbors could help, he said. In the fall, when Erick should be starting 8th grade, he might be eligible to get free home tutoring that could be supplied by a new funding source the district is receiving, the letter said.

“In the meantime,” Favereaux said, “Erick's parents may hire a tutor to assist him at home if they are unable to do so themselves.”

Reporter Steven Cuevas of KQED public radio's "The California Report" contributed to this story.