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?”
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.