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Education leaders examine role of high school alternatives in preparing youth for college and work force.

Nashville, Tenn., Mayor Karl Dean and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) joined other policymakers and national education leaders at a recent briefing on Capitol Hill on the growth of high school alternatives as an innovative local approach to education reform. Cities and school districts throughout the nation are expanding these alternatives as a strategy for improving academic achievement and graduation rates for students who struggle in traditional high schools.

The briefing, titled "Setting the Stage for New High Schools: Expanding Alternatives to High School to Ensure that All Students Become College and Work Ready," was co-sponsored by NLC's Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) and the Alliance for Excellent Education with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In speaking to a gathering of education policy experts representing federal, state, school district and nonprofit agencies, Mayor Dean talked about his experience in Nashville and the reasons why he views high school improvement as vitally important to the future of the city.

"There is a connection between keeping kids in schools and having reduced crime and a safer city," said Mayor Dean. "If you have a safer city and good schools, you're going to see economic development. Those three things are just intrinsically connected.

"When I was doing adult criminal work, I would represent tons of people in a given day," he continued, referring to his past role as a public defender. "Every one of them except for just a few were high school dropouts, and I'm talking hundreds of people. I'm not saying that's the only issue, but there is clearly a correlation."

Describing the development of a strong work force for Nashville, the mayor said, "We are not going to be satisfied until all our schools have graduation rates in the 90 percent range."

The YEF Institute and its partners in the Alternative High School Initiative (AHSI) recently selected Nashville, along with Newark and Indianapolis, as part of a leading edge cohort of cities launching portfolios of new, high-quality, alternative high schools. Mayor Dean co-chairs the Nashville-AHSI Partnership with school district and nonprofit leaders, and has also developed new initiatives to reduce truancy and improve afterschool options for middle school students.

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Prior to introducing Mayor Dean, Sen. Alexander, former secretary of education, discussed the America Competes Act, a bipartisan proposal enacted by Congress in 2007 that he co-sponsored, which focuses on improving student performance in math and science.

"We still have in our country a remarkable economic engine," said Sen. Alexander. "We're still the grand champion in technology and education, but the competition is getting fierce. Other countries around the world want the same standard of living we have. We in the United States need to make sure over the next decade or two that we maintain our competitive advantage."

"Mayoral involvement in education can take many forms," noted Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, who facilitated the briefing. "It's important to recall that mayors know about the cost of dropouts--to the individuals, to their families and especially to the communities where they live."

From City Perspective to Federal Policy

Mayor Dean's comments reinforced findings from a recent YEF Institute publication, titled "Setting the Stage for New High Schools: Municipal Leadership in Supporting High School Alternatives." The report outlines the policy conditions necessary for alternatives for high school to achieve large-scale success and highlights examples from seven cities of ways to help create a supportive policy climate for the expansion of these options.

Elliot Washor, co-director of the Big Picture Company, which along with the YEF Institute co-convenes the AHSI network, made the connection between a practitioner's viewpoint and federal policy. As developer of a network of more than 70 Big Picture schools and supporter of more than 220 AHSI schools, Washor called for striking a balance between the current emphasis on test score accountability under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) with a new emphasis on accountability for increasing graduation rates. He pointed to the Graduation Promise Act, which has been folded into a House proposal for reauthorization of NCLB, as a good design for supporting low-performing schools as well as high-quality alternative schools.

Alliance for Excellent Education Vice President Bethany Little emphasized the importance of reorienting federal education policy toward graduation rates, innovative school reform models and improved data systems that will help states, school districts and parents know how students are faring.

"Twelve percent of high schools are producing 50 percent of the dropouts," Little noted. "Federal investment needs to be directed to turning around high schools."

Details: For a video and audio recording of the briefing, visit www.all4ed.org/events/ Alliance NLC. To download the "Setting the Stage for New High Schools" report, visit www.nlc.org/iyef. For more information about the Alternative High Schools Initiative, contact Marjorie Cohen at (202) 626-3052 or cohen@nlc.org.
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Author:Cohen, Marjorie; Moore, Andrew
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 21, 2008
Words:816
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