MDRC’s findings about SSCs are relevant to current federal policy on high school reform, particularly the U. S. Department of Education’s School Improvement Grants (SIGs) for failing schools. Reforms funded by SIGs include school transformation, school restart, school closing, and school turnaround. SSCs straddle several of these categories since they are typically replacements for schools that have closed and they operate as regular public schools.
My observations revealed that many schools used applications, mandatory information sessions, and much stronger language to deter unwanted applicants. For example, 12 unscreened schools shared a similar application requiring that students provide the most recent report card and two letters of recommendation, one from an eighth-grade teacher and one from a guidance counselor, assistant principal, or principal. The application also asked for the student’s test scores, retention history, and involvement in advanced courses during the eighth grade. Finally, the application included additional questions requiring a narrative response….The district’s application system provided opportunities for unscreened schools to choose higher achieving students. Through this computer system, each school received a list of students applying to the school, although the school did not know whether the student ranked it, for example, 1st or 12th. ….The district’s application system provided opportunities for unscreened schools to choose higher achieving students. Through this computer system, each school received a list of students applying to the school, although the school did not know whether the student ranked it, for example, 1st or 12th. This data file included each student’s English-language-learner and special education classification, reading and math test scores, absences, grades, address, and junior high school. Schools were told to identify students who made an ‘‘informed choice’’ by assigning them a 1, while students who did not make an informed choice but the school was willing to accept were assigned a 2. If the school did not fill all of its seats with students making an informed choice, additional seats would be filled by students in the second category. The Department of Education prohibits unscreened schools from using student performance data to select students. Nonetheless, both Marlena and Anna [pseudonyms for two principals of small schools] learned through their relationships with other principals that such regulations were loosely enforced….In addition to the English language learners and full-time special education students whom new schools had a waiver to eliminate, Renaissance [pseudonym for one of these small schools] eliminated part-time special education students and chose only those with 90 percent or higher attendance. Excel eliminated full- and part-time special education students and chose students with attendance rates of 93 percent or higher.