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“SETTING THE STAGE FOR NEW HIGH SCHOOLS”: Alliance, National League of Cities Cohost Capitol Hill Briefing on Alternative High Schools

“We’re still the grand champion in technology and education. … But the competition is getting fierce."

On July 10, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean appeared at a Capitol Hill briefing to discuss the importance of ensuring that all students—including those who are struggling, those at risk of dropping out, and those who may have left school—are prepared for college and success in the workforce. 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 cohosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education and the National League of Cities and focused on a leading-edge group of cities that are establishing partnerships to develop high-quality alternative high schools.

“We still have in our country a remarkable economic engine,” Alexander said. “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. They understand it has a lot to do with developing their brain power…we in the United States need to make sure over the next decade or two that we maintain our competitive advantage.”

He explained that Congress has tried to develop a framework for meeting this goal through the passage of the America Competes Act, a bipartisan law that focuses on improved student performance in math and science. Alexander said that the law provides support for low-income students to take Advanced Placement courses, trains teachers to better prepare students to take the tests, and provides support to train more math and science teachers as well as to better train those who are already teaching in those fields.

Dean said Nashville is a strong city with a diverse economy that includes everything from health care to publishing to the music industry, but he also acknowledged that it has issues with its schools.

“Nashville is a great city; we’ve benefitted from good government…we’re a city on the rise, but we have not focused adequately on education,” he said. “There is a connection between schools and keeping kids in schools and having reduced crime and a safer city. If you have a safer city and good schools, you’re going to see economic development. Those three things are just intrinsically connected.”

Dean also talked about his work designed to reduce the dropout rate and keep more students in school. His efforts include appointing a task force to study the issue (see box below), working with the National League of Cities to develop alternative high schools, and reaching out to different models and programs around the country—such as charter schools and Teach for America—to learn more about best practices and how to use them. He also included money in his budget to develop an “Attendance Center.”

“Truancy is something that is the number one indicator [of whether] a student is going to drop out of school,” he said. “The Attendance Center is in-between the juvenile courts, the schools, and the police. It’s where kids can be brought when they’re loitering or they’re truant, where there will be social workers and teachers who will find out what the real problem is…and get them back on the right track.”

Dean explained that his emphasis on truancy and dropout rates stems from his work as a public defender. “When I was doing adult criminal work, I would represent tons of people in a given day,” he said. “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.”

He added that he often worked with juveniles, particularly with youth accused of very serious crimes. “All of those kids that I saw in juvenile—whether it was the serious cases or the less serious delinquent-type cases—were chronically truant. I think the city has a responsibility to pay attention to that issue all of the time and keep those kids in schools. …There are no throw-away people in our society. We are not going to be satisfied until all of our schools have graduation rates in the 90th percentile.”

Other featured speakers at the briefing included Elliot Washor, codirector of the Big Picture Company, an organization that began with the design of The Met, a high school in Rhode Island, and has continued to create radically different schools across the country though the Alternative High School Initiative (AHSI). As one of the most recent cities selected to join the initiative, Nashville will partner with AHSI to reduce dropout rates and improve students’ educational outcomes. Part of that work will include helping the city establish several innovation-model high schools, with new schools debuting as soon as the 2009–2010 school year.

Washor talked about his experiences in different alternative schools around the country and on the importance of longitudinal studies that follow students through high school and into college. He explained that the Big Picture Company schools not only measure students’ success in college, but school staff also get involved with students and continued to stay in contact with them through college—a vital support considering that, nationwide, only 10 percent of low-income, minority students graduate from college.

Also on hand was Cliff Johnson, executive director of the National League of Cities (NLC) Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF), which helps to develop the content of AHSI convenings and guide the evolution of the network. Johnson talked about the dropout crisis underway in cities throughout the nation and the important role that mayors can play in helping to reduce dropout rates. Audrey Hutchinson, program director at the National League of Cities, discussed what it meant to be an alternative high school and shared the findings fromSetting the Stage for New High Schools: Municipal Leadership in Supporting High School Alternatives, a November 2007 report by the YEF Institute. The report examines how mayors and other municipal leaders in seven cities across the country (Atlanta, GA; Boston, MA; Corpus Christi, TX; Hartford, CT; Phoenix, AZ; San Jose, CA; and Seattle, WA) are expanding alternatives for students who struggle in traditional high school settings.

Setting the Stage for New High Schools: Municipal Leadership in Supporting High School Alternatives is available at

More information on the Capitol Hill event, including complete audio and video coverage, is available at

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