Alexandria’s schools chief aims to raise the city’s low graduation rate by offering struggling students a new education experience that is self-paced, flexible and largely online.

But Superintendent Morton Sherman’s plan involves revamping adult education, and that has ignited a firestorm of resistance. Critics worry that the new focus on young adults will shrivel services for older GED seekers, many of whom are African American, and for immigrants learning English.

“We’re definitely for the expansion of programs that will get more students of color engaged so they can finish and graduate with a diploma and be able to advance their careers,” said John Chapman, president of the local NAACP branch. “But we don’t want it to be on the back of another program that’s going to be equally supportive of older individuals.”

In 2010, poor test scores among some students at the city’s lone public high school, T.C. Williams, earned it a “persistently lowest-achieving” designation from the federal Department of Education. Since then, officials have redoubled efforts to lift student performance.

But large achievement gaps remain in Alexandria’s system, which has 12,400 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. More than 90 percent of white and Asian students graduated on time in 2011 — a rate that exceeds the statewide average for all students.

But 79 percent of black students graduate on time. The rate for Latinos is even lower; two-thirds earn a diploma within four years. Of Virginia’s 132 school systems, 19 have a lower overall graduation rate.

“The statistics are jarring, and have been jarring for 40 years or more,” Sherman told the city’s school board Dec. 15. “We need to change what we do as a school district in order to support those students.”

He wants to recapture students who have drifted away from T.C. Williams and offer them a chance to earn a diploma in a new setting.

His plan calls for four satellite campuses spread around the city. They would be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and students juggling other obligations — such as work or child care — could drop in at their convenience.

The option would be restricted to students ages 15 to 22. Courses would be delivered via computer by a subsidiary of K12 Inc., a Herndon-based company that operates virtual schools nationwide. Certified Alexandria teachers would be on hand to offer instruction and motivation.

Elsewhere in Virginia, Hampton and Richmond have adopted a similar model to serve kids at risk of dropping out. From Georgia to Washington state, more and more schools are using a blend of online and classroom learning to teach hard-to-reach kids, said Susan Patrick of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, an industry trade group.

But to make way for the satellite centers, Sherman has proposed several changes to existing programs for older students.

School systems are required under state law to provide basic-skills courses for adults without a high school diploma. Alexandria has offered such classes since 1969. Last year, according to a consultant’s report, the system spent about $1.3 million to serve about 1,200 students in myriad adult-ed classes.

Sherman said the changes wouldn’t save money. But they would free up space in a Quaker Lane building for a satellite campus. Suspended and expelled students already take classes in that building, and they would be prime candidates for the alternative learning model, according to school officials.

The Quaker Lane building is where adults now take courses to prepare for General Educational Development tests, which, if passed, serve as an alternative to a high school diploma. Under Sherman’s plan, the courses would be delivered online and via cable television.

Courses for English-language learners — now held during the day at the Quaker Lane facility and at night at two schools — would continue to be led by teachers but would be spread among six “family and community engagement” centers in schools and other public buildings.

The plans don’t sit well with some students, nor with their teachers and activists, who accuse the school system of attempting to cripple or outright eliminate programs for older adults.

Those fears were fueled in late November by the school system’s unexplained decision to stop allowing students to register for spring English courses. Registration was reopened after activists held a letter-writing campaign in support of the program. Suspicion lingers.

Activist Jo Anne Barnhart accused Sherman of trying to ram through changes unilaterally, “using his enhanced services for 15- to 22-year-olds to cloud the issue of the absolute dismantling of services for young adults.”

Students, teachers and volunteers have packed public meetings on the issue in recent weeks and written countless letters to elected officials.

“I like the way we are right now,” said Oliva Yajaira, 31, an immigrant from Honduras and an English-language student. She works at Target and said she is able to speak with co-workers because of Alexandria’s program. “Why do we need to change?” she asked.

Sherman and school board members said they will refine the plan in coming months.

The superintendent said he plans to hold funding steady next school year for programs serving older adults, with details to come when he presents his 2013 budget proposal Jan. 19.

But there needs to be a recognition, he argues, that the school system’s core mission is not to help older people get GEDs; it’s to help young people get the skills they need to earn a diploma and navigate life beyond high school. In the future, he said, he hopes that city government and other partners might step forward to help foot the bill for adult education.

“Is this entirely a school system responsibility to deal with our adult learners?” he said. “Ultimately, that’s going to be a big question for Alexandria.”


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