It was some eight years ago when Kentucky Youth Advocates’ point person on our case advocacy program brought me information indicating that “something troubling” was happening in alternative programs in Kentucky. The more we probed the “state of the state’s alternative programs,” the more I became convinced we just couldn’t be getting an accurate picture. Were alternative programs really as far behind as they appeared in meeting students’ needs?

It turned out we weren’t exactly right – while there were some strong alternative education programs, many in the state were actually worse than even we expected.

That information prompted Kentucky Youth Advocates to conduct a major research project around alternative programs across the state. The findings were a surprise to many in the education field, but they appropriately raised attention to a too often overlooked group of Kentucky students. After this step, we started a long campaign focused on these students’ right to a quality education. This included multiple hard discussions with stakeholders and partners, lots of research on effective alternative programs across the country, working with partners on legal action, and persistent outreach efforts to legislators and state officials.

And after a lot of hard work, there is good news – the Kentucky Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Kentucky Educational Collaborative for State Agency Children, and the General Assembly are doing a lot of things to improve alternative programs these days. For example, in 2012, Representative Jenkins (D) and Senator Winters (R) championed a bill that strengthened teacher quality in alternative programs. This was a huge step forward.

And as recent as this week, another positive movement came when the Department released standardized test scores on alternative programs.  That may not sound like much until we remember that our early findings showed that dozens of districts didn’t even administer the legally mandated tests to alternative program students. We then progressed to the stage where at least the kids were being tested on a uniform and consistent basis.  And now, for the first time, that data is being shared with districts to use as a tool for improvement and for public review. That is a true example of progress made.

This latest improvement comes on the heels of an increasing commitment by the Department to ensure that alternative programs truly meet the needs of the students. One caveat is that because there are so many alternative education programs with a very small number of students present on testing day, multiple alternative programs’ test scores are suppressed from public view to protect the confidentiality of the small group of students tested. However, school and district administrators have access to all of the data.

We are making progress in ways large and small but there is still a lot to do.  As detailed in our 2012 KIDS COUNT essay on alternative programs, opportunities remain around:

  • More fiscal accountability to ensure per pupil funding follows the kid, even to an alternative program;
  • More independent and transparent oversight of alternative programs serving children in state agency care;
  • Continued emphasis upon quality learning environments in all programs;
  • Increased non-cognitive supports such as health services or counseling at school to this vulnerable population of young people;
  • And, ensuring that a student’s ethnicity, gender, or learning disability does not make him or her more likely to end up in an alternative program.

We have come a long way. Commissioner Holliday and the State Board are to be commended on an authentic commitment for these young people. Here’s to hoping that continued attention will result in continued improvement across the Commonwealth!