Which of these are more likely to happen:

              • Mitch McConnell donning his best tux for the private screening of Ashley Judd’s new movie;
              • John Calapari sporting his new gear celebrating the Cards’ smashing NCAA championship run; or
              • Senior officials from the Kentucky Department of Education and the Jefferson County Schools agreeing with Kentucky Youth Advocates on alternative programs?

Until a couple of weeks ago, I actually thought the first two scenarios were more likely!

On April 16, 2013, I had the opportunity to participate on a WFPL special on alternative programs in Kentucky hosted by the stellar journalist, Devin Katayama.  Frankly, I was expecting serious disagreements.  I had yet to be in a forum around the topic in which the K-12 establishment didn’t rationalize or deflect the shortcomings of the alternative education programs in this state and in the Louisville community specifically.  But on that WFPL broadcast, consensus reigned.

AMEN!  Hallelujah!  A miracle in a radio studio?

The most significant aspects of that one hour radio show were that the education officials:

  1. Agreed that there is a lack of quality assurance in Louisville alternative programs.  As an example, the principal on the program – Iman Tallat – runs Liberty High School, an exemplar of alternative programming.  Less than two miles away sits an alternative program in the same school system where kids – putting it kindly – are not receiving a quality education.  And that unlevel playing field is even more pervasive on a statewide basis.  On the show, the Kentucky Department of Education and Jefferson County Public Schools officials refreshingly acknowledged the need to put metrics in place to ensure that every alternative program student receives a quality experience. This is a crucial and hopeful move ahead.
  2. Agreed that alternative programs are marked by troubling demographic concentrations.  What does that mean?  It means that we cannot tolerate patterns where African American males on free/reduced lunches with special education plans are over-represented in alternative programs.  That is a particular issue for urban school districts and we need to be vigilant in looking at similar patterns of disproportionality in alternative programs across the Commonwealth.  Again, the school officials acknowledging that this is a problem is a major step forward.
  3. Agreed that alternative programs need a better oversight structure,  more fiscal supports; and, noncognitive supports such as access to health services to provide holistically for alternative students.  In other words, these education officials agreed with our long-held position that alternative education needs strengthened and cannot be fixed through piecemeal solutions.  Instead, we need a broad and systemic restructuring.

So now what?  If Kentucky Youth Advocates, leadership from the K-12 establishment and an array of other kid champions agree that the system needs improvement, what are the solutions?  The good news is that there is a wide-ranging and pragmatic set of steps that can be taken to add quality to every alternative program that may include:

  • A comprehensive audit of current allocations for alternative programs by the State Auditor to ensure that allocated dollars are getting to their intended place;
  • Schools of Education stepping up and creating uniquely tailored graduate programs for educators whose passion is around serving these most vulnerable of youth;
  • Inventing a governance structure with the authority to ensure quality learning in all alternative programs;
  • Working toward alternative kids’ right to participate in sanctioned extra-curricular activities to which they are now denied access;
  • Continuing the movement to strengthen accountability to measure what alternative program students are actually learning;
  • Strengthening community partnerships to bring physical and mental health services as a connection to meeting the core needs that so many alternative program students reflect;
  • And the list can go on and on.  (For more information, check out the essay on alternative programs in the 2012 KIDS COUNT book here.

OK.  I get it.  Mitch is probably going to miss that movie date.  And somehow I don’t ever expect to see Coach Cal in the beautiful red hue of the champions.  But hearing those K-12 officials talk about how they are working to improve alternative programs shows real hope for Kentucky kids.

You can listen to the recording of the program here.