Alternative school sidestepped by bonus program

SANDPOINT — While most local teachers are receiving bonuses as one of the last vestiges of the Students Come First reforms, that’s not the case at the alternative high school.

Lake Pend Oreille High School is the only school in the district where teachers won’t  bonus.

Teacher Steve Johnson said the disparity of bonus program seems to punish teachers who dedicate themselves to at-risk students and economically troubled regions.

“It’s kind of demoralizing when you feel like you’ve worked your heart out and you get overlooked,” Johnson said.

The problem is common one around the state. With Idaho’s new five-star system in place, the majority of one-star-rated schools, like LPOHS, are either alternative schools or schools that serve students with special needs. Under the system, one- and two-star schools are defined as “schools in which the state has identified areas of improvement” and must develop improvement plans in cooperation with the State Department of Education.

Several factors play into schools like LPOHS not performing well on state standards, according to Principal Rick Dalessio.

For one thing, the school has a higher rate of drop-outs than other schools. With many students trying to manage kids or difficult home situations, some grow frustrated with balancing school on top of that.

“Our drop-out rate is ridiculous because we’re taking in drop-outs,” Dalessio said.

That factor also comes into play with the reform package’s reward for access to dual enrollment and advanced placement courses — classes that are at least initially out of the skill range of most at-risk students. According to LPOSD Superintendent Shawn Woodward, schools of that size usually can’t dedicate the resources to implementing those opportunities anyway.

Finally, standardized test score averages will inevitably be lower for students in an alternative school. While the rating system and bonus pay qualifiers tried to address those concerns by rewarding both standardized testing achievement and growth in scores from year to year, Johnson said this still didn’t account for the situation of alternative schools. That’s because they’re always bringing in new students who need special attention, which has a tendency to limit testing growth.

“We have a high number of kids who come in with low skills,” Johnson said. “We raise those skills considerably during their first year, but the initial skills are fairly low.”

According to Woodward, the state’s approach to alternative schools would likely have received tweaking when determining bonus pay in future years.

“It was my understanding that if the referendum would have passed, the state was going to take a look at alternative schools next year,” he said.

Now that voters have struck down the reforms, however, there’s no telling what form those changes would have taken. As for the state dollars allocated to the bonus fund, it’s also unclear where they will end up in the coming fiscal year.

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