Virtual schools have existed for years, but alternative programs like Bridgescape, where students at risk of dropping out come to brick-and-mortar schools or centers to complete a mostly online curriculum, represent a newer phenomenon.
Nationally, the major for-profit providers include Ombudsman, which runs more than 100 programs in 14 states, including three sites in Chicago; Catapult Academy (a division of the New Jersey–based Catapult Learning), which runs more than 20 alternative high school programs in Georgia and Florida; and AdvancePath, which runs 10 programs in five states. In Chicago, the main providers are Magic Johnson Bridgescape and Ombudsman, both for-profit, and Pathways, a nonprofit. Last school year more than 3,000 young Chicagoans were enrolled in one of these new programs.
The risk for these students is that rather than experiencing school as a social institution, they “end up living in their own heads,” said Chicago-based activist and educator Michael Klonsky, who teaches at DePaul University. “The sense of community has been lost.”
The new programs have transformed the nature of high school education for thousands of the nation’s most vulnerable teenagers, turning it into a far more individual enterprise, one where socialization isn’t even a secondary goal. More high schoolers are graduating, but the experience in Chicago shows that the country is at risk of creating two separate high school tracks: the traditional one, with all of its variety, strengths, and pitfalls; and a new, mostly virtual track for those students too many high schools have given up on—the very students who most need an engaging educational experience to prepare them for jobs and adult life.