Altus Institute: An Innovative SoCal Alternative

A few weeks ago I highlighted the warming EdTech scene in Los Angeles and the upcoming Startup Weekend EDU 1/24.  We also highlighted all the cool blended school models in Los Angeles. But I failed to cover the much needed, innovative, but varied alternative education space in Southern California.  Several posts will rectify the omission beginning with a review of Altus Institute.
I met Mary Searcy Bixby in the fall of 1999 in a converted retail space in an outdoor shopping mall in San Diego (the same day I visited Larry Rosenstock in a vacant warehouse that become High Tech High). When I was a public school superintendent, my team had created an alternative school in a mall so I immediately liked the idea.  As founder of  The Charter School of San Diego, Mary had created (what I’m pretty sure was) the first flex school network as an “independent study” charter school launching in 1994.  Five years later, Mary had 19 locations including converted retail and commercial real estate locations serving over 2,000 students. Students attended in two shifts, studied online and print instructional materials, and progressed at their own pace.
When I saw Mary at the 2013 iNACOL Blended and Online Learning Symposium she mentioned that they had expanded into the Los Angeles area adding about 1000 students in three charters.  She recently sent me the following update (edited for brevity).
—Altus Update—
Altus Institute is the parent corporation to a network of charter schools that includes The Charter School of San Diego (est. 1994), Audeo Charter School (est. 2001), Mirus Secondary School (est. 2007), and Laurel Preparatory Academy (est. 2013). Altus Schools strive to help students achieve by creating alternative educational options that put students’ needs first and to deeply reduce dropout rates.
Students become disengaged from school for a variety of reasons. Some students lack basic skills, while others respond poorly to large settings frequently present in public schools. Others do not feel safe due to verbal or physical violence, and for some drug use, teenage pregnancy, and gang affiliations are factors. Students may also be extremely mobile, function as primary caretakers, or are dealing with a dysfunctional home life. For many in this student population, school has become a low priority. In 1994, the first Altus School was established as an intervention for disengaged students. The basic function of the Altus Network of Charter Schools is to re-engage students by helping them acquire basic learning skills through tutorials and small group learning. Altus teachers employ an ever-expanding arsenal of tactics and methods to re-engage students in learning. Upon enrollment, each student’s current academic skill level is assessed. Altus’ highly qualified teachers translate this information into a Pathways Personalized Education Plan (PPEP) that outlines individualized instruction for each student. Every plan utilizes curriculum that inspires creativity and student engagement. Equally important in the process is the teacher’s ability to act as an advocate for the student by connecting families with community resources that help meet student needs and by creating opportunities for comfortable and welcoming interaction between the parent, student, and teacher.
Since Altus Schools’ student population enrolls with a variety of physical and health needs that impact student achievement, significant attention is paid to developing community partnerships that can offer appropriate services to Altus students and families. Teachers and counselors also make frequent home visits to ensure students are making progress.
Engaging curriculum and innovative modes of instructional delivery are critical to student engagement and learning. During the 2012-2013 academic year, the Altus Organization created the Altus Pathways Advisory Council (APAC). APAC is the synergistic body whose meetings are where curriculum meets instruction informed by dynamic data points. The alignment of curriculum and instruction is designed to meet the needs of our college and career ready 21st Century students.
Using this innovative schema, the various departments collaborate as one unit, allowing the APAC chairs to view a “pathway” in a multidisciplinary approach. The core curriculum, electives, benchmark data and post-high school departments interface and create a series of courses that give the students an in-depth perspective of their chosen pathway through the lens of different course work or disciplines. All of the students are assigned University of California approved courses; however, depending on their post-high school pathway, the students will receive pathways specific instruction in their chosen field of study. The Pathways Personalized Educational Plan is unique to them. Furthermore, this collaborative requires the APAC chairs to link the concepts to instructional methods and/or strategies that inspire critical thinking in a variety of ways on many levels.
Altus Schools are some of the most successful schools qualifying under the Alternative Schools Accountability Model (ASAM) in the state of California. Out of the 846 schools in the state, Audeo currently has the 16th highest API score, and The Charter School of San Diego is ranked 23rd. In 2013 Audeo exceeded the state API growth target of 6 points with an increase of 20 points. In additional, Audeo met 12 out of 12 criteria for AYP in 2012. In each of the last three years, over 80 percent of Altus graduating seniors was accepted into a community college or a four-year university. Prior to qualifying for ASAM status with the California Department of Education in 2010, Audeo’s similar school rankings were 9 in 2007, 9 in 2008, and 10 in 2009.
Over the past five years, Altus Schools’ participation rate has increased by more than 20%, and in 2013, Audeo’s 10th grade CAHSEE results demonstrated that 78% of all Math testers and 89% of English testers passed on their first attempt, exceeding SDUSD rates.
Additionally, by successfully re-engaging students in their education, Altus Schools have positively impacted San Diego Unified School District’s (SDUSD) graduation and dropout rates. Data collected from 2009 through 2012 shows that without Altus SDUSD’s graduation rate could decrease by as much as 7.0 percentage points (from 84.8% to 77.7%), and SDUSD’s dropout rate could increase by as much as 7.7 points (from 7.0% to 14.7%)
Since 1994, Altus schools have positively impacted the lives of 33,000 of these severely at risk students, their families, and the communities in which they live. Last year alone Altus Schools served more than 5,000 students in grades 6 through 12. Altus currently operates 37 locations in 5 Southern California counties that are staffed by 275 employees.
Students who enroll in an Altus School are searching for a school option that allows them the freedom to accelerate, the focus to catch up, or the support to finish. Altus students can:

  • Benefit from online courses and take one course at a time;
  • Learn in a small group setting and receive personalized lessons;
  • Learn in a safe environment with a flexible schedule;
  • Enroll year-round to more rapidly earn a high school diploma; and
  • Utilize Naviance for individualized college and career planning

Altus charters have all be unanimously renewed. Students are taught by specially trained teachers in a safe, comfortable, and welcoming learning environment. Projects, advanced technology; professional, vocational and military pathways options, and tutorial support and work experience programs allow Altus teachers to maximize student engagement.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Dr. Rob Garcia

Tom, AMAZING article. We know some of the same people. Thanks for writing this. Im an educational consultant that loves learning about alternative programs.

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