Washington’s Alternative Learning Programs Accelerate Learning Recovery for Students

Two female high school students sit in lawn chairs outside, working on laptops.

The first time Kelso School District students meet with their Graduation Success Coach, it’s unlikely that they’ll talk about academics.

Instead, Jesse Spellmeyer focuses on getting to know the students and understanding their challenges.

“Jesse has a great ability to relate with students,” said Cindy Sholtys-Cromwell, Principal of Loowit High School and Kelso Virtual Academy (KVA). “He’s able to have the time to connect with kids and find out what their needs are. … He’s a great listener, too.”

The Kelso School District created the position of Graduation Success Coach with support from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) invested a portion of the agency’s ESSER funds via Accelerating Unfinished Learning grants to school districts that operate Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) programs.

There are hundreds of schools offering ALE courses in Washington, and just as many ways to offer those courses. Formats of ALE courses can include online programming, where students attend class mostly online; site-based options, in which students attend class in person at a designated location; and remote options, which allow students to engage in projects away from the traditional school setting. Courses may serve individual students or multiple students, and can be designed to encourage high levels of partnership between the school and a student’s family. School districts have the flexibility to create ALE courses that best respond to the needs of their students.

The Accelerating Unfinished Learning grants make use of the ALE program structures already in place, and provide funding to those programs to serve students who have gaps in their learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding supports the efforts of school districts to identify students who have learning gaps and then design and implement a learning recovery program.

Sholtys-Cromwell became Principal of Loowit High School and KVA two years ago, at the height of the pandemic, and oversaw their expansion. In that time, KVA went from serving only approximately a dozen high school students to serving more than 1,000 students across grades K–12.

These ALE programs have long met the needs of students who would benefit from non-traditional schedules — for example, students who have jobs or responsibilities to care for younger siblings. In the wake of the pandemic, the programs also became appealing to families hesitant to return to in-person learning. Even so, Sholtys-Cromwell said all students struggled during the pandemic. When thinking about how to reengage students, Sholtys-Cromwell focused on the goal of graduation.

“We needed somebody else to reach out to students, to reach out to families, who would do not only some social work, but be a cheerleader that understood credits, and graduation, and the educational system,” Sholtys-Cromwell said.

Spellmeyer, who has a background in sports coaching, hit the ground running as soon as he started his position as Graduation Success Coach in January.

He “immediately started building those connections with some of our students that other staff members hadn’t been able to reach, which felt awesome,” Spellmeyer said.

Those connections are catered to each individual student. If a student doesn’t have access to internet, Spellmeyer said he’ll print out their homework for them and drop it off. If a student needs someone to check in with them regularly, Spellmeyer calls them every day. And if Spellmeyer can’t reach a student, he calls the adults in their life.

With a son of his own enrolled with KVA, Spellmeyer is especially motivated to be a cheerleader for students.

“So many of our kids don’t think they’re going to get there,” he said. “We even have eighth graders already getting ready for high school who [think], ‘Well, I’m never going to graduate.’ … You can do it, you are going to do it, we’re here with you the whole way.”

So far, Spellmeyer’s work is paying off. Of the 28 high school seniors enrolled with KVA during the third trimester of the 2021–22 school year, all of them graduated.

Even while celebrating that success, Spellmeyer is focusing on how he can improve in the coming school year. One new tactic he’ll be implementing will be expanding his services to include students in all grades, even kindergarten.

“I get to work with a whole range of students,” Spellmeyer said. “I love the variety of tasks I’m getting to do and the relationships I get to build across the spectrum.”

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The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Led by Supt. Chris Reykdal, OSPI is the primary agency charged with overseeing K–12 education in Washington state.