Traditional school didn't work for Ben Aldridge.
"I was bored and lazy. And I never had a good work ethic," said Ben, 18, of San Jose, explaining how he fell far behind in class credits.
Yet today Ben, a senior in one of the San Jose Unified School District's alternative education programs, is back on track to receive his diploma — on time. Although he attends a continuation school, he plays varsity basketball at Pioneer High, the traditional school he used to attend, and will participate in graduation ceremonies there.
For students in trouble, continuation schools, which tend to be much smaller and to offer more individualized attention, can be a lifeline. And San Jose has created what many view as the model of alternative education.
The 32,000-student district has placed a small continuation campus at each of its six comprehensive high schools.
Each has 40 students, two teachers and a counselor. Students, typically juniors and seniors who have fallen behind by 30 to 90 credits, spend half of each day at the continuation school, catching up on academics, and the other half taking classes at the "regular" school, a community college or an occupational center.
Linda Ferdig-Riley, principal of most of the district's alternative programs, said she and her staff work closely with faculty at the high schools to identify students who could benefit from the programs.
Each student gets an individualized learning plan, grade reports every three weeks and lots of counseling and help with career planning. Students in the program are not required to complete a college prep curriculum, but officials say the program is nonetheless rigorous.
"We don't save everyone," FerdigRiley said, "but we sure give it a good shot."
The official four-year dropout rate for the urban district, in which 70% of the students are minorities, was 6.2% in 2003-04, according to the state Department of Education. The rate for Los Angeles Unified for that year was 33.1% and the average across the state was 13.1%
Because they offer smaller classes, continuation schools are more expensive. San Jose Supt. Don Iglesias said the district, with direction from a cohesive school board, has had to cut costs in other areas, including administrative salaries, to protect its alternative programs during lean times. The district also uses federal desegregation funds to help pay for the alternative programs.
Los Angeles Unified has 45 continuation schools, which many students say have saved them from dropping out. But demand for the schools far exceeds supply, preventing the kind of active outreach and recruitment that educators say is crucial.
Valarie Rosales, 18, said she needed the kind of attention she gets at Pioneer High's continuation school, Pioneer Plus.
"Teachers here really keep on top of us," said Valarie, who describes herself as "smart but very social." She said she fell behind because she didn't attend school regularly and didn't do homework or study for tests.
Valarie was concerned when school officials first approached her about switching to Pioneer's alternative program, fearing that it would take her out of a social milieu where she was happy.
"That was a big concern," Valarie said. "I didn't want to miss out."
But the program allows students to eat lunch, attend dances and participate in clubs at their old schools, which helped ease Valarie's transition.
Ultimately, both Valarie and Ben improved their grades. Even more important, both say, they regularly went to school.
"I knew that this was my last chance," said Ben, who plans to attend community college this fall.
Times staff writer Nancy Cleeland contributed to this article.