Hannah Sanders said suspensions were an every-week thing for her when she was at Kearny High School.
As a freshman, Sanders’ mom left an abusive relationship with her dad, but that meant home was a hotel – a secret her mom warned Sanders to keep from the principal and teachers. Sanders kept quiet. She didn’t trust her teachers or principal, anyway.
She internalized problems. She stopped doing school work, started arguing with teachers and missing school.
“I had a problem with authority,” she said. “I just felt like I was being misunderstood. Teachers knew who I was and they expected me to be bad. So I gave them what they expected. I was building relationships in the worst way.”
By her junior year, transcripts show, Sanders had failed 14 classes and was a year behind in the work she needed to graduate. To avoid the embarrassment of watching her peers graduate and sail on to college while she stayed behind in high school, she left school.
At a friend’s suggestion, Sanders wound up at Diego Hills, a charter school in Rolando Park that offers credit-recovery courses and an independent study program, which allows students to work at their own pace.
There, Sanders met other students who’d fled or been kicked out of traditional high schools: teen moms, foster kids, transgender students, teenagers whose parents have been deported or students for whom a typical high school schedule simply doesn’t work.
Some, like Sanders, say they left traditional high schools by their own accord after they fell too far behind in credits. Others say they landed at Diego Hills after being expelled for breaking the rules. By her own admission, Sanders would have dropped out had it not been for a program like Diego Hills.
Sanders is part of a trend: students who fall through the cracks of the public education system and land at charter schools that offer online courses and flexible independent study programs.
“You’re seeing that the majority of school districts are graduating 79, 82 percent of their kids. But what’s happening to those other kids and why aren’t they graduating? You’re seeing it right here. These are the circumstances. This is why,” said Ann Abajian, the school’s public relations director.
Data provided by six San Diego charter schools – all of which offer credit-recovery classes and an independent study program – shows that between 2014 and 2016, at least 931 students left San Diego Unified high schools after the start of their freshman year, en route to Diego Hills or a school with a similar model.
At least 584 of those students – or 63 percent – were more than a year behind at the time they transferred.
It’s a relationship that benefits both charter schools and San Diego Unified. The school districts get to shed their lowest-performing students  – making it easier to maintain a graduation rate above 90 percent – and charter schools benefit from the influx of new students and the state funding that follows them.
But all that may change soon.
San Diego Unified, along with Grossmont Union, are suing to shut down Diego Hills and its sister school, Diego Valley – the same schools that have helped San Diego Unified maintain a high graduation rate.
The school districts say Diego Hills and Diego Valley are illegally operating within their boundaries. And recent action  by the California Supreme Court seems to support the districts’ arguments.
Meanwhile, San Diego Unified is expanding independent study programs and credit-recovery options, hoping to capitalize on the growing market for non-traditional education options and hold onto the students who would otherwise leave for schools like Diego Hills.
Law and Order in the ‘Wild West’
Visit Diego Hills on any weekday and you’re likely to see dozens of students working in small groups with teachers. Others work silently on computers, hustling to complete the credits they missed at traditional public schools.
Diego Hills offers an independent study program and online courses, which students can complete at home or wherever they find Wi-Fi. Students have to physically attend school at least once a week. After they enroll, each student receives an individualized plan for which courses they need to graduate.
Lindsay Reese, Diego Hill’s principal, doesn’t think the school’s structure would work well for all kids. But she believes it works exceptionally well for some.
“For a lot of our students, a regular school just isn’t a fit. We just want to be another option. School shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. I believe in mainstream schools for the vast majority of students. But there is a small set of them who benefit from the one-on-one attention and love and support and flexible structure that we have here,” said Reese.
Diego Hills first opened in 2009 with about 100 students. In its first years, it operated out of a karate dojo. But by 2011 it outgrew the dojo and moved into a strip mall in Rolando Park, much like the other charter schools that operate with a similar model.
Across San Diego County, the growth of similar charter schools has been explosive. In 2008, there were 15 schools in the county with a model like Diego Hills, enrolling 11,200 students. By 2016, that grew to 43 schools serving 25,500 students.
“It’s been described as the Wild West out there,” one official from Grossmont told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2015 .
The rapid growth put Diego Hills, and similar charter schools, on the radar of neighboring school districts. Those who want to preserve the traditional school district structure say charter schools destabilize school districts by siphoning off students and state funding.
While that argument has been a feature of the debate, the focus of litigation comes down to a narrow legal question  about where charter schools like Diego Hills can open satellite campuses – places where students can get help, meet with teachers or find access to resources.
State law says that in order for a charter school to open, it must create a plan, known as a charter petition, and get approval from the school district in whose boundaries it wants to open.
But until recently, there was nothing in the law that clarified whether charter schools had to abide by the same rules when they opened satellite campuses. So, charter schools opened satellite campuses in neighboring school districts. And in turn, the school districts sued them, along with the school districts that approved their charter petitions.
Grossmont Union High School District and San Diego Unified are suing Diego Valley, Diego Hills’ sister school, and Julian Union Elementary School District, which approved Diego Valley’s petition.
Diego Hills, whose petition was approved by Dehesa School District, will be impacted by the outcome of the suit.
Elsewhere, Sweetwater Union High School District is suing Diego Valley, Julian and Diego Plus Education Corporation, the nonprofit under whose umbrella Diego Valley and Diego Hills fall.
Sarah Sutherland, whose law firm represents the school district suing to shut down charters, says that Diego Hills and Diego Valley are operating illegally in districts that didn’t give them permission to be there.
The fact that the charter schools were approved by two school districts in East County – far from where the schools operate – means the school districts can’t ensure the charter schools are meeting students’ needs, Sutherland said.
And because those East County school districts get some revenue in oversight fees from the charter schools they approved, Sutherland said the arrangement boils down to a money grab.
“The Charter Schools Act was not meant to be a money-generating scheme for small school districts,” Sutherland said.
While the local cases against Diego Hills and Diego Valley are pending, a court decision made last year will come into play. The appellate court ruled in October that charter schools can open satellite campuses in neighboring counties, but not neighboring school districts. In January , the California Supreme Court declined to review the case, letting the lower court’s decision stand.
The charter schools have been given about a year to comply with the law. To do so, they can seek a waiver from the State Board of Education, which will allow them to keep operating for a short period of time, work out an arrangement with the school districts in whose boundaries they operate or shut down.
Impact on Graduation Rates
A recent sweeping investigation  by Pro Publica painted a grim picture of charter schools in Florida that offer an alternative education model like Diego Hills. The story included descriptions of students sitting alone at computers, unattended, for hours on end.
Students at those charter schools were castaways who didn’t fit in the traditional high school model. The traditional high schools openly encouraged low-performing students to leave for the charter schools, according to the story. And in turn, they boosted graduation rates by shedding the students who were least likely to graduate.
The story parallels the local scene in some important ways.
San Diego Unified, too, has benefited from a system that allows it to unload its lowest-performing students. In May, the district announced it was on track to earn its highest graduation rate ever – 92 percent. And it did so under graduation standards that had been made more rigorous for the first time last year.
District officials trumpeted last year’s accomplishment and hoped it would quiet the naysayers who warned early on that raising graduation standards would either result in plummeting graduation rates or a watered-down curriculum.
But what that 92 percent graduation rate does not reflect are the thousands of students who left traditional San Diego high schools after the start of their freshman year . Students could avoid required college prep courses and earn a diploma simply by transferring to charter schools, which create their own graduation requirements.
And if, after they transfer, those students drop out or stop going to Diego Hills – and many do, which is less surprising given the population of students Diego Hills serves often come in years behind in credits – the dropouts are reflected in the charter school’s numbers, not San Diego Unified’s.
In October, VOSD submitted a public records request for detailed data that reflects where students went once they transferred, and their academic standing at the time of departure. We’re still waiting for the data.
But six local charter schools did provide data, all of them ones that offer credit-recovery courses and independent study programs. They include: Charter School of San Diego, Audeo, Laurel Prep, Ingenuity, Diego Hills and Diego Valley.
According to the data, roughly 931 students left a traditional San Diego Unified high school after the start of their freshman year, en route to one of those six charters.
Of those 931 students who left, 584 of them – roughly 63 percent – were one or more semesters behind on the credits they needed to graduate high school.
The 584 students who transferred to charter schools only represent a fraction of the 6,428 total students in San Diego Unified’s class of 2016. Still, had they dropped out or failed to graduate, it would have had a notable impact on the overall graduation rate – dropping it from 92 to 83 percent.
That data does not reflect all class of 2016 students who transferred to charter schools. More than 50 charter schools operate within San Diego Unified’s boundaries, and there are dozens more in nearby school districts.
Gaming the System Is Old News
Information technology has given rise to a new brand of charter schools, and charter schools have provided school districts a new way to mask real graduation rates.
But for years, alternative education models have given California school district an avenue to weed out low-performing students.
San Diego Unified offers a variety of programs for students who don’t fit within the traditional high school structure. Continuation schools like Twain and Garfield are both geared toward students who struggle. ALBA, in North Park, is a place for students who have been expelled from traditional schools and offer additional support for students’ behavioral or mental health needs.
But a 2005 report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office  raised concerns that alternative schools gave traditional high school an incentive to push struggling kids out and rid themselves of problem students:
“When low achieving students leave, for instance, average school test scores increase. This gives the appearance that the school is improving, and it allows the school to focus on the education needs of the more motivated students that remain. In addition, when students marked as ‘problems’ or ‘trouble makers’ drop out, they relieve educators of administrative headaches. As a result, inattention to the needs of these types of students can actually make schools appear more successful,” according to the report.
In many ways, the educational model students find at Diego Hills isn’t so different from the alternative schools that already exist within San Diego Unified.
At Diego Hills, students receive a personalized education plan and individual attention from teachers. The environment is much smaller than a traditional high school. The online courses students can take count for admission to the University of California – same as they would if they aced those classes at a traditional high school. Students also have access to credit-recovery courses , which are generally paired-down versions of the courses students need to complete for graduation.
There is, however, one major difference between the models: If students attend alternative schools within the district, that money attached to students stays with San Diego Unified. If they leave for a charter, so does the money.
Will They Come Back?
If San Diego Unified has reason to believe charter schools like Diego Hills are offering students a subpar education, they haven’t raised the argument. In fact, San Diego Unified is taking steps to grow similar programs to meet the rising demand.
In 2015, the district paid a company called Edgenuity $800,000 to develop online courses aligned with entrance requirements to the University of California. The following year the district re-upped the contract, for a total of $1.28 million.
Last school year, 1,381 seniors – more than 20 percent of San Diego Unified’s class of 2016 – took an online version of a course required for graduation. About 92 percent of them passed.
Online courses allowed students to double up credits so they could make up work they missed in previous years. And to catch more students before they fall through the cracks, the district is building innovation labs at four high schools – starting with high schools with high numbers of credit-deficient students – so they can “offer point-of need service at the high schools so that students stay in their neighborhood schools,” according to one district document .
The district spent about $472,000 on innovation labs at Morse and Crawford, and plans to spend about the same for innovation labs at Lincoln and Hoover high schools, according to district spokesperson Shari Winet.
The district is betting that if it expands its online programs, fewer students will leave for charter schools that offer flexible schedules and online courses. But that’s a gamble the district could lose.
Many of the students who transferred to Diego Hills were not on track to graduate. But school officials say an even larger share are the students who were expelled or experienced ongoing behavioral problems.
Students like Genesees Romero, who said she was forced to leave Patrick Henry for frequent behavioral issues.
“They told my mom it wasn’t working having me at Patrick Henry. Then they gave her the name of this school,” she said.
She said she’d never go back to Henry.
Neither would Makaila Tavares, whose mother died when she was a freshman at Crawford High. Tavares felt lost at Crawford and struggled to process her mom’s death. When she turned to a teacher for support, she said he mocked her. To Tavares, it was just one more school staff member who didn’t have time for her.
“If you were to ask my father, he’d say ‘I sent them a student who loved to learn, and they sent me a student who hated school,” Tavares said.
Sanders, who left Kearny when she was 16, said she may have considered staying at Kearny had it offered a more flexible program and more resources that could have helped when she and her mother became homeless.
But for Sanders, who’s now graduated high school and in her first year of school at Mesa College, the move came down seeking a new start.
“I don’t think I’d have gone back to Kearny. I didn’t like any of the teachers. I didn’t like any of the people there. I just wanted a fresh start where I didn’t have to prove myself over and over and over again, where I didn’t have this dark cloud hanging over the image of who Hannah was, or what Hannah used to be like,” Sanders said.