LOST HILLS – On a blistering May day in the Central Valley, most other 13-year-olds were in school. But Erick Araujo was under orders from his mother to stay inside with a U.S. history textbook.
The seventh-grader actually didn't have much to do. Over four days, his only task was to read three chapters and answer, briefly, a few questions per chapter.
"Pretty easy," the boy with braces shrugged, leafing through pages.
He had no math. No English. No science. No other books to engage his love of history.
This could be Erick's schooling until he's halfway through eighth grade in early 2014.
That's because in February, Erick was expelled for a year from Lost Hills' A.M. Thomas Middle School and told to enroll at a community school for kids with discipline problems that is run by Kern County.
That school is 38 miles away – so far away that staff there suggested Erick's mom put him on independent study at home. She would only drive him to the North Kern Community School in Delano on Mondays, so he could comply with the county's required minimum of 4½ hours a week with a teacher.
For Erick's farmworker mom, Nereida Vasquez, this seems a strange way for her son to fulfill his "rehabilitation plan." She feels educators have cast Erick adrift.
"He's already told me that he should just drop out and go to work in the fields," Vasquez said.
Youth advocates say Erick's situation typifies a troubling pattern of authorities removing students from regular school and dispatching them to alternative campuses, where plans sometimes seem disturbingly casual – including long stretches of stay-at-home independent study.
Across America, alternative schools have become the proverbial safety net for troubled students when all else fails.
Some education experts, however, say it's become too easy for educators to dump kids there who might benefit more from more nurturing and tutoring at home schools.
California's Department of Education doesn't track students like Erick after – and if – they return to home schools, so it's hard to measure how they fare. Nor does the state require that county-run schools report how many students are put on independent study programs.
But the state does provide one rough estimate suggesting room for improvement.
During the 2011-2012 school year, more than one-third of students at more than 75 county-run schools statewide dropped out. These schools serve about 43,000 pupils a year. Most have done poorly in core subjects.
That's why advocates are confounded by plans that put the onus on many of these same kids to self-educate, sometimes with only a few hours of class time a week.
"You take a kid who has already demonstrated that he's not being successful in conventional school, and then you impose on him the duty that he's going to self-study, to me that just seems insane," said Tim McKinley, a former FBI agent who is now a Delano-based attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance.
In California, expelled students must still be offered a public education. Kids sent to county-run schools can self-study – with parents' consent.
Erick's self-study regimen began after his expulsion for having a knife in his backpack.
Erick said he put the knife in his bag because a carload of older boys followed him and scared him into thinking he might need to protect himself. A principal found the knife when she searched the bag because it had provocative words written on it.
The law only requires that schools recommend expulsion if a student actually "brandishes" a knife. But educators said their decision was based on safety concerns and Erick's prior alleged misbehavior, including talking in class and one fight Erick said he had with a cousin who pushed him at a water fountain.
There's no bus to get Erick to Delano. Neither the Lost Hills school nor the county say they have to help. So Vasquez consented to independent study.
Erick's routine may not be unusual.
Kern's nine community sites enrolled about 4,460 students last year who had been expelled, were truants or who had been "involuntarily transferred." Two-thirds – more than 3,000 – were put on independent study, administrators said.
Administrators said some parents chose self-study because travel was a problem. Other parents agreed with teachers that it was better to put children on independent study rather than in a daily class with kids with whom they didn't get along. Some kids were put on self-study until behavior problems were resolved and they could join a class, administrators also said.
Parents are encouraged to bring kids to a school for more than one day a week, administrators added. They said students must be given material to do at home that matches the curriculum options used at regular schools. The aim is to try to give kids assignments and enough credits to advance to the next grade.
But Russell Rumberger, director of the University of California at Santa Barbara's California Dropout Research Project, said kids like Erick "need more class time and more time with teachers, not less."
Byron Fairchild, an Orange County alternative education official and executive board member of the California Consortium for Independent Study, said self-study can be right for students who are "problematic" in traditional classes. Half his system's 8,500 students last year did self-study.
Counties have a lot of freedom, he conceded, to set expectations. But the state requires students receive material "substantially equivalent in quality and quantity to classroom instruction." Audits must certify self-study agreements are on file – or schools risk penalties for violating attendance-based funding rules.
Paul Warren, author of a 2007 research report for the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, said such audits are "mechanical," aimed at catching financial cheating rather than negligent teaching.
In Kern, Carlos Rojas, director of alternative education, said he's confident their programs prepare kids for successful return to home schools.
"Do I have the data that proves that we do that? Well, no. No hard data," he said.
That's not much consolation for Laura Martinez, whose son Juan, 15, was expelled in January from Kern's Arvin High School for a year for an alleged fight.
Juan was sent to a county school in Bakersfield 20 miles away, so he was also put on independent study. To drive Juan to see his teacher, his dad missed work, without pay, one day a week.
Kern High School District assistant superintendent of instruction Michael Zulfa said, in an email, that when students are expelled "logistical considerations" do enter into plans for educating them.
In response to such stories, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, has authored Senate Bill 744, which has passed the Senate and is now before the Assembly.
Although it would not apply to expelled students, one provision would prohibit placing truant or "involuntarily transferred" pupils in alternatives unless home districts cover extra travel costs. The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.