Alternative education or alternative schools are not really a new concept to the American scene. As early as colonial America, we saw education in a variety of ways conducted by the wealthy or offered to the general population by the wealthy or by religious groups. Koetke (1999) discusses these early educational opportunities and how these early experiences led to the two basic systems we have today. The two varieties consist of educational opportunities “outside the system” and those “inside the system.” Among the types of alternative school opportunities outside the system are the elite and costly private schools, the schools with a religious orientation, and the recently revived home schools. The alternative schools described by Koetke as inside the system are those that generally serve a special population, such as students with unique learning interests or disabilities, teenage parents, potential dropouts, violent individuals, or court-adjudicated youths and those in juvenile detention systems.
Alternative Schooling Is Needed
Every student can learn! And every student should have the opportunity to learn and to achieve a quality of life they desire based on their educational efforts and achievements. If every school board member, school administrator, teacher, parent, community and business leader believes that statement, then alternative schooling is not an option in America—it is an absolute requirement in every community. Alternative schooling opportunities will be needed to accommodate the educational needs of its youth because the traditional school system, and particularly the traditional high school, can no longer serve the needs of the students and their family lifestyles common in the 1990s. It has even been suggested that society might want to consider allowing students to drop out and then provide alternative schools for them to complete their GED (Dynarski, 1999).
Alternative schooling does meet the variety of student and family needs and the social behaviors required for youth in today’s world. Alternative schooling also offers school and community leaders the opportunity to fulfill their legal responsibility to provide equal access to education for all students. The most critical question that must then be answered is what kind of alternative schooling should be designed and offered in our public schools? What should the alternative programs look like and how should they be integrated with the regular school programs in each community?
What Is Alternative Schooling?
It was not unusual in the 1950s and 1960s for school districts to have an alternative school. However, the schools in that timeframe were mostly designed to serve students who had already dropped out of the regular school. These schools and programs were the primary “dropout prevention programs” of four decades ago. Educational leaders soon found out that the strategy had little effect on the dropout rate and that type of alternative school tended to be discontinued as district budgets began to shrink in the 1970s.
The most common form of alternative school operating today to serve youth in at-risk situations is designed to be part of a school district’s comprehensive dropout prevention program. The “alternative school” is usually part of the middle or high school program offered to secondary-aged students. The students attending these schools typically are underachieving and usually are deficient in credits to graduate or to be with their same age students. Yet, they desire to stay in school and gain their diplomas, or they have been placed in the school by the court system. In many communities, these alternative schools also offer a unique parenting program with special opportunities for teenage mothers desiring to graduate from high school, but unable to attend the traditional high school.
Numerous models of alternative schools have been developed to serve local needs and are operating with varied degrees of success. Hefner-Packer (1991) has studied these models and has described five models of alternative schools:
- The Alternative Classroom, designed as a self-contained classroom within a traditional school, simply offering varied programs in a different environment;
- The School-Within-a-School, housed within a traditional school, but having semiautonomous or specialized educational programs;
- The Separate Alternative School, separated from the regular school and having different academic and social adjustment programs;
- The Continuation School, developed for students no longer attending traditional schools, such as street academies for job-related training or parenting centers; and
- The Magnet School, a self-contained program offering an intensified curriculum in one or more subject areas such as math or science.
Mary Anne Raywid (1994), writing a synthesis of Research for Educational Leadership, provides another descriptive listing of popular alternative schools. The three types she describes are:
- Schools of Choice, offering different specialized learning opportunities for students usually in a magnet school;
- Last-Chance Schools, designed to provide continued education program options for disruptive students; and
- Remedial Schools, having a focus on the student’s need for academic remediation or social rehabilitation.
A database of successful dropout prevention programs has been developed by the National Dropout Prevention Center. The database contains descriptions of many of these alternative schools located throughout the nation. Each school is truly unique in many ways, but in particular with the students they serve, the curriculum offered, and how it is administered. A selected review of those in the database illustrated a larger variety of organizational structures; however, there were several patterns of administrative and organizational types worth reviewing. Brief descriptions of these types are presented below.
School Within-a-School—designed for students needing a separate location within the traditional school, usually a separate wing with different staff, for their academic or social behavior programs;
School Without Walls—designed for students requiring educational and training programs delivered from various locations within the community, usually requires flexible student schedules;
Residential School—designed for special case students, usually placed by the courts or the family, with special counseling and educational programs;
Separate Alternative Learning Center—designed for students needing a special curriculum, such as parenting skills or special job skills, and a separate location from the traditional school, many times located in business environments, churches, or remodeled retail centers with excellent transportation services;
College-Based Alternative School—designed for students needing high school credits, and operated by public school staff; but using a college facility to enhance the student’s self-esteem and offer other services that would benefit the student’s growth;
Summer School—designed to be either remedial for academic credits or to enhance a student’s special interests, perhaps in science, computers, etc.;
Magnet School—designed to focus on selected curriculum areas with specialized teachers and with student attendance usually by choice;
Second-Chance School—designed for students who are judged to be troubled and placed in the school by the courts or the school district as a last chance before being expelled or incarcerated; and
Charter School—designed as an autonomous educational entity operating under a contract negotiated between the state agency and the local school sponsors.
There is much anecdotal literature about the effectivenes of alternative schools in keeping students in school. Alternative schools have been successful in:
- reducing truancy;
- improving attitudes toward school;
- accumulating high school credits; and
- reducing behavior problems (Cash, 2004).
Key Elements of Successful Programs
There does appear to be a consistent profile of the most successful schools. The profile includes the following characteristics:
- a maximum teacher/student ratio of 1:10;
- a small student base not exceeding 250 students;
- a clearly stated mission and discipline code;
- a caring faculty with continual staff development;
- a school staff having high expectations for student achievement;
- a learning program specific to the student’s expectations and learning style;
- a flexible school schedule with community involvement and support; and
- a total commitment to have each student be a success.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each traditional school could share these characteristics and operate with the best practices outlined above—maybe there would be no need for alternative schools?
Cash, T. (2004). Alternative schooling. In Smink, J. & Schargel, F. P. (Eds), Helping Students Graduate: A Strategic Approach to Dropout Prevention. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.
Dynarski, M. (1999). How can we help? Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
Hefner-Packer, R. (1991). Alternative education programs: A prescription for Success. Monographs in Education. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia.
Koetke, C. (1999). One size doesn’t fit all. Tech-Nos Quarterly. Bloomington, IN: The Agency for Instructional Technology.
Raywid, M. (1994). Alternative schools: The state of the art. Educational Leadership, 52(1), 26-31.