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Alternative Education

Abstract and Keywords

This article will cover the current best practices in designing and establishing alternative programs for at-risk students and suggest how social workers can assist in program development and sustainability. At-risk students are youth considered more likely than others to drop out of school due to various factors, including truancy, poor grades, disruptive behaviors, pregnancy, and repeated expulsions or suspensions. The history of alternative education in the United States will be reviewed and the types of alternative educations programs in practice outlined. How the framework of an alternative school differs from that of a disciplinary program will be examined along with initial steps toward development and implementation. Effective strategies explained include establishing a task force, involving the greater community, and implementing evidence-based interventions such as Response to Intervention (RTI) into the school curriculum. An example of a sustainable public alternative education program grounded in solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) is presented.

Keywords: alternative education, best practices, implementation, at-risk students, student outcomes, school community

Need for Alternative Education

At-risk students are often youth associated with lower socioeconomic status, identify as ethnic minorities, or speak English as a second language; these students may also struggle with mental health and behavioral issues, as well as teen pregnancy, poverty, and homelessness and depression (Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011). The U.S. education system has created alternative education schools to target these at-risk students and to decrease dropout rates (Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011). Alternative schools target the issues specific to these at-risk students, such as truancy, poor grades, and emotional health issues, and school programs can range from being more disciplinary to having a specific academic focus (Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011). Even though high school dropout rates in the United States have decreased for both males and females since the 1990s (from 12% in 1990 to 7% in 2013), racial and ethnic minority youth continue to have higher dropout rates than their non-Hispanic white peers (Kena et al., 2015). This and other examples of educational inequality (mental illness, socioeconomic status, residency, etc.) further support the need for alternative education opportunities today.

Due to the fluidity in state policies and regulation surrounding education and the diversity of programs that are currently present, the definition of alternative education tends to vary across the literature (Aron, 2003). A broadly used definition of alternative elementary or secondary education is a school “that addresses needs of students that typically cannot be met in a regular school or falls outside the categories of regular, special education or vocational education” (Lehr & Lange, 2003, p. 59; Sable, Plotts, & Mitchell, 2010, p. C-1). Students attending an alternative school or program must also choose to attend the program (De La Ossa, 2005) be placed in the school (Lehr & Lange, 2003), and access the program at no additional cost (Atkins & Bartuska, 2010; Caroleo, 2014).

History of Alternative Education

Alternative education emerged in North America in the late 1950s and early 1960s as response to the unmet needs of many students in public school settings (Turton, Umbreit, & Mathur, 2011). At the time, the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965 was part of the United States’ proclaimed “War on Poverty,” with schools being the frontline of this revolution (Lange & Sletten, 2002). These early alternative programs were primarily created in urban areas and aimed to provide innovative methods of instruction and learning that catered to diverse student bodies (Caroleo, 2014; Franklin, Hopson, & Dupper, 2013). Alternative education programs continued to gain popularity through the 1970s and into the 1990s (Caroleo, 2014; Franklin et al., 2013) by taking the forms of magnet and charter schools and continuing to be present in both private and alternative academic institutions, residential and day treatment facilities, juvenile detention institutions, and hospital settings (Kim & Taylor, 2008; Simonsen, Jeffrey-Pearsall, & Sugain, 2011).

The Current State of Alternative Education

According to the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), 43 states and the District of Columbia have formal definitions of alternative education, demonstrating a two-fold increase in the nationwide prevalence of such programs since 1998 (Katsiyannis & Williams, 1998; Lehr, Tan, & Ysseldyke, 2009; Porowski, O’Conner, & Luo, 2014). Of the states that operate alternative education programs, 18 states show that they allow for these programs to be held in separate schools, while 12 states report that programs can be held within a regular school (Porowski et al., 2014). As of the 2007 to 2008 school year, over 600,000 students were enrolled in 10,300 alternative education schools and programs (Carver & Lewis, 2010). From a recent evaluation of states with current alternative education programs, these programs primarily serve students with behavioral programs, with the most common services offered including regular academic instruction, counseling, social and life skills, job readiness, and behavioral services (Porowski et al., 2014).

The majority of referrals to alternative schools come from regular school staff and administrators, while less than half of referrals come from parents and students. Yet, most of these programs do allow students to return to their original schools determined by improvements in behavior, grades, and student motivation and the consensus of school staff. School districts and their local alternative programs often collaborate with community-based services, such as the juvenile justice system, mental health and substance abuse facilities, law enforcement, and child and family protective services (Carver & Lewis, 2010).

Alternative Education Frameworks

Raywid (1994) developed a typology of three types of alternative school programs. Generally, alternative education programs include one dominant type and may exhibit aspects of the two other types. Type one, called popular innovations, integrates innovative and effective educational practices to create a school that encourages learning for all of its students. Type two, or last chance, programs tend to be more disciplinary in concept and are often used as an alternative to suspension or expulsion; these schools may also emphasize behavior modification interventions versus educational practices. Type three, remedial focus, targets social, emotional, or educational functioning of their students, often with the intention of returning the individual to their original school (Henrich, 2005; Franklin, Hopson, & Dupper, 2013; Raywid, 1994).

Lange and Sletten (2002) later introduced a fourth type of program entitled “second chances.” This approach offers students not only the opportunity for educational success, but also the opportunity to liberate themselves from previous barriers in the school system and to become empowered as emerging adults. Henrich (2005) added that the title of “another chance” is also an appropriate name for these types of alternative schools.

Raywid’s (1998) typology continues to give educators and scholars an effective method of classifying alternative programs, by their emphasis on changing the student, the school, or the educational system. Type two and type three programs focus on changing the student and serving as a temporary placement for students. Last chance programs generally target discipline and structure as methods to improve behavior, while remedial focus schools most often serve as primarily a therapeutic community. Popular innovation programs reinvent the school environment and curriculum to better facilitate learning for their students. These programs urge students and staff to partake in a collaborative educational experience together, and such initiatives are being applied to larger and nontraditional settings (Raywid, 1998; Franklin, Hopson, & Dupper, 2013).

Popular Innovations versus Last Chance Schools

As a result of Zero Tolerance policies that were implemented in the 1990s by the federal government, placement in disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEPs) was considered mandatory as a strategy to reduce violence in schools. Since then, placement in DAEPs has become discretionary by the home schools, as a response to less serious violations of school codes of conduct, and, therefore, increasing student referrals to these “last chance” programs (Booker & Mitchell, 2011). Unfortunately, such trends in education often present alternative schools as places for deviant and delinquent children rather than opportunities for innovative and student-centered learning (Franklin, Hopson, & Dupper, 2013).

As influenced by Raywid (1998), Table 1 compares the components of “popular innovations” and “last chance” schools. Popular innovations programs have an educational focus, which is often more long-termed, with the goal of transitioning students into higher education or the workforce. Last chance programs emphasize behavioral changes through structure and student compliance and aim to return youth to their original schools. Disciplinary programs tend to have consistent rates of recidivism (Booker & Mitchell, 2011), while schools with an educational focus experience improvements in both student behavior and academic achievement, in addition to higher rates of high school graduation (Izumi, Shen, & Xia, 2015; Raywid, 1994).

Table 1. Educational versus disciplinary models of alternative learning.

Educational (Popular Innovations)

Disciplinary (Last Chance)

Long-term; students may graduate from the program

Short-term; student returns to original school when reentry criteria are met

Goal of transitioning students into high education or the workforce

Goal of “fixing” student behavior and returning to home school

Student-centered approach to learning

Focus on behavior and behavior modification

Flexible school curriculum that is adjusted to suit student and campus needs

Highly structured, with set rules; focus on student compliance

Full, instructional program; experiential, hands-on learning

Provides only basic courses; lessons may be provided by home school

Collaborative, working relationship between students and staff

Students attend school by choice

Students assigned or given limited options for schooling

Evidenced-Based Research and Alternative Schools

Rigorous research on alternative school models is minimal and only a few methodologically strong experimental studies exist to examine the efficacy of these programs (Franklin, Hopson, & Dupper, 2013; Klima, Miller, & Nunlist, 2009). Available studies do demonstrate that the educational approaches of alternative schools are effective in meeting the needs of at-risk students, such as self-esteem and views toward school (Cox, Davidson & Bynum, 1995). Yet, some results indicate that the length of follow-up investigations, as well as the types of student outcomes may vary across settings (Cox et al., 1995; Franklin et al., 2007).

Franklin et al. (2007) demonstrated that outcomes from alternative school programs for dropout prevention based on the solution-focused brief therapy model indicated that students could re-engage with school and earn credit faster than a public school comparison group of at-risk students. Considering the multiple challenges faced by these students and being further behind in credits earned, the process of graduation took longer than their peers in the comparison group. A follow-up study illustrated that, over time, the number of graduates from the alternative high school matched those of the public school program. Also, 50% of the alternative high school graduates entered higher education.

Characteristics of Successful Programs

Existent empirical studies on alternative programs provide both educators and scholars understanding of best practices and characteristics of successful programs.

Table 2 illustrates several of these program attributes that distinguish effective curriculums and school campuses from less successful models. Despite the diversity in the structure and process of alternative school programs on both the state and national levels (Izumi et al., 2015), these practices and characteristics unite efforts in reforming both alternative and traditional education.

The success of alternative education schools and programs is usually measured by student graduation rates, as indicators of reduced dropout rates and fulfillment of established academic and behavior criteria to graduate (Lehr, Tan, & Ysseldyke, 2009; Ryan, 2009). Program quality can also be determined by the school’s adherence to the following youth development principles (NGA Center for Best Practices, 2001): physical and psychological safety; appropriate structure (limit setting and clear class and campus rules); supportive relationships (among peers and staff); opportunities to belong and practice positive social norms; opportunities to nurture academic skills, interests, resilience, and leaderships skills; and integration of family, school, and the community (Aron, 2003).

In addition, identified “best programs” also include racially and ethnically diverse and supportive staffing (Aguilar, 2010), a breadth of in-house access to academic and non-academic services, interdisciplinary teaching methods, a block schedule for classes, (Ryan, 2009) and individualized or small group learning (Ruebel, Ruebel, & O’Laughlin, 2001). The classroom student-to-teacher ratio is kept low, as well as the population of the student body. Summer assistance and academic enrichment programs and the participation of community agencies and centers have also been positively correlated with graduation rates for students enrolled in alternative education (Izumi, Shen, & Xia, 2015).

Table 2. Best practices and characteristics of successful alternative programs.

A small student-to-staff ratio (Izumi et al., 2015; Lange & Sletten, 2002)

Small student base not exceeding 250 students (Schargel & Smink, 2001)

One-on-one interaction between teachers and students (Schargel & Smink, 2001)

Staff who are committed to the school’s mission and who are reflective of the diversity within the student body (Izumi et al., 2015; Lange & Sletten, 2002)

A flexible and holistic academic curriculum that can be adjusted to suit students’ individual needs and academic goals (Schargel & Smink, 2001)

A safe environment that encourages exploration of personal interests and goals while encouraging personal accountability and responsibility (NGA Center for Best Practices, 2001)

Working relations with all parts of the school system and with other collaborating agencies in the community, including extracurricular and summer enrichment opportunities (Izumi et al., 2015)

In-house holistic services that meet the emotional, physical, and academic needs of the student body (Reimer & Cash, 2003)

Opportunity for student voices in decision-making and school operations (NGA Center for Best Practices, 2001)

Strong, stable, and dynamic leadership (Reimer & Cash, 2003)

The culture of the staff is another essential element to the alternative school environment. The principal and administrative team must model the mission of the school and convey strong and stable leadership (Reimer & Cash, 2003). In addition, all staff members need to be committed to the mission of the program, capable of working with students with various needs and goals, and receptive to receiving ongoing training in classroom management and alternative instructional training (Reimer & Cash, 2003). Successful programs have an understanding of their students’ barriers to education and graduation and are thus able to develop a holistic and flexible curriculum that can address the emotional, behavioral, and academic needs of the student body (Franklin, Hopson, & Dupper, 2013).

Implementing Alternative Education Programs

The development of an alternative education program involves an interdisciplinary effort. School social workers, counselors, and educators must collaborate in order to show administrators the effectiveness and utility of this type of program. Considering their understanding of interdisciplinary partnerships across systems, insight on adolescent development, and knowledge of best practices and evidence-based interventions, social workers should have an integral role in developing and sustaining effective alternative education programs. The best practices and characteristics are one way to illustrate the objectives and goals of an alternative education program.

Steps in Designing and Establishing an Alternative Program

The following eight steps are based on the work of Reimer and Cash (2003), Dugger and DesMoulin-Kherat (1996), and Harrington-Lueker (1994). These steps are designed to help create the foundation of a school environment, to address challenges during the process of development, and to ensure sustainability of the program objectives.

  1. 1. Establish a planning team or task force. As mentioned, an interdisciplinary team of educators, administrators, local law enforcement, and community providers must be involved in this stage to establish a supportive foundation for the school. Particularly with at-risk youth, a successful program needs the input and collaboration from individuals within the school and in the greater community. Social workers are exceptional in understanding the benefit of working with an interdisciplinary team and can advocate for the implementation of a diverse team or task force.

  2. 2. Develop a philosophy and mission for the school or program. The planning group or task force must have a consensus on the philosophy of the school and the development of the policies and procedures. Revisiting the typologies of alternative education and the descriptions in Table 1, the group must decide whether the program will be primarily educational or disciplinary. Social workers and counselors may provide the task force with current research on best practices of alternative programs and inform the group on how these practices influence and impact their targeted student population.

  3. 3. Develop the design or operation of the school or program. At this stage in the process, a building principal or program director should be hired to decide upon the logistics of the program in collaboration with the school district staff. This stage also involves deciding how the program will receive funding, where the program will be located, how large it will be, whom it will serve, and how the program will be staffed. Locating funding sources and establishing efficient communication with traditional schools in the district are aspects that can be time consuming but are essential to the future of the program. Again, the skills of social workers are needed to locate resources and work as liaisons between additional schools and community agencies.

  4. 4. Select staff members. Staff must be highly sensitive to their communication and interaction with students, considering the students’ possible mistrust of school staff and administrators at their previous school. Creating a safe and trusting environment requires investment on behalf of the educators and school staff, and social workers can remind other team members of the students’ potential hesitancy to trust new faculty, as a result of previous adverse experiences. Consensus on the mission of the school among staff and how the principal models the school philosophy will also impact how efficiently future crises or barriers will be resolved.

  5. 5. Design the alternative curriculum. Here, the planning team will decide upon the teacher-student ratio, what curriculum will be offered, how the curriculum will be executed, and how social services and counseling will be integrated into daily school life. Staff development will also be addressed. At this stage, school social workers can suggest how their role will be defined and executed within the new school environment.

  6. 6. Build community support. Stereotypes surrounding public perceptions of alternative schools can be addressed by inviting community members to visit the alternative school. This also creates avenues for local businesses and agencies to become involved with the campus, either through funding or career-related opportunities. It is also important to continuously involve parents and families, another attribute of social work, in campus events and as part of the educational process.

  7. 7. Establish specific enrollment and exit criteria. Specific criteria for the admissions process will help to sustain the philosophy of the school within the student body and within the school climate. A collaborative and supportive environment is easier to develop and maintain if the students and faculty are working toward shared goals and uphold the same set of standards. Social workers are needed to track the entry and exit data of students, not only to monitor program progress, but also to use student and program outcomes as a tool for receiving funding. This point is further discussed in point eight.

  8. 8. Document and publicize program results. Positive and public results will help to promote the longevity of a program. Data on standardized test results, GPA, graduation rates, and dropout rates can demonstrate program progress over time. Personal anecdotes and testimonies are other valuable pieces of information to document the unique qualities and benefits of being a member of the school community as well (Franklin, Hopson, & Dupper, 2013).

Response to Intervention Model

The Response to Intervention (RTI) model aims to match evidence-based interventions with student academic and behavioral needs. School staff monitor student progress and make changes to goals and methods of intervention depending on student outcomes (Kearney & Graczyk, 2014). RTI also provides a process for how traditional schools can implement successful strategies practiced in alternative school programs (Franklin, Hopson, & Dupper, 2013) For example, a regular high school may borrow from the alternative school literature and push back the daily time of arrival to decrease the number of student absentees. Other examples of creating systemic change in traditional education programs include reducing student-teacher ratios, establishing student advisory boards, and establishing individual education plans (Franklin et al., 2013).

Ideally, the implementation of RTI to address issues in traditional schools would eliminate the need for alternative schools or such schools would be an option only for more intensive interventions. Again, school social workers and counselors should motivate school administrators to use RTI, considering the long-term consequences of removing students from regular classroom instruction. Not all students flourish in alternative schools or are able to return to their home schools. Thus, RTI encourages both traditional and alternative schools to address broader issues in education by incorporating relevant interventions into preexisting structures and supports (Franklin et al., 2013; Kearney & Graczyk, 2014).

Solution-Focused Brief Therapy

Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) is one modality that has been implemented into alternative school settings and has been found to be effective in addressing academic issues, dropout rates, and behavioral and emotional issues among at-risk students (Kim & Franklin, 2009). SFBT shifts the focus from student deficits to potential and is achieved by displaying a nonjudgmental demeanor that permits for open dialogue between students and teachers. SFBT also facilitates the students’ ability to problem solve individual issues, identify and utilize resources, and take responsibility for their own behavior (Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011; Newsome, 2005). Core SFBT techniques to identify strategies for problem-solving include: using the miracle question to identify desired outcomes; using scaling questions; identifying student strengths, goal-setting, and assignment steps and tasks; and finding exceptions to problems (Gingerich & Eisengart, 2000). Ongoing research continues to support SFBT as a useful approach in working with at-risk students, particularly in regard to reducing negative emotions and behavioral issues and identifying strategies to address academic challenges (Daki & Savage, 2010; Kim & Franklin, 2009). Students also endorse that their enrollment in alternative programs increases the opportunity for academic achievement within a supportive and caring environment (Lagana-Riordan et al., 2011).

Practice Example

Garza Gonzalo High School (Garza) is an urban alternative public high school located in Austin, Texas. Garza employs strategies based on solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) to create a positive school climate and to facilitative innovations in learning. All school staff and personnel are trained in SFBT, which helps to create a positive school environment and consistent approach for interacting with students. The school’s honor code describes the mission of the program, which is upheld by both staff and students. Members of the school community are expected to:

  • Demonstrate personal honor and integrity at all times.

  • Choose peace over conflict.

  • Respect themselves, as well as others. (Kelly, Kim, & Franklin, 2008).

In accordance with the best practices of alternative schools, Garza maintains an average class size of approximately 10 to 24 students, and students must demonstrate a commitment to the honor code during the interview and orientation process. Students enroll by choice and must have completed 10 credits at another high school and submit a written application to be admitted. Garza maintains at least a 75% at-risk population, and students can choose to attend the school from among the 15 other high schools in the district (Webb, 2015).

In the classroom, students may be working individually with teachers or engaged in a self-paced, blended curriculum. In one classroom, the students may be enrolled in different courses, promoting independent work ethics (Webb, 2015). Teachers use SFBT to help the student identify strategies and solutions to reaching scholastic goals, while emphasizing the preexisting strengths of the student. The staff members demonstrate high expectations for their students and hold students accountable for mistakes, including tardies and incomplete assignments, while providing them the space to try again. Teachers mentor each other and collaborate to troubleshoot complicated academic and behavioral issues. In the event that a student continues to struggle, teachers can submit a Student Support Services form for the issue to be addressed in a weekly staff meeting. To sustain the SFBT approach to teaching, staff members participate in frequent trainings and in-house development workshops.

Garza exemplifies an interdisciplinary approach to learning and solving systemic problems. Originally, Garza emerged from the first principal’s partnership with a school social worker. In addition to the student-teacher relationship, the school counselors, the school nurse, and the administrative staff work together to support the emotional and physical wellness of the students. Communities in Schools (CIS) is a nonprofit organization that works with the school district, offering additional mental health services provided by social workers to students within the hours of the school day. Social workers from other local agencies help students that are homeless identify housing and address acute student issues, such as abuse and trauma. Students also have opportunities to provide feedback on the school environment through a biweekly advisory curriculum and the Principal-Student Advisory Committee.

Garza has a rolling admission process, and, therefore, students can graduate from the program at any time. When students have completed their credits to graduate, they create a digital profile that includes: 20 volunteer community service hours, 10 hours toward college, quality work pages displaying three favorite assignments or projects from their time at Garza, résumé, letter of references, “about me page” displaying hobbies, interests, and things of value, and senior essay (Webb, 2015). Students give a presentation of their portfolio to invited family members, friends, and other supportive individuals, and a faculty member reads the senior essay to the school community preceding the “star walk,” or individual graduation walk through the halls of the school.

Garza continues to push the boundaries of alternative learning and has launched “Garza Online,” a Web version of the self-paced curriculum, which can be accessed anywhere through the Internet. Students who are not enrolled in the physical Garza campus can participate in these courses, while being enrolled at another high school in the district. This program hopes to reach more students and address the higher costs of the smaller alternative school setting by providing services beyond students sitting in traditional classrooms.

Garza represents the best practices and strategies of alternative education and demonstrates how an evidence-based model can serve as the main structure for a school environment and culture. A caring environment, one-on-one learning, small class sizes, engagement in technology, community involvement, and interdisciplinary decision-making and problem solving are only a few of the characteristics that help this program work and thrive. This excerpt from one student’s senior essay illustrates the positive outcomes that such a program can produce:

My way of coping with [the] amount of loss [in my life] was by trying to perfect every other aspect of my life. Since I had no way of controlling the people that came and left my life I wanted to be perfect … my senior year became impossible. I was exhausted and felt like I was in a complete rut … Depression and anxiety began to consume me … This is when I came to Garza. Desperate to save myself I made the switch. The positive energy was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I felt encouraged by everyone around because everyone wanted to see everyone else succeed too. Every teacher was kind and wanted to help regardless if they had you as a student or not … Next fall I plan to attend the University of Arkansas and major in broadcast journalism. Thank you Garza High School for allowing me to graduate happier and stronger than I’ve ever been before.

Key Points

Flexibility in the educational curriculum gives students the opportunity to create outlets, explore personal interests, and make mistakes. For many students who enter alternative education schools, the ultimate outcome is reentry into their traditional high school. Therefore, ongoing communication with the home school is important. Studies show that providing follow-up and transition services to students improves the long-term outcomes of returning to their original high school. Successful alternative programs target populations of at-risk youth (high rates of absentees or tardies, delinquents). School protocol and curriculum should be tailored to meet the needs and strengths of these specific groups as well. Developing alternative education programs should invest in staff, teachers, and students who demonstrate a passion for the school’s mission. Teachers should be able to teach in an experiential, creative, and noncompetitive manner while upholding appropriate expectations of their students. The school should also include an organizational structure in which students, staff, and parents can collaborate on program decisions. The eight steps described previously are essential for designing and creating an effective alternative program. It is important to include as many as possible of the best characteristics and practices within the structure of the program. Based on their professional expertise, school social workers are particularly equipped to facilitative interdisciplinary task forces, advocate for the diverse needs of students, and support the implementation of evidence-based and best practices into alternative education programs to foster both academic and behavioral change.

Related Articles

“Adolescent Populations: An Overview of Issues and Social Problems.”

Todd Michael Franke and Diane de Anda, June 2013

“Response to Intervention in Schools.”

Michael S. Kelly, June 2014

“Solution-Focused Brief Therapy.”

Mo Ye Lee, September 2013

“Solution-Focused Brief Therapy in Schools.”

Cynthia Franklin and Constanta Belciug, March 2015

Further Reading

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and the Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic compiled a 2014 report, “How Do States Define Alternative Education?” on the definition of alternative education across statewide programs.

The Education Commission of the States offers state-by-state information on alternative schools.

The National Dropout Prevention Center (NDPC) at Clemson University is a national resource for sharing solutions for student success.

“Lessons Learned” from the Center for the Prevention of School Violence’s Youth Out of the Education Mainstream Initiative (YOEM) describe quality alternative placements for suspended or expelled students.


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