- Assessing philosophy and mission, focusing on students’ relationships with adults, and examining whether students have access to mentoring, extracurricular activities, and career and technical education are among areas school and district leaders are urged to consider in a new guide for improving alternative schools.
- Developed by the National Dropout Prevention Center, part of the Successful Practices Network, the guide notes while a 2018 study estimated the number of alternative schools to be around 5,000, there are likely an additional 5,000 alternative programs, and all “vary widely in location, purpose, programing and approach to serving students.” Such schools also serve students with a range of challenges and who are more likely than those in regular schools to be poor, to be students of color and to have a disability.
- “It is no surprise that alternative schools require more human and financial resources than traditional schools, cost more to operate on a per-pupil basis, present more challenges to manage, and have lower levels of student achievement and lower graduation rates,” the guide’s authors write. But they also note improving outcomes for students in alternative schools will likely lead to overall increases in graduation rates and accountability ratings.
The guide is based on the center’s analysis of at least 100 alternative education programs over the past 34 years. The resource is organized into five domains education leaders and policymakers can tackle for improving alternative schools. Each domain also includes several guiding questions about the types of services available and policies that apply to students in alternative schools and programs. The domains are:
- Governance, practice and policies, which include questions related to how students are referred to an alternative program, the process of returning to the home school and how the program connects to the overall district.
- Culture and climate, which relates to issues of school safety and whether students have opportunities to feel a sense of accomplishment.
- Instruction and effective practices, such as making learning relevant for students and having the same academic expectations that apply to students in regular schools.
- External factors, such as working with parents and community-based partners to meet students’ needs.
- Resources, related to areas such as having sufficient facilities and adequate, well-trained staff members.
The authors note, “While there are alternative schools that are well resourced, have excellent facilities, and are staffed with highly skilled and specialized educators, there are also alternative schools that receive only left-over resources, are housed in the worst of facilities, and are staffed by educators who were unable to succeed or to find employment in traditional schools.”
Many students — who are placed in alternative programs for reasons such as discipline, low attendance and emotional difficulties — also have experienced childhood trauma.
In recent years, there also have been efforts in states such as California and Oregon to calculate graduation rates differently for students in alternative programs to better reflect the progress they make in those programs, even if they start out significantly behind. Many states also now report graduation rates for students who complete high school in five or more years on their state report cards, in addition to those who graduate in four.