Alternative Schools: Education Outside The Traditional System

Alternative education schools and programs often boast smaller class sizes and creative teaching methods. (Darron Cummings/AP)

Alternative education schools and programs often boast smaller class sizes and creative teaching methods. (Darron Cummings/AP)

Alternative schools are designed to educate students with academic, psychological or medical needs that cannot be met by traditional schooling.

Students might attend an alternative school if they are struggling with poor grades or behavioral issues, or if they have been suspended from school. Alternative schools can also be useful for students whose learning styles clash with conventional curricula or teaching methods.

According to a June 2014 Rennie Center policy brief on alternative education, 5,709 Massachusetts students were enrolled in such schools or programs  in the 2011-2012 school year. Many of the programs are concentrated in cities, but they exist across the state.

Who can attend an alternative school?

According to a 2014 study by The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), students in alternative programs are often there because of academic or emotional challenges. These may include poor attendance, suspension, expulsion, family stress, emotional difficulties, learning disabilities, poor grades, disruptive classroom behavior or pregnancy.

NCEE’s study found that in Massachusetts, students placed in alternative programs include those with “behavioral problems,” “at-risk students,” “students unable to benefit from regular school, “students who have dropped out” and “students with truancy or attendance problems.”

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says that teachers or staff may identify students who they believe fit these categories and refer them to an alternative school. Parents and students may then visit prospective alternative schools independently to explore whether the school will fit the student’s needs.

Massachusetts has both public and private alternative schools. Each school has its own admissions process and criteria for enrollment. The Department of Education states that the admissions process allows schools to ensure a student will be a good fit for their program. The department also says that all “criteria for enrollment are neutral, fair, non-discriminatory, and are designed to be accessible to a wide and inclusive applicant pool.”

(Rennie Center)

(Rennie Center)

Why go?

Alternative schools, according to the Rennie Center’s policy brief, have more autonomy in choosing curricula and teaching methods than traditional schools. This leeway allows greater flexibility in catering to students’ academic and emotional needs.

Some alternative schools take a holistic approach to education, providing students with therapeutic programs and support groups to help students with emotional challenges. For example, the Next Wave Junior High School and Full Circle High School in Somerville integrate academic instruction with therapeutic counseling to create a balanced and supportive teaching environment.

Where are these schools and programs?

There are more than 100 alternative schools and learning programs in Massachusetts.

Many alternative schools are clustered in urban areas — such as Boston, Holyoke, and Lowell — but there are alternative education options across the state, as this Rennie Center map shows:

Public alternative schools receive funding from several sources, but mostly from the state.

In 2004, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education established a grant program for alternative schools. The program awards funds to school districts to establish new alternative education programs for “at-risk” students.

The Rennie Center’s policy brief says that some alternative schools also pull money from federal funds, including the Workforce Investment Act, Perkins Vocational & Technical Education Act, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants.

The policy brief also notes that “the mix of funding approaches presents several challenges, including sustainability, equity of resources across sites, and annual delays and fluctuations.”

Private alternative schools are funded by independent sources including tuition, grants, endowments and donations.

What do people say about these programs?

Despite the range of alternative schools across the state, the Rennie Center brief sees room for improvement. Among its observations and recommendations in the 2014 policy briefing:

  1. The number of alternative schools in Massachusetts does not meet the current demand.
  2. State policy makers should look into new funding mechanisms that can support alternative learning measures in schools.
  3. There is not enough accessible data about students attending alternative schools. Improved public reporting of data will allow officials to evaluate these schools better and reform practices.
  4. The creative learning methods used in alternative schools do not seem to be influencing statewide education reforms. Viewing alternative schools as “innovation labs” would allow new methods to be piloted in nontraditional classrooms and subsequently incorporated into state curricula.
  5. Educators should incorporate elements of nontraditional teaching into public schools and make learning more engaging for students at all levels.
More than 100 alternative education schools and programs across Massachusetts aim to help "at-risk" students succeed in school. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

More than 100 alternative education schools and programs across Massachusetts aim to help “at-risk” students succeed in school. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

In the news: Monument Mountain Independent Project

Monument Mountain Regional High School’s Independent Project is a semester-long program through which students immerse themselves in subject matters they are passionate about.

In the past few years, this program in Great Barrington, Mass., has attracted attention from the press. TIME Magazine and the Washington Post both published stories on the Independent Project, highlighting how the program gives students more control over what they want to study.

And the program’s approach seems to be working.

Matthew Vernon Whalen, a former Monument Mountain Regional High School student who participated in the Independent Project from his sophomore through senior years, writes that “students will be more powerful, more passionate, more intelligent and more creative human beings if they have control over their world, rather than being forced to be uniform creators who they may not want to become.”

Whalen argues that creative alternative schooling programs, like the Independent Project, might help students become more engaged in their classes, excited about learning and ultimately successful in school.

Do alternative schools work?

Graduation rates at Massachusetts alternative high schools vary from school to school.

The Rennie Center found that graduation rates from a sample of alternative schools in Massachusetts ranged from just 14.6 percent to 85.2 percent.

(Rennie Center)

(Rennie Center)

Chad d’Entremont, the executive director of the Rennie Center, tells Learning Lab that the great diversity among these schools’ programs, as well as among the types of students they serve, may help explain this wide gap.

Some alternative schools serve students who succeeded in traditional schools but are looking for a more creative learning environment. Others serve students who struggled academically in traditional school. So, d’Entremont says, it’s not highly useful to compare test scores of schools with different goals and different students.

For example, The Boston Globe reports that 20-25 percent of students from the Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea graduate each year. That number might seem low, the Globe says, “But these are kids who otherwise would probably never get a diploma.” On top of meeting academic requirements, students from Phoenix must also be accepted by a college in order to graduate.

Echoing this mindset, d’Entremont says it’s important to measure “not just academic outcomes, but the growth that students experience in a program.” For youth who faced academic or emotional challenges in a traditional school, holistic measurements “might be a much stronger indicator of whether they are going to succeed in the future, as opposed to their actual content knowledge in core academic subjects.”

The Taunton Gazette spotlights success stories  from Taunton Alternative High School, a public school that serves 110 students who had difficulty in traditional school. One student, who transferred from Taunton High after “becoming involved in altercations with other students,” saw her grades improve dramatically. After transferring, she went “from being a D-F-grade student to a B-to-A student.”

What the state says

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education published a summary of outcomes in 11 public alternative schools that received grant money in the 2006-2007 school year. A few of the state’s conclusions:

  • 533 new students enrolled in alternative schooling that year.
  • About 84 percent of students in alternative schools passed MCAS exams.
  • 89 students who had dropped out of traditional schools enrolled in alternative education.
  • Students in alternative schools report an increased “interest and achievement in school, connection to caring school staff, and expectations for completing high school and entering higher education.”
  • Students “often report” that if they had not enrolled in an alternative program, they would have stopped attending traditional school.

It’s not always the answer

The National Education Association compiled opinions and testimonies from people involved with alternative education. Among others, NEA quotes Karen, a mother from Dartmouth, Mass., whose daughter was transferred to an alternative high school after drinking, skipping school and disrespecting teachers. “This didn’t help any,” Karen says. “She continued to follow the same pattern. All the students that were there were the same way. After dealing with this for two years, I finally took her out of school, because whatever they were doing  just did not succeed with my child or others.”

How do I register for an alternative school?

Students can begin the process by talking with their parents, teachers and guidance counselors. To look for alternative schools in Massachusetts, students can search for “alternative education” here.

Once students have identified a school they are interested in attending, they may need to complete an application form, take an entrance exam or enter a school lottery.

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