Academic Achievement, Employment, Age and Gender and Students' Experience of Alternative School

Article excerpt

Some academic schools are designed to serve students who are suspended or expelled from their home schools for disruptive behavior (Loy & Gregory, 2002). By removing these students, a better learning environment is thought to be provided to the remaining students, while the students who are sent to alternative schools are provided with special intervention to correct their problem behaviors so that they can also continue their academic progress, and perhaps return to their home schools.

Alternative schools are the most widespread dropout prevention program in the United States (Souza, 1999). One in every eight students overall and one in ten students between the ages of 16 and 24 in the United States fail to complete high school (Laird, DeBell, & Chapman, 2006; McMillen & Kaufman, 1997). Research indicates that students vulnerable to dropout include those who are members of ethnic minority groups (Griffin, 2002), students exposed to poverty (e.g., Barrington & Hendricks, 1989; Suh, Suh, & Houston, 2007), and students with low grade point averages (Egemba & Crawford, 2003; Griffin, 2002; Suh et al., 2007).

Much is known about the factors that contribute to school dropout (Renihan & Renihan, 1995). However, it is as important to determine why many students continue their education, including those who graduate despite formidable challenges. Epstein (1992) examined students who were sent to an alternative school. Students who completed high school and/or attended college reported that the alternative school environment was caring, life-skills oriented, and intellectually stimulating, all of which contributed to their success. An alternative school is more likely to achieve its educational goals if the learning can take place in an understanding and caring environment where a sense of community is fostered (Hatzichristou, Lambropoulou, & Lykitsakou, 2004; Schorr, 1997).

Students who are forced to leave their mainstream schools and are sent to an alternative school may still show successful academic performance (Staton, 1990; Taylor, 1986-1987). Thus, it is imperative to attempt to create an environment for alternative school students that will increase opportunities for interpersonal and educational success. Key ingredients to creating positive learning environments may include focus on students' sense of membership in the school community and their perceptions of other important people within the school. Students' experience of the alternative school environment was indexed in the present study by two constructs, namely students' sense of school membership (i.e., "sense of belonging" see Goodenow, 1993; McMahon & Washburn, 2003) and students' perceptions of important adults in the school environment (e.g., "teacher, administrator, or counselor fairness, helpfulness" see Saunders & Saunders, 2001).

When students are separated from their mainstream schools and sent or strongly encouraged to enroll in an alternative school, they may develop resistance toward the new school (Sekayi, 2001). Therefore, it is important for the new school to anticipate and intervene with this resistance to keep it from interfering with students' achievement of their educational goals. A positive alternative school experience may help the students attain a higher level of academic achievement, which in turn may prevent dropout. A longitudinal study conducted by Gold and Mann (1982) provided evidence that as students' assessment of their schools became more positive, their academic performance tended to improve.

Loy and Gregory (2002) said that "students perceiving themselves as important" in their alternative setting is crucial for these schools to achieve their goals (p. 117). However, it is important to consider that alternative school students' perception of school may be negative which will increase their problem behaviors and/or chances of dropping out. To address this problem, Carley (1994) designed a study to help marginalized students redefine their membership in the school community. …