Alternative schooling embraces the concept that every student can learn. Also referred to as non-traditional or alternate schooling, it often deals with the middle- and high-school population.
Youth at risk are most likely to seek or be encouraged to join an alternative schooling program. "Alternate" can also comprise an elite or private set-up, religious orientation or home schooling. In general, the alternative school deals with a certain population of students with a unique learning requirement or interest. This may include students with disabilities, teenage parents, potential school "drop-outs" or individuals who have been court adjured or who have behavioral problems. Alternative schooling may address the issue of the drop-out rate by running preventative programs or by dealing with the students following their exclusion or non-attendance.
There are numerous models for alternative schooling, all providing innovative programs for students. These include a school within a school, schools without walls, residential schools and separate alternative learning centers offering special curricula. College-based alternative schools are also possible, as well as magnet schools with a selected curriculum taught by specialized teachers. Summer schools, "second chance" schools and charter schools (an autonomous entity) fall within the range of alternate educational systems.
The motivation for alternative schooling, aside from religious orientation or private requirements, is generally to reduce truancy or behavior patterns. Moreover, there is a desire to facilitate an improved attitude toward schooling. The accumulation of high school credits is another factor accommodated by specialized school systems.
Author and alternative schooling activist Dennis Littky refers to people thinking that alternative schooling might be "out there ideas" for "out there kids." He describes alternative schooling, rather, as comparable to alternative medicine. Regular medicine, he suggests, relies on artificial synthetic ingredients, whereas alternative medicine is "based on ingredients that arise naturally from the earth." These are not "wild ideas," he asserts, but "right ideas."
Littky was instrumental in setting up an alternative school system in the United States based on mainstream ideas and accepted theories from numerous disciplines, together with doing "the right thing to improve kids' lives." Rather than being elitist, he suggests, the change can be embraced and activated by rich, poor, middle-class, urban, rural and suburban groups.
Alternative schooling theory encompasses concepts from developmental psychology, educational theories and cultural research. Brain research studies reveal that people learn by making sense of information, connecting things and learning in a real context. Children require nurturing in order to thrive; this needs to take place within the educational model as well. Hands-on experience is seen as valuable. Pediatrician and author Mel Levine, in A Mind at a Time, urges educators to realize that "every child learns differently, and that standardized tests and curricula hurt kids rather than help them."
Alternative schooling is offered as an educational reform, offering a new model but rooted in something old. The concept of what children are learning is significant. Thus, children are encouraged to achieve new and higher standards, but not necessarily the rigid academic standards perceived by mainstream education as being the correct measurement. The assumption is refuted that all children need to become academic scholars or that their achievements require judgment according to conventional examinations.
The schooling paradigm is shifted, in some instances, to allow students to learn in settings where they are doing interesting work and where they learn from mentors. They may learn from the environment about being a member of a peer group, by engaging in the work place and by exploring skills that will help their future careers.
Psychologist Leonard Krasner commented that Shoreham Middle School, a new model school established by Littky in Long Island, "may well be the most innovative use of designed environment in a school setting since John Dewey's Lab School." The Met comprises a group of six alternative schools under the banner of the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center. Whereas previously the students' attendance numbers were low, within the alternative setting reports state that the teenagers enrolled attended every day. Moreover, their attitude was seen to be eager, with almost all the graduates proceeding to college. Fully 98 percent of the students apply to college, with the same percentage of applicants being accepted. About 75 percent of these teens are the first in their families to continue education beyond high school.
Alternative schooling generally establishes an opportunity for people dissatisfied with regular education. Often previous experiences, and feeling that needs have not been met adequately, give rise to a desire for an alternative method or environment. At-risk youth look to alternative schooling as a means to improving their situation through a positive and more appropriate learning experience.