Academic journal article High School Journal

Characteristics of Alternative Schools and Programs Serving At-Risk Students

Academic journal article High School Journal

Characteristics of Alternative Schools and Programs Serving At-Risk Students

Article excerpt

More and more students are being labeled at-risk in our educational system. These students are often behind academically, have dropped out of school, or have been expelled or suspended from conventional high schools. Some states have implemented school choice options that address the needs of these students giving them a choice of an alternative high school setting. These programs, commonly referred to as "second chance" programs, are designed to address the specific needs of at-risk students. The second chance option combines the pedagogy of alternative programs with the philosophical orientation of school choice offering a second chance to those who are failing in the traditional system.

Alternative programs and schools are an integral part of the second chance option. Yet little is known about the characteristics of these programs and how they relate to school choice. While other types of school choice options have received the majority of attention over the past few years, second chance programs have been quietly addressing the needs of students most disenfranchised from the system. An evaluation of these programs and their effectiveness is important to consider as we contemplate the large numbers of at-risk youth and how to address their needs.

"Alternative" has meant different things to different people over the past several years. As early as 1978 the controversy over the definition of alternative was acknowledged. Arnove and Strout (1978) noted that "the definition of `alternative' has been a matter of controversy since the early seventies, and much of the literature on the movement has been concerned with that issue alone" (p. 79). Nearly 20 years later there is still discussion about what alternative means. Raywid (1994) notes the variety of definitions surrounding alternative schools. She provides a summary of the alternatives that now appear to be available. These fall into three different categories:

   Type I alternatives are schools of choice and are usually popular. They
   sometimes resemble magnet schools and in some locales constitute some or
   all of the choice systems. They are likely to reflect programmatic themes
   or emphases pertaining to content or instructional strategy, or both.

   Type II alternatives are programs to which students are sentenced--usually
   as one last chance prior to expulsion. Typically, Type II programs focus on
   behavior modification, and little attention is paid to modifying curriculum
   or pedagogy.

   Type III alternatives are for students who are presumed to need remediation
   or rehabilitation--academic, social/emotional, or both. The assumption is
   that after successful treatment students can return to mainstream programs.

Further, Raywid contends that," alternative schools are usually identifiable as one of these three types, but particular programs can be a mix" (p. 27).

Sometimes this "mix" of definitions results in a school choice option such as second chance programs. In these programs school choice, remediation, and innovation combine to address the needs of at-risk students. Rather than these being "last chance" programs, these programs provide another chance at success within the educational system. Yet, several questions arise about these hybrid programs. What are the characteristics of these schools? Do these schools maintain the characteristics of alternative schools in their organization and structure? What are the characteristics of the students they serve? Can alternative schools be more than a holding tank for students but an actual first choice for those students who do not desire the conventional high school?

Minnesota has been a leader in the implementation of school choice options including second chance options. In 1987 Minnesota established the High School Graduation Incentives (HSGI) Program that allows students who are at-risk of not completing school, two or more years behind academically, pregnant or a custodial parent, or expelled from school an opportunity to choose to attend any traditional high school in the state, any alternative school, or any Area Learning Center. …

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