Alternative High Schools: Models For the Future?
Gay G. Knutson
A little known movement within public school systems, the creation of
alternative schools for at-risk students has been in existence for several
years. Alternative high schools have grown nationally in both quality and
number. These schools for both existing and potential drop-outs rely heavily
on forming learning communities where both teacher and learner are empowered.
Innovation and flexibility are usual practice in alternative high schools.
These schools and other options should be studied and their key elements
identified. Today's problem-plagued standard high schools could use new
models for their delivery of educational services to today's youth.
They're found in crumbling inner city buildings, in strip malls, in old
school buildings and within existing schools. They have optimistic
sounding names like Capstone, Crossroads and Learning Enterprise. They
have varied financial and educational arrangements. And they are popping
up all over the landscape, mainly urban but also suburban and rural. What
are they? They are small alternative high schools.
The term alternative education was originally construed as an umbrella
term covering a range of options in schooling. Presently its meaning has
evolved into an understanding of programming for at-risk youth; those who
are likely to not finish high school.
Many states and school districts have come to the realization of the
economic loss involved in the drop-out problem and have established
separate educational programs for at-risk students.
At-risk students are described as discouraged learners, those who for
whatever reason do not achieve in the standard high school program. Poor
attendance, habitual truancy, academic lags,and teenage parenthood-these
are the causes of what the federal definition specifies as school
drop-outs, from 9th to 12th grade. Over 25% of American youth fit that
A perception that the standard high school lacks relevance is the usual
reason given for dropping out. In fact the curricular offerings of the
standardized, bureaucratized high schools do tend to be isolated subject
matters taught with an emphasis on rote memory and with a student
management system focusing on compliance with authority. This model of a
high school dates back to a time when the factory was the major metaphor
for organizations. In the present era, more focused on information and
technology, even the factories don't follow the factory model. Is it
possible that the at-risk students, like the canaries in the mine shaft,
are the newest versions of organisms sensitive to an unrecognized danger
in the environment?
American economic leaders have identified the characteristics they value
in the workplace as oral and written communication skills, problem
solving ability, self-management capacity, and a cooperative working
style. Obviously the factory model high school so prevalent in the United
States does not produce those outcomes.
The National Trend Towards School Options
All over America, parents are opting for something other than the
standardized public school offerings, often at great effort or expense.
Choices they are making are home schooling, private schools and in some
states, charter schools. Public school systems are searching for new
possibilities in the service delivery. Independent providers are
sometimes contracted for such things as transportation, food and a number
of supplies and services. A new option is to contract the entire
management of the school-even supervison of teaching and
testing-sometimes to a profit making organization, where this is legal.
Home schooling of school age children has expanded during the last
several years. In Wisconsin, a 1984 law allowed home schooling with no
monitoring simply by registration with the state education agency. Home
schooling grew from 2800 to 11,480 (1.3% of the school population) in
1994. Self help groups have sprung up to assist parents who choose to
educate their children at home. Both secular and religious organizations
provide advice and assistance. High school age youth educated at home
generally take the General Equivalency Diploma tests to qualify them for
Private schools have always existed in America at all levels of
education, but public moneys have never supported them. There are lobby
groups quite active now in the more conservative climate in legislative
bodies that have renewed efforts to approve of voucher systems for use in
Wisconsin has initiated such a system in the city of Milwaukee as an
experimental measure. The experiment allows for up to 1,500 students of
low income families in the inner city to attend nonsectarian private
schools with a set fee given to the school. After four years, 800
students remain in these schools. The academic results are unclear
because the full data has not been released to independent researchers.
Charter schools are the newest entry in the school options menu. The
exact definition of a charter school is unclear as each state has written
unique legislation. Usual practice is for an entity to be given a charter
by the state agency or local school board, to run a school at a specified
per pupil outlay of moneys. The accountability in attendance and academic
measurements is negotiated, but generally the charter school is to have
autonomy from the standard bureaucratic structure.
Charter schools have been authorized in a number of states. Minnesota
began by approving legislation in 1991 and a number of such schools are
in operation. A recent legislative report indicated that some are having
problems with financial stability and the ability to maintain the school
structure with the few personnel they can afford (Richardson, 1995).
In California, 100 charter schools were allowed. The legislation did not
spell out who was to do the teaching in the charter schools and the
resultant teaching by noncertified personnel caused the teachers union to
object. The academic results are still pending in California. The one
known charter revocation was for financial mismanagement and loss of
students (Schmidt, 1994).
The state of Michigan is reworking its charter law, as it was declared
unconstitutional. A judge so ruled, at the request of a coalition that
included the teachers union, the American Civil Liberties Union,
separation between church and state groups and individuals. The issues
involved included the teaching by noncertified personnel, separation of
church and state and lack of oversight by a public body. Drawing much of
the criticism was the chartering of Noah Webster Academy, which was an
already existing home schooling computer network with a Christian
Wisconsin has a tightly drafted charter school law that allowed for 10
charter schools. Only four are now in existence, all of them conversions
from within school systems (not outside groups). All of these use
certified teachers who are employees of the school district as is
required by the present law. There is lobbying by groups to open up the
charter school law allowing much more latitude.
The completely independent for-profit corporations such as the Edison
Project and Education Alternatives, Inc., have made very few inroads in
the management of schools, and the results on their success or absence of
success will not be available for some time.
Alternative High Schools
Alternative high schools for at-risk students have some commonalities
with some of the other school options, particularly charter schools. The
location of an alternative high school may be within the existing high
school (school-within-the-school) or at an off site location. The remote
location schools, if they are run by a joint venture, do look like
charter schools. School districts may run their own alternative schools
or they may contract out the management of the school.
Schooling for at-risk high schoolers has been in existence for some time
in the state of New York. Raywid (1994) has analyzed the situation there.
New York is a state that has an uncommonly high drop-out rate.
Alternative high schools were able to stem some of the problem. When
looking at the schools that were successful, she found a consistency in
characteristics of the schools. They were small, designed by the people
that taught in them, had some elements of choice for both the students
and the staff. They were exempted from the standard bureaucratic
procedures, and most importantly, they developed a sense of community in
The principal Wisconsin urban center is Milwaukee. The drop-out rate
there was higher than elsewhere in the state. In response to the state
mandates for at-risk programming, Milwaukee developed a number of
alternative schools. A division of the Milwaukee Public Schools, housed
in an old multistoried grade school building works with parents and
contracts with community-based organizations to run alternative high
Some of the Milwaukee alternative schools have been in existence in some
form since the 1970s. However, the majority of the community-based joint
venture schools were founded in the 1980s. Seven date from 1990, with
four having been created for the 1994/95 school year. In all there are 31
alternative secondary schools including six which are for adjudicated
youth. As in New York, teachers in Milwaukee state that the success comes
from the characteristics defined by Raywid, particularly the forming of
One of the alternative high schools is located in the traditionally
Hispanic neighborhood known as Milwaukee's South Side. An existing
community educational and social services center contracted with
Milwaukee Public Schools in 1982 and has continuously served limited
English speaking and other students in an alternative high school that
has a focus on Hispanic culture and language as well as the usual high
A brand new alternative school is located on a former campus of a small
college, now home to American Indian institutions. The Spotted Eagle High
School is jointly run by The American Indian Council, several local
American Indian Organizations, some colleges, and Milwaukee Public
Schools. Emphasis is on ethnic heritage and community.
Milwaukee Public Schools through its Division of Alternative Programs
contracts with a number of different community-based organizations to run
the partnership schools. Sometimes the teachers are employees of the
school system, sometimes of the community-based organization. Conformity
with state attendance and safety laws is required, and the reporting
mechanisms are negotiated. Funds and
oversight are provided by Milwaukee Public Schools. Philosophy and
delivery of instructions services are decided by the operational partner.
Another option for Milwaukee at-risk students is a regional alternative
high school operated by the area Cooperative Education Service Agency
(CESA#1). This agency, one of twelve in the state, is a non-profit agency
providing materials, services, in-service education and other assistance
to schools in its service district. CESA#1 has been in the alternative
high school business only a few years.
Presently CESA#1 operates four alternative high schools, educating about
240 students. The first two schools to emerge were in Milwaukee County,
the last two in an adjoining county. The program model used is of
individualized instruction using computer software. Each cohort consists
of 20 students who attend a half day of school. Participating school
districts negotiate a contract and pay a per pupil fee. The students work
on achieving measurable competencies. The home school district awards the
credits and diplomas. In this model, the teachers are employees of the
CESA and students are drawn from a number of school districts.
In rural areas of the state, other CESAs are creating regional
alternative high schools as well. The school district in which one of the
suburban CESA schools is located runs its own school-within-a-school
alternative programs in the high schools. These schools have been in
existence for five years. Only seniors are in the program designed to
meet the needs of those who cannot achieve the number of credits for
graduation. This one-year program requires an interview with student and
parent(s) and acceptance by the teaching staff for entry. The size of the
group is in the low 20s. Instruction is presented to the whole class,
with individualized attention given. Many guest speakers and field trips
bring the greater community to the students. Students express pride in
belonging to the school.
At a remote site in the same city is an alternative high school that goes
only to the eleventh grade. Its numbers are also in the low 20s. Here the
delivery of fairly traditional school subject matter is with small groups
of about eight students. Field trips are planned for enrichment and
recreation. An original goal of reintroducing the students to the
standard high school has rarely been realized. Instead these students
often go to another alternative setting after completing the eleventh
All of the alternative high schools vary in location, environment,
delivery of educational services, personnel arrangements, and philosophy.
All displayed a sense of community and acceptance as well as flexibility.
It is clear that their numbers are growing.
The Expanded Alternative High School
Although the great majority of the 10 alternative schools studied were
for at-risk students, some few also provided services for other types of
students. One school-within-a-school alternative program in a recent
award winning high school also served gifted students, students having
problems with a class, or others with specific needs. The students could
be part-time or full-time, with the latter usually being the at-risk
students. Many video-generated courses that had been created by the staff
provided individualized courses. Courses were created for such interests
as art history or foreign language. Small group classes also took place.
Admission was at any time of the year that the student requested.
Students moved in and out of the alternative school all day long. The
physical environment was warm with some upholstered furniture and other
homey touches. An analysis of how many students had used the alternative
school yielded about one-third of the student body number. In addition
this school has a separate drop-in study center that provides assistance
in language arts, study skills, and mathematics, which is popular with
students. Combined with the usual exceptional education resource rooms,
it is estimated that about 40%-50% of the school was using alternative
In another urban center an off-site alternative high school has existed
for a number of years that educates at-risk and gifted students. The
program is competency-based, with portfolios and demonstrations required
and personal growth valued. Both the evaluation methods and the choice of
subject matter (e.g., ethics, mass media, human relations) are completely
different from the local high school.
Both of the expanded alternative schools attracted their students and
accepted them on a contractual basis. The methods and evaluation were
innovative. They truly offered an alternative.
Alternative High Schools and the Future of the High School
A number of years ago futurists Toffler (1970, 1980) and Naisbitt (1982)
predicted the break-up of the standardized, bureaucratized, factory model
school system. They indicated that if the changes did not come from
within the school systems, they would surely come from out side of them.
They also said that the information and technological age in which we
live would require of its citizens creativity and diversity, not the
sameness underlying the operation of the standard school system.
The changes from outside the school systems that have and are occurring
are home schooling, private school expansion, for-profit schools and
charter schools. The innovation that has come from within the school
system is that of the alternative high school both for at-risk and other
Interestingly the focus of the private groups has not been on the high
school, the place where most of the problems occur. Those groups have
tended to focus on the younger student. However, it is in the elementary
and middle schools that the public school system has been the most
successful. It is the high school which has had the problems not only of
drop-outs and relevance but also safety and management. The private
sector has been reluctant to take on these difficult problems.
Responding to the great need of large groups of disenchanted youth,
alternative school systems have been able to be innovative; they had to
be. And in their problem-solving, they avoided some of the drawbacks that
have occurred with the private innovations.
As their relationships with the school systems are secure, alternative
schools have avoided the financial instability of some charter schools
that opted for greater autonomy. The school system has ownership in these
schools, a situation that provides oversight to the operation of the
school as well as public moneys. The lack of public oversight is an issue
being addressed in Michigan as they are redrafting their charter school
Perhaps the most serious of the legal challenges non-traditional schools
have regards the use of non-licensed teachers. Some charter schools use
only licensed teachers. Some others and the for-profit schools do not
always use certified personnel. Although there is no valid research
proving success or lack of success by individuals not prepared in teacher
training institutions, our school children's education and the
preparation of the next generation is too important to condone
experimenting with non-professionals to deliver educational services. Not
only teacher unions but also parents are objecting to this move, which is
obviously designed to cut costs, not to improve education.
There are similarities in the private educational innovations and the
alternative schools. It is, however, the alternative high school that has
been able to balance the important components needed for stability,
professionalism, oversight where public moneys are involved and the
autonomy needed to be innovative. Both private innovators and existing
standard schools would do well to examine the alternative high schools.
Todays large problem-plagued high schools should look at the successful
alternative high schools for a model for better meeting the needs of
today's youth. The learning community formed in those schools is key.
Common-bond learning communities can be the central idea around which can
be developed the complex balance of environment and forces needed to
really meet the needs of today's and tomorrow's emerging generations.
Naisbitt, J. (1982). Megatrends. New York: Warner Books.
Raywid, M.A. (1994). Alternative schools: the state of the art. Educational Leadership, 52 (1), 26-31.
Richardson, J, (1995, February 1). Regulatory freedom comes at a price
for Minnesota charter schools, study says. Education Week, p 13.
Schmidt, P. (1994, December 14). Citing debts, L.A. board revokes school
charter. Education Week, 3.
Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York: Bantam Books.
Toffler, A. (1980). The Third wave. New York: William Morrow.