Alternative Education ?
What Does it Mean and What Does it Look Like?
The Regional Education Alternative Learning (REAL) School provides one example of an alternative education program. In the whole scope of alternative education philosophies and programs, our school and our programs are based on the research, experiences, and evaluations from many different approaches and philosophies.
Alternative Education - a definition
Alternative approaches to education have existed concurrent to the development of public education over the last 200 years. In the USA, alternatives within public education have been documented since the arrival of the pilgrims (Young 1999). The concept or term - alternative education, has been used throughout this time to describe various programs and approaches.
Morley (1991) draws on a number of writers to define alternative education. He states, "Alternative education is a perspective, not a procedure or program. It is based upon a belief that there are many ways to become educated, as well as many types of environments and structures within which this may occur".
Generally, alternative education comes from a recognition that all people can be educated. It is in the general interest of society, and the varied communities which form a society, that educational opportunities are provided to enable each individual to find a learning environment in which they can participate successfully. Only through this participation can individuals receive the general education that prepares them for inclusion into the community.
Therefore, alternative education is a means of incorporating a variety of strategies and choices of environment within the school system to "ensure that every young person finds a path to the educational goals of the community". (Iowa Association of Alternative Education).
Three avenues for presenting alternative education can be identified across school systems:
1. Alternative schools - both public and private
2. Alternative programs for students using varying approaches for students to pursue common goals with the same school.
3. Teaching strategies, beliefs, and support services that facilitate growth in academic, personal/social and career development initiatives.
The REAL School represents alternative education in both the first and third of these avenues. As a public alternative day school it has autonomy from other mainstream education institutions. Through this autonomy it is able to present teaching approaches and support services that specifically address the needs of the students. Features of these are described in other publications or pages of this website about the school and include:
- Focus on experiential education
- Integrated curriculum
- Therapeutic adventure experiences
- Conflict resolution / anger management skills training
- Individualized programming
Types of Alternative Education Programs
From the literature on alternative education there is a general acceptance of Raywid's (1990) identification of three categories for alternative programs based on their underlying assumptions and goals.
True educational alternatives:
Based on the theory that all students can learn if provided with the right educational environment, these programs strive to meet students' needs in order to help them succeed.
Alternative discipline programs:
These 'last chance' programs for disruptive students focus on behavior modification. They attempt to change students by teaching compliance skills and return them to their traditional schools or classrooms.
Like the previous type, these programs assume that students need to change to succeed in traditional schools. They elicit change through counseling, rather than through behavior modification.
From Raywid's review it was suggested that the first type of alternative program - true educational alternatives are the most successful. In contrast, alternative discipline programs rarely lead to substantial gains for students. Therapeutic programs have more mixed results with students often making progress while in the program but regressing when they return to a traditional one.
How We Use the Research
While the REAL School does maintain some emphasis on behavior modification and therapeutic intervention it does so within the context of a true educational alternative. To service the diverse needs of our students, the REAL School must remain flexible to all the educational possibilities available and create avenues of support to enable these possibilities to be implemented.
Effective Strategies for Alternative Education Programs
Aronson (1995) identifies from a number of studies the characteristics of successful alternative education programs. The most easily recognizable aspects these programs included such features as there culture or climate, organizational structure, curriculum and instruction, and their links to other programs and services. The creative design of programs to meet the specific needs of students and community necessitates that the way programs look may vary, however, these general features exist across the range of successful programs. The outline developed by Aronson was identified from a variety of studies (Butchart 1986; Jacobs 1994; Kadel 1994; Kershaw & Blank 1993; Morley 1991; Raywid 1994; Rogers 1991).
Successful Features of Alternative Education Programs
Culture and Climate
- Students and teachers have the choice to participate in the program or school.
- Focus on whole student and their academic, emotional, social and behavioral development.
- Warm, caring relationships between members of the school community.
- Teachers act not only as teachers but as counselors, advisors, and mentors.
- High but flexible expectations for students.
Small size - both schools and classes are small to foster a sense of community, and to enable personal interaction between teachers/students.
Relative autonomy. Most successful alternative education programs have some degree of freedom from standard district and mainstream school operating procedures. Teachers and often students participate in the management and decision making.
Comprehensive program including experiential education and vocational components to provide links between the school and the student's future life.
Counseling programs are integrated into the curriculum of the school
Separation from the traditional school. Programs achieve separation either by establishing themselves in a distinct area of the traditional school or by moving to a different location entirely.
Curriculum and Instruction
Successful programs give teachers flexibility in designing strategies and methods that will work with their students. Specific strategies include individual learning, cooperative learning, competency-based learning, team teaching, peer tutoring, remediation, teaching to multiple intelligences and an absence of tracking. Curriculum varies from a focus on basic skills to working on personal development and behavior.
School-linked support services with parents, communities, and access to basic health and social services are important features of many programs.
How We Use the Research -
The REAL School is incorporating the major features characteristic of successful programs. It fits into Raywid's definition of a true education alternative based on the underlying philosophy of the program.
Evidence of this 'fit' can be found in the following characteristics which define the operation of the REAL School:
Autonomy through semi-independent funding by tuition and a policy for alternative education with the school districts allowing for flexibility and special consideration in programming.
Chapter 127's determinations regarding Alternative Programs (section 3.04), which allow for flexible scheduling, and the empowerment of the Personal Learning Plan team to develop individualized plans for student achievement of the Maine Learning Results standards.
Small size - maximum of 42 students within the school with a teacher/student ratio of 7:1, and a student to support staff ratio of 8:1.
Focus on the whole student with curriculum that considers the academic, social, behavioral, emotional and vocational needs of the student.
Team teaching structure to provide strong staff/students relationships and support within staff.
Use of Students Assistance Team meetings and teacher training to develop an active role for teachers as counselors, mentors and advisors.
Whole school meetings and activities to foster a sense of community within the school.
High expectations for students to maintain attendance, participate in school activities and make an improvement in their social/emotional/behavioral skills.
Strong experiential education component in curriculum and counseling approaches through therapeutic adventure activities.
Separate location with clear identity separate from other schools and district programs.
Strong links with parents, sending school districts, schools, and community agencies such as substance abuse agencies, justice department, family therapists and social service providers.
Integrated curriculum allowing flexibility with course content and a focus on learning styles and the individual needs of students.
Active involvement in the community through community service and academic programs that involve members of the community in the classroom and students working in the community.
The REAL School continues to generate a strong model for programs looking to use a model of alternative education as the basic for meeting the needs of students with special needs. From the summary of the literature provided and the brief outline of how the REAL School is situated within the characteristics of alternative education, it is hoped that a clearer understanding of the assumptions driving the operation of the REAL School is evident.
Aronson, S.R. 1995 Alternative Learning Environments: (Insights on Education Policy, Practice, and Research, Number 6). Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, Texas
Butchart, R.E. 1986 Dropout prevention through alternative high schools: A study of the national experience. New York: Elmira Board of Cooperative Educational Services. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 273 872)
Iowa Association of Alternative Education 1990 Brochure available from Kathy Knudtson,
1212 7th St. S.E., Cedar Falls, IA 52401
Jacobs, B. 1994 Recommendations for alternative education. A Report to the joint Select committee to Review the Central Education Agency. Texas Youth Commission.
Kadel, S. 1994 Reengineering high schools for student success. Hot topics: Usable research. Palatka, Florida: SouthEastern Regional Vision for education. (ERIC Document Number 366 076)
Kershaw, C.A. & Blank, M.A. 1993 Student and education perceptions of the impact of an alternative school structure. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Research Association, Atlanta, GA.
Morley, R. E. 1991 Alternative Education. Dropout prevention research reports. Clemson, South Carolina: National Dropout Prevention Center. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 349 652)
Raywid, M. A. 1990 Alternative Education: The definition problem. Changing Schools, 18, 4-5, 10.
Raywid, M.A. 1994 Focus schools: A genre to consider. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Institute for Urban and Minority Education.
Rogers, P.C. 1991 At-risk programs: Assessment issues. Center for At-Risk Students, 2, 1-4. Newsletter from the former Center for at-Risk Students housed at La Guardia Community College, Long Island City, New York.