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What's Alternative About Alternative Education?

A 2006 report by the American Institutes for Research cited a number of characteristics of effective alternative schools, supported by quantitative and qualitative data:
  1. Program philosophies emphasize that it is the educational approach rather than the individual student that needs to be changed to accommodate learning differences among at-risk students.
  2. Program administrators and staff subscribe to the philosophy that all students can learn.
  3. These programs communicate and support high expectations for positive social, emotional, behavioral, and academic growth in all students.
  4. Program and school administrators are leaders who support the vision and mission of their programs; effectively support staff; listen to teachers, students, and parents; and genuinely care about their students.
  5. Low adult-student ratios in the classroom are considered integral to successful outcomes.
  6. Teachers receive specialized training (e.g., behavior and classroom management, alternative learning styles, communication with families) to support their effectiveness in working with students who do not succeed in traditional educational settings.
  7. Interactions between students and the staff are non-authoritarian in nature. Positive, trusting, and caring relationships exist between staff, and between students and staff.
  8. The opinions and participation of family members in the education of their children is valued, and students’ families are treated with respect. (1)
What strikes me about these characteristics is how similar they are to what the research says all effective schools should be doing. If that's the case, what is alternative about alternative education? Why are we allowing schools to exist that don't adhere to these principles, if we know that this is what it takes to do education well?

Even more importantly, when students don't fit into our traditional schools, why are we pointing the finger at them and saying, "You don't belong here," as if the problem is theirs rather than due to our refusal to implement the changes necessary for them to be successful?

Looking back in history, the trend toward alternative schools is not terribly unlike what we used to do with special education students. Rather than create a system that can meet the needs of diverse learners, the response was to ship them off to some other place, a convenient way to avoid the discomfort of change. With the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1975, students with disabilities were ensured they would receive a free, appropriate public education, just like their non-disabled peers. No longer is it acceptable to send them off to a separate site or classroom, simply because they have special education needs. Schools are required to meet their needs within the least restrictive environment.

And yet, here we are again, ostracizing another population of students that don't fit the mold. Telling them they don't belong, they're too different, too inconvenient for us to accommodate. Why are at-risk students any less deserving of having their right to a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment protected?

Telling any student they don't belong, are somehow less worthy, and undeserving of the experiences their peers are provided is unconscionable. We can meet the needs of all students, and we can do it within the same schools that have been around for over a century. They just need to believe they can, and have the courage to enact the changes needed to make it happen.

(1) Quinn, M. M., & Poirier, J. M. (2006). Study of effective alternative education programs: Final grant report. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

About the Author: Teri Dary has been an educator for 27 years and has extensive experience in curriculum and program development, effective instructional practices, and teacher professional development. You can e-mail Teri at teri.dary@cascadeeducationalconsultants.com
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