In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alternative Schools

  • Introduction
  • Definition and Prevalence
  • History
  • Reviews, Syntheses, and Generalized Reports
  • Student Characteristics
  • Marginalization
  • Student Self-Regulation
  • Characteristics of Effective Alternative Schools
  • Student Perspectives
  • Discipline’s Role in Alternative School Placement
  • Academic Outcomes
  • Less Rigorous Academics
  • US State Policy Reports

Education Alternative Schools
Susan Glassett Farrelly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0150


The exact definition of what constitutes or qualifies as an alternative school varies from state to state, and country to country, as do the policies regulating and funding them. Because of this lack of standard definitions, the terms alternative school and alternative program are used interchangeably in this article. There is a consensus that alternative schools serve students labeled “at risk” of education failure. These students may be either disruptive, frequently truant, involved with the juvenile justice system, judged to be failing academically, pregnant, or already parents. They are disproportionately students of African American, Latino, or Native American descent, students with low socioeconomic status, and students with disabilities or special needs. Alternative programs are typically small, with low student-to-teacher ratios. Many offer flexible hours and individualized study. Most offer remedial education courses, and some form of vocational education. The more effective alternative schools have strong connections to the community, providing students and their families with links to both health and human services and communication with the juvenile justice system. Dropout prevention or recovery is the primary purpose of alternative schools, but although alternative schools are often filled with caring, dedicated teachers and administrators, many serve as places to warehouse problem students and ineffective teachers. Some alternative schools are created not to serve the students enrolled in them, but for the benefit of the traditional schools. Just how effective alternative schools are is currently unknown. In most places alternative schools are not held to the same accountability standards as traditional schools. The lack of accountability, and substantial voids in student data systems, make it difficult to track student outcomes. In fact, the one thing that all the references provided in this article agree on is that there is a need for research on alternative-school student outcomes. The effect alternative programs have on delinquency and recidivism is ambiguous. Numerous alternative schools appear to successfully establish a caring and supportive environment, which has a positive effect on student self-esteem and sense of belonging. However, many of these schools fail to provide a rigorous academic curriculum. It is hard to find studies that report a measureable increase in academic achievement after students return to their traditional environment from alternative programs. What has been confirmed is that the key to effective instruction in alternative settings is establishing school cultures that emphasize building relationships, maintaining high expectations, and creating a student-centered approach to learning.

Definition and Prevalence

This section is dedicated to understanding how alternative schools are defined. Lange and Sletton 2002 (cited under History) notes, along with most of the references in this article, that there is no standard definition for what constitutes alternative schools and programs. Carver, et al. 2010 provides the definition used by the US Department of Education: alternative schools and programs are designed to address the needs of students who typically cannot be met in regular schools. The students who attend alternative schools and programs are typically at risk of educational failure (as indicated by poor grades, truancy, disruptive behavior, pregnancy, or similar factors associated with temporary or permanent withdrawal from school [p. 1]). This definition is consistent with Lehr, et al. 2009, which indicates that most recent literature describes alternative schools as serving students labeled “at risk.” Nonetheless, both Lehr, et al. 2009 and Porowski, et al. 2014 illustrate that the exact definition of what constitutes or qualifies as an alternative school varies from state to state, as do the policies regulating and funding them. In the first US national survey on alternative schools, Kleiner, et al. 2002 reports an ongoing growth in number and enrollment of alternative schools. Lehr, et al. 2009 attributes that growth to the rising number of expulsions and suspensions. In the United States the vast majority of alternative programs are for ninth through twelfth grade. Nevertheless, there are a growing number of schools serving grades six through eight as well (Carver, et al. 2010). Te Riele 2007 describes alternative schools in New South Wales and is included because of the unique map used to define the different programs.

  • Carver, Priscilla Rouse, Laurie Lewis, and Peter Tice. 2010. Alternative schools and programs for public school students at risk of educational failure: 2007–08. (NCES 2010–026). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

    Based on a national survey of school districts, this report provides an estimate of the number of alternative education schools, programs, and students in the United States. The survey was adapted from the survey reported in Kleiner, et al. 2002, expanding to cover alternative programs not directly administered by the districts.

  • Kleiner, Brian, Rebecca Porch, and Elizabeth Farris. 2002. Public alternative schools and programs for students at risk of education failure: 2000–01. NCES 2002–004. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

    The first national survey of public alternative schools and programs in the United States. It is notable because it documents the rapid growth in these programs and begins to identify the disproportional number of special education students whom some districts have enrolled in alternative schools.

  • Lehr, Camilla A., Chee Soon Tan, and Jim Ysseldyke. 2009. Alternative schools: A synthesis of state-level policy and research. Remedial and Special Education 30.1: 19–32.

    DOI: 10.1177/0741932508315645

    Information gathered through a review of legislation and policy and a national survey by state departments of education is synthesized. Identifies that students are often mandatorily enrolled. The four general criteria for enrollment are suspension, expulsion, disruptive behavior, or low academic achievement.

  • Porowski, Allan, Rosemarie O’Conner, and Jia Lisa Luo. 2014. How do states define alternative education?. REL 2014–038. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

    This report provides a table showing each state and the state statue or code that defines alternative schools and programs. It highlights that many states exempt alternative programs from compulsory attendance laws and suggests that the definition for alternative schools should include target population, setting, services, and structure.

  • Te Riele, Kitty. 2007. Educational alternatives for marginalised youth. Australian Educational Researcher 34.3: 53–68.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF03216865

    This article provides an overview of alternative programs in New South Wales. Of particular interest is the map created to chart alternative schools by using locus of change and stability of program.

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