Alternative Schools

Waiting to see what the new year brings us, like at a starting line, so many factors contribute to success - including being prepared to run the race.

Waiting to see what the new year brings us, like at a starting line, so many factors contribute to success - including being prepared to run the race.

I work in an alternative school. Actually, it’s an alternative program within a large school. We have a closed off area of the building with a separate entrance and run by a slightly different schedule – we don’t hear the bells and are just fine with that!

I am completing my first year here and am excited about continuing next year. What makes this program so exciting for me after 13 years of teaching? I believe it has to do with a few things, the biggest being the heightened sense of entanglement with my students’ learning.

There are an increasing amount of alternative programs across North America. Each one is different. They have to be because one of the purposes of an alternative program is that it is tailored to the needs of the learners within it. Though each school is different, studies show that they have basic elements in common (Boss, 1998; Johnston, Cooch & Pollard 2004; Quinn & Poirier, 2006) :

1. A focus on changing the educational approach, not the student.
2. A belief that all students can learn with high expectations for learning.
3. Teachers and administrators are caring leaders.
4. “Low adult-student ratios in the classroom are considered integral to successful outcomes” (Quinn & Poirier, 2006)
5. Ongoing PD for teachers in the areas of alternative learning environments and factors, as well as communication with students and families
6. Relationships at all levels are key – they are positive, trusting, and caring
7. Students are able to create a solid connection with an adult who believes in their success.

In our program, our class sizes are small. This year our 3 classes ranged from 13 to 18 students. We interview students who are recommended to the program and each and every one talks about the distractions of a large classroom, the need to connect with teachers who explicitly care about their success, the need to learn outside of the box.

Things will change a bit next year. We will have a new head teacher who has never taught in an alternative environment before. We are meeting today to talk about our vision for the program. I’m writing this post to remind me of key factors, what needs to be in order to do the right thing by these kids. They only deserve that – to be done right by.

Boss, S. (1998). Learning from the margins: The lessons of alternative schools.

Johnston, C., Cooch, G., & Pollard, C. (2004). A Rural Alternative School and Its Effectiveness for Preventing Dropouts The Rural Educator 25 (3), 25-29.

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


  • Tracy says:

    Hi Mike and thank you so much for your comment. I just read a bit on the circle of courage at the website you linked to and I have to tell you, I got shivers when thinking about applying this to my own teaching practice. It’s focus on Native thought and belief is very relevant as a number – if not the majority, next year – of my students are Mohawk. I am going to share this with my colleagues. Thank you.

  • mike says:

    Hi… hope this finds you well.

    Enjoy your site. I have been working with kid at-risk for a while now and find your resources on the money.

    You may want to check out the Reclaiming Youth Network….i believe some of the finest work currently being done.

    The core book- Reclaiming Youth At-Risk will introduce you to their work.

    I have taught troubled kids for over 25 years and this is really good work!

    be well… mike

  • Linda704 says:

    Where I live “alternative” schools are more or less considered “last chance” placements (my understanding), but do follow some of the features listed above, such as small classes and alternate schedule. I don’t get that impression from you at all. Perhaps that’s a reflection of you; I definitely get the impression that you are one to focus on student strengths. (btw…was alt ed your research focus?)
    .-= Linda704´s last blog ..A Good Defense Needs a Great Offense =-.

    • Tracy says:

      Hi Linda – alternative schools definitely have a bad rap. Our program is more of a lifeline than a last chance placement though. We insist on an interview process so students are not merely ‘placed’. The students we take have an interest and are ready to make changes in their lives. Even so, many of the teachers in our school still think our kids are ‘bad’. So do some of the students in the main high school.

  • David says:

    It must be a lot of fun to teach there. You seem like the perfect person for that kind of atmosphere.
    .-= David´s last blog ..AVID SI Luncheon – Summer Institute Speeches =-.

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