What is Alternative Education?

W. Stephen Parker
W. Stephen Parker
Middle/High School Principal; MA in Educational Leadership
Male teacher standing at the front of a classroom lecturing to students.

What is Alternative Education?

Alternative education is a program of study for students that need specialized instruction outside of the traditional educational setting. The reasons for alternative education can be as wide and varied as the number of students enrolled in this educational setting. As important as it is to strive with all due diligence to educate special needs students, it is just as important to identify and educate at-risk students as well.

Alternative education settings strive to teach the required curriculum, as well as address those areas where students are struggling. Most often alternative education programs are put in place for students with behavioral problems. It is the goal of alternative education to continue to meet the students’ educational needs as well as help the students to correct behavior and ultimately return to the “home school” setting.

Components of Alternative Education

As with special needs students, various stakeholders are essential to ensure the success of alternative school students. One major component of alternative education is the student’s Individualized Instructional Plan (IIP). This plan is similar to the special needs students Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). Through the student’s IIP, a plan is put into place to help the student overcome those issues that are currently detrimental to the student’s educational success. IIPs are generally formulated by the “home school” teachers, administrators, and counselors, along with the same stakeholders from the alternative school setting. Of course as with all students, the parents are an essential part of the development of the IIP. Other stakeholders that can also be incorporated into the plan include outside community counselors, clergy, behavioral correction facilities, medical personnel, and sometimes law enforcement.

Another major component of alternative education is usually the smaller classroom setting. The classroom setting for alternative education is typically a teacher/student ratio of 15:1. This of course yields more one-on-one time for teachers and students.

It is imperative that the plan for the student be implemented with all stakeholders on board and willing to do their part in the life of the student. Once the plan is implemented, careful screening should be done to monitor the student’s progress. Frequent counseling sessions on an individual basis should be set up for the student in a calm relaxed atmosphere. The student must know that we, the stakeholders in their life, truly care about them and their future. The old saying, “students don’t care what you know until they know that you care” is a paramount doctrine to live by in alternative education. The student must be praised when progress is made and of course be held accountable when they do not meet expectations. However, the student must always be given opportunities to embrace their mistakes, be redirected, and move forward.

Factors that Put Students at Risk

There are a multitude of factors that can put a student at-risk in a school setting. Regardless of the factors, though, we must strive to help these students overcome and thrive. A student’s behavior problems can stem from many sources as well. A student’s maturity level within their peer group can be a definite contributing factor. Often times the home life of the student can contribute to the lower performance or behavioral issues that put students at risk. It is important in identifying the problem that we look at the student’s life in all areas. Issues between parents, including separation or divorce, with siblings, or other family members can be a major negative contributor. The socio-economic climate of the family unit can also come into play when the student’s basic needs are not being met and resources are not available. This type of stress on the student can lead to behavioral issues simply out of embarrassment.

Another possible contributing factor can simply be peer relationships. When students are in situations where their peers are not good examples, this can lead to poor behavioral outcomes. A tragedy within the home, such as a terminal illness of a family member or death, can send a student spiraling into inappropriate behavior. Often the only way a student knows how to react to something like this is to act out.

Goals of Alternative Education

The main and most obvious goal of alternative education is to help an at-risk student to overcome those factors that put them in their current situation. It is our desire that our students stay with us for a short time, overcome the factors that put them here, and return to their home school and grow. However, some of the factors that placed a student in this situation cannot be overcome. Instead the goal then becomes to help our student’s learn to cope and live with the situation life has dealt them.

As stated earlier, careful monitoring and counseling with the student is critical. We must be patient with students and remember the goal is to correct behavior or to teach a student to live with the situation within the parameters of the home school setting. Working and growing within the boundaries of a school setting, whether regular education or alternative education, is an important life lesson that should be stressed daily to the students in our care.

As with all students, our ultimate goal for alternative school students is to see our kids meet their maximum potential growth in all areas of their life. Whether students are “regular ed.”, “special needs”, or “alternative school kids”, the are all our students, and each and every one deserves our very best. In alternative school, we take our students where they are and strive to move them upward in every facet of their lives.

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