What is an Alternative School?

Instructor: Jessica Keys
By addressing a diverse range of student special needs, alternative schools serve an important purpose in educational systems. But what is an alternative school and who are they for? Read on to learn what today's alternative schools have to offer students.

Alternative Education: A Historically Non-Traditional Option

Alternative education has long been an option for students who would be better served in a non-traditional academic setting, from the founding of schools by leaders in the Transcendentalist movement (e.g. The Temple School, founded by Bronson Alcott in 1834) on up to the arrival of Montessori schools in 1907 and the development of magnet schools in the 1960s.

Today, the definition of alternative education can be very broad. In fact, 43 different state school systems (and Washington D.C.) each have their own formal definition of alternative education, though these programs are typically for middle and high school students who need additional services outside of what can be provided in a traditional school setting or would benefit from different scheduling or instructional formats than what's found in your typical school day.

Who Attends Alternative School?

The needs served by alternative schools are as diverse as their student bodies. There are alternative schools and educational programs for:

  • Students with behavioral or emotional difficulties
  • Students with specialized academic interests or talents
  • Students with certain disabilities, medical needs or learning disorders
  • Students who are at risk for dropping out or have dropped out
  • Students who have been suspended, expelled or incarcerated
  • Student parents

What Types of Alternative Schools Are Available?

Alternative schools may be part of a public school system or they may be privately run. Alternative schools can be set up in the same building as a traditional school, though some may be located in separate buildings or within such settings as juvenile justice facilities and hospitals. There are also:

  • Residential (boarding) schools
  • Vocational centers, with equipment and labs pertaining to job training
  • Magnet schools, usually designed to attract students who excel in certain areas
  • Independent study programs, where a student can earn their degree remotely or even online

How Do Alternative Schools Differ from Traditional Schools?

The structure of an alternative school varies depending on students' needs. Most feature smaller class sizes and more individualized attention from instructors and staff. Alternative high schools may also have more flexible requirements for graduation or de-emphasize student competition and grades, choosing instead to focus on personal achievement. Other alternative schools offer a very structured environment, with more discipline and consequences for disruptive behavior. Some schools conduct classes at night, while others may run on weekends.

These schools can also offer a variety of counseling, behavioral and special education services, as well as social skills instruction and career training, in addition to coursework in more traditional content areas.

What Are the Admissions Requirements?

Some schools (such as magnet schools) are an option for all students. While testing or an audition may be required for entry, it's ultimately the student's choice to attend.

Other alternative schools are prescribed, meaning student attendance is court-ordered or the student is identified through testing or counseling as one who is not benefiting from traditional schooling. This is usually the case for students with behavioral issues, special education needs or a criminal record. However, because most states have different definitions of alternative education, admission criteria vary.

An Alternative to the Alternative

Another alternative to traditional high school is the General Educational Development (GED) program. Earning a GED certificate through testing is equivalent to earning a high school diploma. However, passing the GED exams will require hard work and a lot of studying!

Fortunately, if you are considering this option, has plenty of resources covering all subject areas found on the test. Check out our expert-taught and fully-online courses in:

Or view this GED Study Guide for a comprehensive look at the test itself. Our self-paced coursework means you can review what you need to review any time of the day, anywhere! Plus, a quiz at the end of each lesson means you'll never get left behind.

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