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Alternative Schooling

Types of Alternative Schools, Alternative School Models, International Alternative Schools, Conclusion

The term alternative schooling has always referred to nontraditional public and private educational approaches available by choice to parents and students. These programs, ranging from actual schools to programs within schools to single classrooms, began to evolve during the late 1960s and grew from a few isolated innovations in local communities into an educational reform involving millions of students. By the year 2000 it was estimated that over 15 percent of the students enrolled in public education in the United States were attending a public school of choice.

Since the late 1500s there have been private schools, parochial schools, or home schooling alternatives for those who could afford them or whose beliefs dictated a particular approach to education. Yet until the latter part of the twentieth century, public education in the United States was characterized by an unusual uniformity. With the exception of vocational/technical schools and a few selective programs for at-risk or gifted and talented students, almost all school districts had traditionally assigned families to schools based on residence addresses and geographic boundaries. Since students were assigned to a particular school, public education worked to assure that all schools had uniform programs. By the mid-to late 1960s, this emphasis on public school uniformity began to change. Beginning with a few highly innovative experimental schools and dropout and continuation programs, alternative schooling emerged as a grassroots revolution, which has grown to include a variety of different types of educational options in the private and public sectors. These include religious and private not-for-profit schools, technological educational options, and thousands of distinctive public alternative, magnet, and charter schools. The concept of alternative schooling, which first emerged as a radical idea on the fringe of public education, evolved to a mainstream approach found in almost every community in the United States and increasingly throughout the world. This mosaic of distinctive educational programs is referred to as public schools of choice.

Alternative schools represent one of the most significant educational movements ever to occur in the United States. According to a 1999 study from the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) of Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, between 1993 and 1996 the number of students attending public schools of choice rose from 11 percent to 13 percent. PACE projected that the number of students attending a public school of choice would increase another 15 percent by 2000. Career-theme magnet schools, the most widely used type of educational option in public education, have likewise experienced dramatic growth. From 1991 to 1992 school districts across the United States operated 2,400 magnet schools and 3,200 magnet programs involving more than a million students. By 1996 the number of students attending magnet schools had grown to 1.5 million students, with over 120,000 students on waiting lists. In 2001 magnet schools were expected to enroll more than two million students in over 5,000 schools and programs. Charter schools also have experienced rapid growth, following the opening of the nation's first two schools in Minnesota in 1992, to an estimated 2,500 charters as of 2001, serving 1 to 2 percent of all public school students.

Two states in particular have experienced significant growth in alternative schooling within public education. In Minnesota, the numbers of students enrolled in some type of alternative schooling has grown from 4,000 students in 1990 to more than 112,000 students in the year 2000. In Arizona, as of 2000, there were 359 charter schools serving about fifty thousand students–about 6 percent of the states' 800,000 students.

National statistics regarding school choice often do not include the number of parents choosing non-public options (those choosing private schools, home schooling, participating in for-pay, online learning) or who are influenced in selecting their home residence by where their children will go to school. The number of K–12 home-schooled students grew from approximately 800,000 in 1990 to1.7 million in 1998; by 1999 it was estimated that there were approximately two million children and youth being home schooled. In 1993 the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimated that 20 percent of the students in grades 3 to 12 were enrolled in public and private schools chosen by their parents. PACE estimated that the number would rise to 25 percent by the year 2000. In addition, 39 percent of the parents interviewed by NCES reported that the public school their children would attend influenced their choice of residence. Even more striking, they reported that 72 percent of parents earning more than $50,000 responded that they had first chosen some type of school of choice–private schools, public school optional programs, or public schools–and then selected their residence.

For a concept that has had such a revolutionary impact on public education, the idea of alternative schooling and public schools of choice is really quite simple. It involves little more than diversifying public education by creating distinctive educational programs designed to meet the needs and interests of specific groups of students and providing these programs to parents, students, and teachers through voluntary choice. More recently, as charter schools have developed, the concept of school choice has also come to mean the opportunity for an individual school to exchange many state and locally mandated rules, regulations, and requirements for contractually specified student performance outcomes.

Since the first alternative public schools were identified and studied in the late 1960s, the underlying definition and characteristics of schools of choice have remained relatively unchanged. They include:

  • Voluntary participation: Students, parents, and teachers voluntarily participate in a school of their choice.
  • Small school size: Schools of choice (alternative, magnet, and charter schools) have sought to humanize and personalize learning by creating small educational options. The average enrollment for a school of choice has remained at approximately 250 students for more than twenty years.
  • Caring teachers with high expectations: Since teachers voluntarily participate in schools of choice, they become highly invested in the school. This investment translates into a strong motivation for both student achievement and school success.
  • Customized curriculum/personalized instruction: Schools of choice offer students, parents, and teachers opportunities to participate in a highly focused curriculum with value-added enhancements. Students in public schools of choice meet state requirements for high school graduation through participating in a curriculum designed to both motivate student learning and provide experiences that relate to individual needs, interests, and career aspirations.
  • Safe learning environment: Research has documented a remarkable lack of violence, vandalism, and disruptive behavior in schools of choice. Students and families consistently report feeling both physically and emotionally safe to participate and learn.

While these five critical components can be found in alternative, magnet, and charter schools, research during the latter 1990s further developed these core characteristics into a complex of essential components, which represent the current spectrum of different types of established school models.

Types of Alternative Schools

By the year 2000 alternative schooling had expanded to include a dozen distinctive opportunities to participate in schools of choice.

  • Alternative or optional schools: A wide variety of established alternative schools serve all levels and kinds of students. These schools range from programs for at-risk, expelled, and violent students to schools for the exceptionally gifted and talented. Many alternative or optional schools serve heterogeneous student bodies with average achievement and behavior characteristics.
  • Career-theme or technical magnet schools: Originally popularized as part of court-ordered desegregation efforts, magnet schools emerged over time into specialized programs employing career themes. Students complete high school graduation requirements while they focus on and apply curriculum to a career theme, academic discipline, or area of emphasis, and by participating in relevant work and service experiences.
  • Charter schools: As of 2001 these schools had been approved by legislatures in thirty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Charter schools exchange many of the rules and regulations of public education for the opportunity to operate with autonomy to demonstrate student achievement.
  • Contract schools: School districts "contract" with an organization or group (usually private) to provide public education services. Examples of these schools include schools to teach disruptive and/or suspended students, programs to supplement reading services, and in some cases actually contracting out the entire administrative and/or educational operation of a school district.
  • Open enrollment programs: Parents and their children may choose to attend any public school in their district or in another district to which their state education funds would follow. Transportation is usually provided if the students' home residence district and school district share a common physical boundary.
  • Residential alternatives: A number of states, including North Carolina, Maine, Louisiana, and Texas have established academic-focused residential science/mathematics high schools for gifted and talented students in cooperation with state universities.
  • Voucher programs: Three states, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida, have attempted to establish voucher programs to provide publicly funded vouchers to poor students "trapped" in low-performing public schools. These vouchers may be applied to the tuition costs of attending private or parochial schools. Publicly funded voucher programs, as of 2001, continue to be involved in litigation regarding the issue of expending public funds for private or parochial education.
  • Home schools: Since the 1970s there has been a dramatic growth in the home schooling of K–12 students. Most states require public schools to offer a variety of services, courses, and programs to home-schooled students.
  • Internet courses and programs: During the late 1990s a growing number of courses, programs, and schools available through the Internet emerged. These learning opportunities are offered by community colleges, universities, private educational organizations, and an increasing number of public school districts.
  • Blending high school with college: A number of states encourage high school students to begin taking college courses during the eleventh and twelfth grades. Some states have created "middle colleges" within community colleges and universities to better serve high school students. A number of states permit students to double-list mutually approved courses so that they meet both high school and college requirements.
  • Area learning centers: Established first in Minnesota, area learning centers are open from early morning to late evening year-round (some are open twenty-four hours a day), serving K–12 students and adults. The centers offer both General Educational Development (GED) and regular diplomas as well as child care and are available to students on a full-or part-time basis.

Each of these school/program types are represented by established, successful working models. These programs serve as the benchmarks of effective practice in alternative schooling.

Alternative School Models

Thousands of schools of choice offering alternative schooling have been developed, successfully evaluated, and replicated. Within these schools exist a wide array of approaches to implementing curriculum, instruction, and school governance and management. These established models reflect a truly worldwide educational revolution and include:

  • Schools that focus on unique curricular and instructional approaches: These alternative schools include: Montessori schools, based on the ideas of the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori; open schools, outgrowths of the British infant school design; Waldorf schools, inspired by the philosophy of the German educator Rudolf Steiner; multiple intelligence schools, founded on the theories of the Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner; Paideia schools, established by the philosopher Mortimer Adler; free schools and self-directed education based on the concepts of the Scottish educator Alexander S. Neill; as well as continuous progress schools, schools without walls, and traditional "back-to-basics" schools.
  • Schools that focus on the needs and interests of students: The vast majority of alternative schools were developed to address the specific needs of children. These alternatives include: teen parent schools, dropout and dropout-prevention schools, schools for expelled or incarcerated students, and schools for the gifted and talented.
  • Schools that focus on career themes and professional relevance: Career-theme magnet schools complement academic studies with intensive experience in workplace/career settings. These schools, which operate primarily at the secondary level, include: performing arts schools, radio and television broadcasting schools, health professional schools, law/legal schools, science/technology schools, teaching career schools, and dozens of other career-focused educational options as well as academic, disciplinary-focused programs in international studies, multicultural issues, environmental studies, and most of the traditional academic disciplines.
  • Alternatives that focus on experiential learning: Based on the ideas of the American philosopher John Dewey, many alternative schools in the United States emphasize learning by doing. Examples of these programs include Schools Without Walls, where students learn in banks, businesses, courtrooms, museums, and government agencies rather than in typical school classrooms; Foxfire, where students learn by collecting and publishing the folklore of their region; and Outward Bound/Expeditionary Learning, where students learn through expeditions and experiences in their communities.
  • Alternatives that focus on organization, administration, governance, and funding: There are also a number of established models for organizing, administering, governing, and funding alternative schooling. These include the stand-alone alternative schools, schools within schools, clusters of alternative schools, complex systems of alternatives, such as those found in Louisville, Kentucky; Houston, Texas; Los Angeles, California; and Vancouver, Washington. In many of these districts, as high as 30 percent of the total student enrollment participate in schools of choice. The most recent type of alternative school, the charter school, which may represent any of the described alternative models, receives a state charter and public funding to operate in a highly autonomous manner.

These models represent the landscape of alternative schools successfully operating as of 2001. No two are exactly alike, as a primal characteristic of these programs is their unique identity. While these schools share the common concepts of alternative programs, their actual operations often vary considerably.

International Alternative Schools

As alternative schools began to appear in the late 1960s in the United States, similar development was occurring around the globe. Jerry Mintz's 1996 book The Handbook of Alternative Education identified alternative schooling in twenty-three nations representing the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Asia, Australia, Micronesia, and the West Indies. Canada, with 114 programs reported throughout its provinces, clearly held the largest number, as most other countries reported five or fewer programs. Most of the programs identified represented the categories of independent, Montessori, Waldorf, open/choice programs, and schools for at-risk students. While the handbook represents the most recent source for documenting the existence of international alternative schools, many schools undoubtedly were not identified. Denmark, for example, has hundreds of Tvind alternative public schools, and other nations, such as Hong Kong, Brazil, Japan, Russia, and Australia have multiple examples of alternative schools. Charter schools have also begun to appear in other nations, particularly in Canada.

As most countries provide public education through national systems of organization and governance, it is important to note that local control, as is practiced in the United States, clearly appears to foster dramatically higher numbers and types of alternative schools. Yet, as of 2001, interest in and growth of alternative programs and schools in other nations is clearly on the increase. The public demand for choice in schooling appears to be significantly impacting educational systems throughout the world.


Alternative schooling has become an integral component of public education in the United States and is also gaining increasing popularity in many other nations. These developments have evolved from a grassroots effort by parents and educators, experimenting to locate better ways to educate their school-age children and integrate educational ideas from some of the world's most recognized educational leaders. Federal support in the United States of schools of choice has also contributed to the growth of choice programs. Nationally elected officials of the United States, representing their public constituencies, have clearly identified schools of choice as a valued priority. As of 2001 it is clear that alternative schooling, with three decades of development and success, is not only effective in teaching all types of students but is also highly desired by parents and students. It is also obvious that the practices developed in the early schools of choice are contributing to local, state, and national efforts to improve public education in the United States. Based on these realities, the continued growth and expansion of schools of choice is likely to continue.


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ERIC CLEARINGHOUSE ON EDUCATIONAL MANAGEMENT. 1999. "Trends and Issues: School Choice." <http://eric.uoregon.edu/trends_issues/choice/index.html>.



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