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Alternative Schools

What are alternative schools?

These schools were established to meet the needs of students who cannot succeed in a traditional classroom. This typically includes students who have learning differences, psychological or behavioral issues or who are highly capable intellectually. Alternative schools attend to the needs of the whole student in their educational plan, creating a more flexible classroom experience. Curriculum elements may focus on improving student self-esteem, fostering independence and enhancing social skills.

In the past, alternative schools were for disruptive students or those with poor prospects for graduation. However, now the learning community and parents recognize that for many kinds of students, a traditional classroom is not an ideal environment. Alternative high schools now provide a more constructive environment for adolescents with issues such as personality disorders, substance abuse, or depression. For students with learning differences, ADHD, dyslexia and Asperger’s syndrome, alternative schools integrate academic program with clinical services.

Types of alternative schools

  • Local alternatives to public schools, for example, charter schools, magnet schools, at-risk programs
  • Schools for autism
  • Independent private schools
  • Wilderness programs

Steps to take when considering an alternative high school

First investigate the school’s accreditation, staff credentials, curriculum, student support services and student population to make sure that the school will meet your student’s needs. For example, a therapeutic wilderness program should have trained wilderness counselors, medical support and demonstrate that they are teaching students wilderness skills.

For schools that a focus on a certain talent or giftedness, be prepared to tackle a rigorous application process with many requirements and inflexible deadlines. School visits and interviews are mandatory. For children with special needs, parents will need to coordinate communication among the school, therapists and support services providers. The prospective school may require additional diagnostic assessments and those appointments often fill quickly. Schools serving at-risk youth require recommendations from a therapist or psychiatrist. In some cases, the student may need to be escorted from her home to the school by specially trained personnel. Family therapy sessions can help the student and her family to handle these emotional situations. Public schools are obligated to provide free and safe education to all students. If the existing school services cannot meet the student’s needs, schools are obligated to pay for schooling in alternative schools. As public schools may be reluctant to award these services, parents should have an up to date IEP (individualized education plan) and demonstrate that the IEP is not addressing the child’s problems. Recent testing results from an independent psychologist are helpful and the support of an attorney may be useful in urging the school to find and pay for an alternative school program.

Some reasons to consider an alternative high school for your student

  • She has a special talent which cannot be further developed in her present school
  • She intellectually gifted
  • She is not thriving in her current school, is a consistent underachiever
  • She has a learning difference or medical condition
  • She has demonstrated risky behaviors such as drug use, inappropriate sexual activity or oppositional defiance
  • She has been diagnosed with emotional or psychological conditions

While parents may understandably be reluctant to take their student out of the mainstream for education, there is good evidence of successful outcomes. In the case of therapeutic boarding schools, more than 85% of students go on to successful lives working, enjoying restored family relationships and free from substance abuse.

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