High School Alternatives Could Meet the Evolving Needs of Students
A new report funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Scanning the Landscape of High School Alternatives, discusses alternative high school models and practices. It also touches on the policies and strategies needed to support the growing demand for alternative pathways to high school completion and higher education.
The report from nonprofit Education Northwest draws on findings from interviews and survey responses provided by experts and alternative high school program leaders. The publication was additionally guided by researchers, program leaders, policymakers and alumni of alternative high school programs.
“The alternative high schools profiled in this report incorporate proven practices to support student success, such as including student voices and fostering strong adult-student relationships,” says Ilene Berman, a senior associate with the Foundation’s Evidence-Based Practice Group. “This report offers valuable recommendations for policymakers, educators and funders aimed at strengthening alternative high school options.”
What Are Alternative High Schools?
Alternative high schools are educational programs created to address the diverse needs of students that traditional schools often fail to meet. These programs incorporate different structures and support systems to help students overcome barriers to learning. Examples discussed in this report include:
- YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School;
- New York City’s District 79 — a school district dedicated to alternative high schools; and
- Goodwill Excel Centers — a free high school for adult students operating in multiple locations, including Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis, Indiana.
“When it comes to learning, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, and every student has unique needs,” says Allison Gerber, Casey’s director of Employment, Education and Training. “Offering alternatives to traditional high schools enables students who need more flexibility or support to succeed academically and pursue further education or career opportunities.”
The Benefits of Alternative High Schools
Those interviewed for the report stressed the importance of recognizing how adults think and speak about students and their experiences, needs and interests. When determining the benefits of an alternative high school program, the report cites three advantages:
- Create a supportive environment and set expectations. The report recommends countering the harmful narrative that alternative high schools are for students with poor academic abilities or job prospects. One way to do this is by recognizing and supporting students’ existing strengths to encourage greater confidence and self-esteem. The report also advocates setting high expectations for all students to encourage academic success.
- Share lessons from high school alternatives. The report notes that alternative high school models can implement innovative practices that traditional school systems can adopt to better serve students.
- Listen to students. Program leaders and experts interviewed during the research process emphasized that high school alternatives fail when they do not meet the needs of students. To build high-quality programs, leaders must incorporate the voices of the students they serve.
Developing Program Policies and Budgets
School districts and state and federal governments supervise the development of high school alternatives. To create programs that are financially sound, accountable and successful, respondents made the following suggestions for policymakers:
- Consider alternative accountability measures. Most states use the same accountability standards for traditional and alternative high schools. However, program leaders interviewed for the report argue that these measures do not adequately reflect the engagement, growth or college readiness of students in high school alternatives.
- Increase age limits tied to funding. Six of the 10 alternative high school program leaders who provided survey responses serve students over the age of 24. To better serve students, many interviewees emphasized the importance of increasing the age limits that states tie to funding for high school alternatives.
- Revise credit and diploma requirements. Many high school alternatives are unable to institute effective practices such as work-based learning because of strict policy requirements around how credits and diplomas can be earned. The report argues that requirements like high school exit exams can be a barrier to graduation for students who function best in alternative school settings.
- Create specialized educator certifications. To set up alternative high school teachers for success, the report recommends a set of alternative education certifications that emphasize positive youth development, effective case management and practices that help students address and heal from traumatic experiences.
Ensuring Effective Practices
When asked how high school alternatives can better support students and help them reach goals such as college and career readiness, respondents made the following suggestions:
- Focus on students and their needs. For students to succeed, alternative high school program designers must be aware of the existing educational and emotional barriers young people face. To do this, program leaders must provide personalized support through individualized instruction, counseling and connection to services that address needs such as food or childcare.
- Recognize the importance of adult mentors. Students thrive in alternative high school programs when they have strong relationships with adult educators, counselors or other mentors.
- Provide staff members with the support they need. To perform at their best, educators need a healthy work environment and access to professional development tools tailored to the alternative high school context.
Recommendations for Funders and Policymakers
To develop the best high school alternatives possible, Education Northwest offers the following:
- Fund practices that work. State and local funding policies are often at odds with successful program practices for high school alternatives. Funders and policymakers should advocate for funding policies that have a proven success record.
- Remove policy barriers that hinder success. Advocate at the state and local level for policy changes that encourage student success and program growth.
- Expand to new spaces. Advocates for alternative high schools should help implement existing models or practices that have been effective in new school districts, cities and states.
- Build networks of schools and programs. Through networks of shared concerns and interests, educators and leaders can work together to develop best practices for alternative high school programs, share insights and more.
- Identify and pursue available funding opportunities. Policymakers and funders can support alternative high school programs and students by creating greater awareness and access to funding from public and private entities. They can also help program leaders by developing funding strategies and providing the operational support they need to successfully apply for grants.