High School Alternatives Could Meet the Evolving Needs of Students

Posted November 3, 2022
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A diverse group of high school students, shot from the neck down, stand lined up against lockers in a school hallway.

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. 

Learn How Casey Is Help­ing Stu­dents From Under­served Communities

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