The phrase alternative education is often associated with students who are at risk and who display extreme misconduct. However, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word alternative as “different from the usual or conventional.”
As I will discuss here, alternative programs are different from traditional classes. They are separate, and can be as small as one class inside of your school or as big as multiple classrooms in a completely different setting within the district. As an administrator and creator of alternative programs, I have always viewed them as a special way to serve students who are unique. Students thrive when we use our creativity to build programs that address the barriers to their success.
When educators look through a positive lens, they can associate alternative education with smaller classes, deeper student/teacher connections, intentional social and emotional interventions, and increased resources. It can be easy to overlook students who do not display adverse behaviors but struggle internally or just need something different from most students. Some students may need a change in setting to help shift their mindset and motivate them for success.
I have used various combinations of the following suggestions during my implementation of alternative programs.
1. Drill Down on Your Students’ Needs
Gather data to identify which students are facing challenges in the traditional setting. In addition to grades, behavior, and attendance, consult with your school social worker and/or counselor. One possible barrier to students succeeding in a traditional setting is an increased need for mental health support. According to the CDC, child and adolescent visits to the emergency room significantly increased during the pandemic. Providing students with a smaller classroom setting, which offers individualized attention, and more social and emotional support can help address those needs. Partnering with a local counseling agency can also be a great idea.
Schools can survey and conduct focus groups with students and parents to gather input and special requests. The focus group could consist of 10 to 12 students who are potential candidates for the alternative program. Ask those students to identify what they need to succeed in school. Find out what is missing from their current schedule in the traditional program. Schools can hold the same type of focus group to gather suggestions from parents.
2. Ask “Why Can’t We…?”
Usually, the answer to that question is trapped in traditional thinking and limited perspectives. There are always some systems that need to be challenged. Do not be limited by old thought processes. Create a plan that pushes against the boundaries. Most of the answers to critical problems in education are innovative and risky. Write your plan on paper to help you visualize the implementation. This can spark even more forward thinking as you plan.
Gather some of your stakeholders (e.g., teachers, support staff, parents) and write answers to the “magic wand question”: If I had a magic wand, what would our alternative program look like? Those responses can be shared in a Google Doc or another shared platform and prioritized as others agree with responses. Leaders can use those responses to help craft a mission and vision for the program. Review district policies that conflict with the program, and consult with your district leadership for requested changes. It is likely that the alternative program must be approved by the district school board before implementation.
3. Build a Safe Environment
It’s important for students to feel emotionally safe in an alternative setting. It’s widely known that students are more likely to succeed when they feel safe. Students enrolled in an alternative program could have some insecurities about being educated differently from their peers. Educators can give students support by celebrating their differences and empowering them. Be willing to spend extra time encouraging and supporting their efforts to overcome their barriers to education.
Checking in with students at the beginning of each class shows that you care about their well-being. Build closeness and security by creating times when students and teachers can sit together and connect. A confidential way to report concerns to teachers (e.g., a locked comment box or Google Form) gives students another opportunity to voice their concerns. It’s also important for leaders to hire or place a teacher who has strength in expressing empathy and building relationships in the classroom to ensure better connections with the students.
4. Create a Visually Inviting Space
Make the alternative program attractive and uplifting. Consider using calming pastel colors to support students’ well-being. Depending on your students’ needs, fun and bright colors could also be appropriate to spark creativity. Comfortable furniture and various types of seating promotes an enjoyable space.
Throughout the year, teachers can post pictures of students and class activities on the wall, which gives a welcoming and family vibe. Be mindful of clutter, though, and keep the classroom space as open as possible to give students room to spread out and move around.
Traditional school settings aren’t a good fit for all students. In addition, needing something different doesn’t make a student bad. Providing students with a high school education that is tailored to their needs helps increase their academic success.