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What is an "Alternative School"?

by Dore Frances, Ph.D., founder of Horizon Family Solutions, LLC
What is an "Alternative School"? An alternative school is an educational setting designed to accommodate behavioral, educational, and/or medical needs of adolescents that may not be adequately addressed in a traditional public or private school environment.

Alternative schools have been established since about the late 1970s to meet the needs of children and adolescents who cannot learn effectively in a traditional school environment (i.e., conventional public or private schools) due to behavioral issues, certain medical conditions, learning challenges, and or psychological issues.

In general, alternative schools have more complete educational and developmental objectives than standard schools. They often have program fundamentals that focus on improving student self-esteem, fostering growth of individuality, and enhancing social skills. Alternative schools are more flexible in their administration and organization, which allows for more variety in educational programs. Once available primarily for disruptive students and those at risk for dropping out of a traditional school environment, alternative schools have expanded significantly in purpose as educators, parents, and wider communities recognize that many adolescents may not learn successfully in a traditional school environment. For children and adolescents with behavioral and psychological issues, such as depression, personality disorders, substance use and abuse, and violence, alternative schools may provide a safer therapeutic environment and more individualized attention than traditional schools. For children and adolescents with certain medical conditions and learning challenges such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome, and dyslexia, alternative schools may provide combined clinical and education services in one place to ease learning.

Alternative school structure and curriculum varies depending on the educational goals and desired student population. Alternative schools may not be accessible or available locally and may require additional daily travel or residential boarding by the student.

Usually, local alternatives to public schools do not require a monthly tuition, while private schools do require parents to pay a monthly tuition for student attendance.

A number of different types of alternative schools exist, including the following:

  • emotional growth boarding schools
  • independent private schools
  • local alternatives to public schools, for example, at-risk programs, charter schools, magnet schools,
  • special-needs day schools
  • therapeutic wilderness programs

For parents who desire a local alternative to traditional public and private schools, several charter and magnet schools may be available, especially in urban areas.

Charter schools are independent, publicly funded schools run by foundations, parents or teachers that are often formed to meet local community needs as an alternative to public schools. Charter schools may have a special focus, such as music or technical skills.

As of 2004, virtual charter schools have been formed that offer all courses via the Internet or other distance learning methods for students who need to remain at home or whose parents wish them to remain at home. Magnet schools are public schools that offer specialized programs designed to attract students wishing to enhance particular skills.

Magnet schools were originally formed in the 1960s and 1970s to promote voluntary racial desegregation in urban school districts. Magnet schools often advertise themselves as "centers of excellence" in a certain area, such as performing arts, mathematics or science. Both charter and magnet schools generally have smaller classes and enhanced extracurricular offerings. For children and adolescents identified as "at-risk" by the public school district, alternative programs may be available. Usually, at-risk alternative programs are offered at a special location within the public school district or at a location that is accessible to and serves multiple public schools (e.g., a county-wide program).

At-risk students usually have undergone school psychological and behavioral evaluations that identify them as requiring specialized attention not available in the traditional school environment. Suitable programs may include emotionally disturbed, oppositional, and disruptive students and offer smaller classes, specially trained staff, and closer supervision. Some programs may be dedicated to serving a particular group of at-risk students, such as pregnant teens and teen mothers. Researchers have estimated that more than 280,000 at-risk students in the United States are in alternative programs offered by school districts or private boarding schools. Special-needs day schools focus on special education programs to meet the needs of children and adolescents with learning disabilities and learning challenges. Students with severe ADHD, moderate-to-severe physical or behavioral obstacles, and other specialized educational needs receive customized instruction with individualized lesson plans, special counseling, adaptive physical education, speech therapy, and other supportive services to ensure that they can learn despite educational barriers caused by a medical condition or learning disability.

Independent private schools are privately funded schools controlled by an individual or non-government organization. Private schools may be day schools or boarding schools.

Private schools require that parents pay tuition and usually have a competitive admissions process requiring students to complete an application and interview.

Private schools usually emphasize academic and/or athletic achievement, and student acceptance is based on academic and athletic potential, as well as enthusiasm for being active in school community life.

Private schools have smaller classes, a more structured learning environment, a variety of extracurricular activities, and individualized opportunities for developing student creativity and intellect.

Therapeutic wilderness programs involve group and individual therapy in an outdoor adventure setting. More and more are now including some academics as parents have their students in these programs all throughout the year and not just in the summer months. These programs generally run for six to eight weeks.

Therapeutic wilderness programs use the outdoors to rapidly influence adolescents with at-risk behaviors through emotional and physical challenges that help them understand unhealthy behaviors and gain a more positive sense of self and responsibility.

Group therapy employed in a wilderness setting helps adolescents learn how to successfully interact with peers. Therapeutic wilderness programs are appropriate for adolescents who have exhibited extreme defiance; who have a history of running away, poor school performance (failing), sexual promiscuity, substance abuse and violence.

Therapeutic wilderness programs often serve as a transition to long-term therapeutic placement in an emotional growth boarding school or residential treatment center depending on the needs of the adolescent. Emotional growth boarding schools integrate therapeutic programs with academics to provide for students whose behavioral, emotional, and psychological issues prevent them from learning effectively in a traditional school environment. Therapeutic components of these schools include daily and weekly group and individual therapy, highly structured learning and living environments, experiential learning, and individualized academic programming. Because the root of many behavioral and emotional challenges is low self-esteem and a negative perception of self, emotional growth programs focus on assisting students permanently change negative self-perceptions, discovering and healing emotional trauma, and identifying and changing negative behaviors.

Emotional growth boarding schools usually offer rolling admission; that is, students are accepted year-round and academics are available year-round. This type of operation helps parents whose adolescent needs emergency placement.

Candidates for emotional growth boarding schools are enrolled from therapeutic wilderness programs or undergo educational and psychological testing to determine their academic and therapeutic needs. Poor academic performance, a symptom of many emotional problems, is expected, and trained counselors, staff, and teachers provide support to improve student performance.

While emotional growth boarding schools use different therapeutic models, depending on the school, most programs do use some sort of incentive-based learning and therapy, wilderness therapy, and intensive counseling to improve student decision-making, interpersonal skills, academic performance, and emotional coping skills.

These schools also use the arts, sports, and interaction with animals, such as equine therapy. Parents considering alternative schools need to thoroughly investigate the school's available curriculum, credentials, staff training, student support services, and student population to make sure that the needs of their adolescent will be met and that long term results are the goal, and not a "quick-fix". There are a number of wilderness programs available for different types of students. Not all have a therapeutic component.

In addition, some wilderness programs employ "boot camp" methods that may be unsafe for children and adolescents. A therapeutic wilderness program needs to have certified and/or trained wilderness counselors and medical support services, as well as provide training in wilderness skills for participants. Making the decision to place an adolescent in an alternative school is difficult and involves a number of factors. For independent private schools and schools that focus on a specific skill or talent, interviews and applications may be necessary, and advanced students and students with special talents have to complete an often-rigorous application process.

Parents and students need to be prepared to visit all schools under consideration and participate in interviews with school staff as well as visit the campus and speak wit other current students. For adolescents with special medical needs, clinical care may need to be coordinated with current physicians and clinical staff at the new alternative school.

Parents and students need to be prepared to undergo additional educational and medical testing to determine the student's needs for individualized lesson plans.

Schools that accept at-risk children and adolescents require educational and psychological testing, as well as references or recommendations from a professional (usually an educational consultant, psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist). In some situations where the child or adolescent is a danger to himself/herself and/or others, emergency transport services to the therapeutic school are available; specially trained individuals escort the student from their home to the school, even via air travel, to ensure the adolescent's safety. Parents of at-risk children and adolescents need to be prepared emotionally to handle such situations and also to participate in regular family therapy sessions during the alternative program.

Public schools are obligated to provide access to a free and safe education for students, and when their curriculum and support services cannot handle the needs of a particular student, the public school may also be obligated to financially support the student in an alternative school that can better address the student's needs. To prepare for obtaining such financial support, parents of adolescents whose needs are not being met in the public school need to request an official evaluation by a school psychologist and the formulation of an individualized education plan (IEP), which needs to detail how the public school will meet the adolescent's needs. Having an independent psychologist or psychiatrist complete testing as well can provide a second opinion. When the IEP does not address the adolescent's challenges and problems, parents may request that the school pay for an alternative school program.

A child rights advocate, educational consultant and/or attorney specializing in educational issues may help guide parents through this process. Students graduating or transferring from alternative schools may continue to require special support, such as counseling, group therapy, in-home support services, or medical care. Support and encouragement from family members is important. Choosing an alternative school is difficult, particularly for parents of at-risk children and adolescents. Parents who feel that their local school district is not adequately addressing the educational needs of their adolescent need to consider an alternative school.

Reasons for choosing an alternative school vary, depending on the adolescent, who may:

  • be an underachiever or failing and require more individualized attention
  • be exhibiting behaviors such as acting out, inappropriate sexual activity, oppositional defiance and/or substance abuse
  • be unusually gifted or motivated
  • have a special talent or interest, such as music or science, that cannot be further developed in the present school
  • have been diagnosed with emotional and/or psychological problems that require a more structured therapeutic environment
  • have engaged in petty criminal behaviors and is becoming more self-destructive
  • have special needs due to a learning disability or medical condition
An educational consultant can help parents choose an alternative school.

Educational consultants usually have visited many of the programs and schools they recommend and will consider the student's educational needs, psychological evaluations and other test results to determine the alternative school that will best meet their needs.

An attorney specializing in educational issues may help parents obtain financial support for alternative therapeutic programs from the public school when this may appear to be an option.

Educational loans are also available. There is a growing demand for independent school financing which provides assistance for families and their students.

These loans assist with private lending for parents or sponsors to cover the cost of a student's K - 12 educations.

Adolescents and at-risk children involved in an emotional growth school require significant involvement and support from family members, since many behavioral and psychological issues are rooted in family dynamics and history (e.g., adoptions, bitter divorce). Hence, parents may need to make significant changes in their family lifestyle to support their adolescent. Joining a parent support group or receiving parent coaching may help and most emotional growth schools have parent networks. Alternative schools for adolescents and at-risk children may seem too structured and too rigorous with regard to emotional therapy for some parents.

However, outcome research for these types of schools has shown a high success rate; more than 85 percent of students completing such programs have improved family and peer relationships, attend a college or find a job, and remain free from substance use.

Dore Frances, Ph.D., is an educcational consultant, childs right advocate, parent coach, specializing in working with troubled teens and their families in the United States, Canda, and abroad. About Horizon Family Solutions: Horizon Family Solutions is widely recognized as a leader in the ethical and professional delivery of consulting services and treatment planning with families nationally and internationally.See her site at: www.guidingteens.com or contact her by phone at:(541) 312-4422, or email at:Dore@DoreFrances.com.
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