Alternative school


An alternative school is an educational setting designed to accommodate educational, behavioral, and/or medical needs of children and adolescents that cannot be adequately addressed in a traditional school environment.


Alternative schools have been established since about the 1970s to meet the needs of children and adolescents who cannot learn effectively in a traditional school environment (i.e., conventional public or parochial schools) due to learning disabilities, certain medical conditions, psychological and behavioral issues, or advanced skills. In general, alternative schools have more comprehensive educational and developmental objectives than conventional schools. They often have curriculum elements that focus on improving student self-esteem , fostering growth of individuality, and enhancing social skills. Alternative schools are more flexible in their organization and administration, 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 function as educators, parents, and wider communities recognize that many children cannot learn effectively in a traditional school environment. For children and adolescents with psychological and behavioral issues, such as personality disorders , substance use and abuse, depression, and violence, alternative schools can provide a safer therapeutic environment and more individualized attention than traditional schools. For children and adolescents with learning disabilities and certain medical conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia , and Asperger's syndrome, alternative schools can provide integrated education and clinical services in one place to facilitate learning.


Alternative school structure and curriculum varies depending on the educational goals and desired student population. Alternative schools may be available and accessible locally or may require additional daily travel or boarding by the student. Usually, local alternatives to public schools do not require tuition, while private schools do require parents to pay tuition for student attendance.

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

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

For parents who desire a local alternative to traditional public and parochial schools, several charter and magnet schools may be available, especially in urban areas. Charter schools are independent, publicly funded schools run by teachers, parents, or foundations that are often formed to meet local community needs as an alternative to public schools. Charter schools may have a special focus, such as technical skills or music. 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, science, or mathematics. 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 evaluation that identifies them as requiring specialized attention not available in the traditional school environment. Suitable programs can 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 (see below).

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. Depending on the program, academics may or may not be included. Usually, therapeutic wilderness programs do not run for a full school year and thus are not alternative schools per se; however, these programs generally run for a full summer or school semester (six to eight weeks) and may, therefore, be considered alternative education. Therapeutic wilderness programs use the outdoors to rapidly influence adolescents with at-risk behaviors through physical and emotional 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 , substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, poor school performance (failing), and violence; and have not responded to other treatment programs. Therapeutic wilderness programs often serve as a transition to long-term therapeutic placement in a residential treatment center or emotional growth boarding school, depending on the needs of the adolescent.

Emotional growth boarding schools integrate therapeutic programs with academics to provide for students whose emotional, psychological, and behavioral 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 emotional and behavioral problems is low self-esteem and a negative perception of self, emotional growth programs focus on helping 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 children need emergency placement. Candidates for emotional growth boarding schools are enrolled from therapeutic wilderness programs or undergo psychological and educational testing to determine their academic and therapeutic needs. Poor academic performance, a symptom of many emotional problems, is expected, and trained staff, counselors, 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 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 sports , the arts, and interaction with animals as part of therapy.


Parents considering alternative schools should thoroughly investigate the school's credentials, staff training, available curriculum, student support services, and student population to make sure that the needs of their child will be met.

There are a number of wilderness programs available for different types of students, and 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 should have trained and/or certified wilderness counselors and medical support services, as well as provide training in wilderness skills for participants.


Making the decision to place a child in an alternative school can be 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 should be prepared to visit all schools under consideration and participate in interviews with school staff.

For children 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 should be prepared to undergo additional medical and educational testing to determine the student's needs for individualized lesson plans.

Schools that accept at-risk children and adolescents require psychological and educational testing, as well as references or recommendations from a professional (usually a 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 child's safety . Parents of at-risk children and adolescents should 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 if 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 children whose needs are not being met in the public school should request an official evaluation by a school psychologist and the formulation of an individualized education plan (IEP), which should detail how the public school will meet the child's needs. Having an independent psychologist or psychiatrist complete testing as well can provide a second opinion. If the IEP does not address the child's problems, parents can request that the school find and pay for an alternative school program. An educational consultant and attorney specializing in educational issues can help guide parents through this process.


Students graduating or transferring from alternative schools may continue to require special support, such as counseling, group therapy, or medical care. Support and encouragement from family members is important.

Parental concerns

Choosing an alternative school is often 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 child should consider an alternative school. Reasons for choosing an alternative school vary, depending on the child, who may:

  • 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
  • be an underachiever or failing and require more individualized attention
  • have special needs due to a learning disability or medical condition
  • be exhibiting behaviors such as substance abuse, inappropriate sexual activity, acting out , and oppositional defiance
  • have engaged in petty criminal behaviors and is becoming more self-destructive
  • have been diagnosed with emotional and/or psychological problems that require a more structured therapeutic environment

An educational consultant can help parents choose an alternative school. Educational consultants usually have visited any school they recommend and will consider the student's psychological evaluations and other test results to determine the alternative school that will best meet their needs. An attorney specializing in educational issues can help parents obtain financial support for alternative therapeutic programs from the public school.

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


Asperger syndrome —A developmental disorder of childhood characterized by autistic behavior but without the same difficulties acquiring language that children with autism have.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) —A condition in which a person (usually a child) has an unusually high activity level and a short attention span. People with the disorder may act impulsively and may have learning and behavioral problems.

Dyslexia —A type of reading disorder often characterized by reversal of letters or words.

Individualized educational plan (IEP) —A detailed description of the educational goals, assessment methods, behavioral management plan, and educational performance of a student requiring special education services.



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Neumann, Richard. Sixties Legacy: A History of the Public Alternative Schools Movement, 1967–2001. New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2003.


Rimer, S. "Desperate Measures: Parents of Troubled Youths are Seeking Help at any Cost." New York Times September 10, 2001.

Spear, H. J. "Reading, Writing, and Having Babies: A Nurturing Alternative School Program." Journal of School Nursing 18 (October 1, 2002): 293–300.


Advisory Service on Private Schools and Camps. Web site:

Independent Educational Consultants Association. Web site:

Magnet Schools of America. 733 15th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20005. Web site:

National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. 126 North Marina, Prescott, AZ 86301. Web site:

National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps. 698 Dinner Bell—Ohiopyle Road, Ohiopyle PA 15470. Web site:


"Being an Advocate for Your School-Aged Child." National Center for Learning Disabilities. Available online at (accessed October 24, 2004).

Emotional Growth Boarding Schools: National Youth Network. Available online at (accessed October 24, 2004).

Emotional Growth Outdoor Programs: National Youth Network. Available online at (accessed October 24, 2004).

Grunbaum, J. A., et al. "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—2003." MMWR Surveillance Summary 53 (May 21, 2004): 1–96. Available online at (accessed October 24, 2004).

Jennifer E., Sisk, M.A.

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User Contributions:

alternative schools are just like special education school here in our country. they challenge to the needs of children with autism, ADD, ADHD and the like. though, it's sad that it is not that well-funded not like in other countries, this is also because of money and not all parents with special child is able to afford such school and our government here does not do much to help them.

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