Alternative high schools for at-risk students

Alternative high schools provide educational opportunities for students whose needs are not met by a traditional school model, often, students who have quit, been expelled, or are at increased risk of dropping out. Alternative schools generally offer services such as childcare or support groups, have a flexible structure, supportive environments, and small classes, and emphasize interactions between teachers and students. Such schools are frequently established in low income communities and housed outside of traditional schools. Alternative high schools are distinct from community-based alternative education programs for at-risk students that supplement traditional high school learning (CG-TFR Education). 

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased high school graduation

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that alternative high schools for at-risk students improve high school graduation rates (CG-TFR Education, Campbell-Wilson 2011). On average, alternative schools increase graduation rates among students at risk of dropping out by 15.5% (CG-TFR Education).

Interviews with at-risk students suggest that students are more likely to stay in alternative high schools that provide safe spaces physically, emotionally, and psychologically; foster a sense of community; affirm students’ racial/ethnic identities; and use flexible disciplinary systems based on discussion and conflict resolution ().

Implementation challenges such as staffing or funding difficulties, problems with the physical space, and low program attendance or completion rates can reduce the effectiveness of alternative high schools (Campbell-Wilson 2011).

The cost of alternative schools varies significantly, ranging from $1,700 to $12,900 per student. The estimated benefit to cost ratio for alternative schools ranges from 0.6 to 1 to 1.6 to 1 (CG-TFR Education).

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

Alternative education programs have been formally defined in 43 states; definitions vary, but usually include guidelines about services, for example, regular academic instruction (21 states), counseling (14 states), social and life skills training (13 states), vocational and workplace preparation (12 states), or behavioral services (e.g., anger management or conflict resolution) (11 states) (IES-Porowski 2014).

In the 2007-2008 school year, there were about 10,300 alternative schools or alternative education programs for at-risk students administered by school districts across the country; approximately 63% of these schools or programs were offered in facilities outside of traditional public schools (NCES-Rouse Carver 2010). University High School in Boston, MA and Middle College High School in Seattle, WA are examples of alternative high schools that offer enhanced social services, flexible enrollment policies, small classes, counseling and mentoring support, and vocational training and work experiences (ABCD-UHS, SPS-MCHS).

Several national non-profit organizations have developed alternative education programs into pathways to earn high school diplomas or GEDs. For example, The Corps Network supports students earning high school diplomas or GEDs with more personal attention in the classroom; comprehensive academic, career, and personal counseling; and job skills training (TCN-Impacts). YouthBuild, which began as a community-based program that teaches construction skills while building affordable housing, now also supports over 50 YouthBuild alternative high schools (Bloom 2010, YouthBuild-Education).

Implementation Resources

PSR-State search - Public School Review (PSR). Find public schools: Search public schools by state.

Urban-Aron 2006 - Aron LY. An overview of alternative education. The Urban Institute; 2006.

Citations - Evidence

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Campbell-Wilson 2011 - Wilson SJ, Tanner-Smith EE, Lipsey MW, Steinka-Fry KT, Morrison J. Dropout prevention and intervention programs: Effects on school completion and dropout among school-aged children and youth: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2011:8.

CG-TFR Education - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Task Force Recommends (TFR) Education Programs to Promote Health Equity.

O’Gorman 2016* - O’Gorman E, Salmon N, Murphy CA. Schools as sanctuaries: A systematic review of contextual factors which contribute to student retention in alternative education. International Journal of Inclusive Education. 2016;20(5):536–551.

Citations - Implementation Examples

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Bloom 2010 - Bloom D. Programs and policies to assist high school dropouts in the transition to adulthood. Future of Children. 2010;20(1):89-108.

IES-Porowski 2014 - Porowski A, O’Conner R, Luo JL. How do states define alternative education? Washington, DC: US Department of Education (US ED), Institute of Education Sciences (IES), National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Regional Educational Laboratory Mid-Atlantic (REL); 2014.

NCES-Rouse Carver 2010 - Rouse Carver P, Lewis L. Alternative schools and programs for public school students at risk of educational failure: 2007–08. Washington, DC: US Department of Education (US ED), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES); 2010.

YouthBuild-Education - YouthBuild USA. Secondary education.

TCN-Impacts - The Corps Network (TCN). Our impact: Engaging young people in service projects that address environmental and community issues.

ABCD-UHS - Action for Boston Development (ABCD). University High School (UHS): An alternative path to graduation.

SPS-MCHS - Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Middle College High School (MCHS): An alternative high school option.

Date Last Updated

Aug 4, 2016