Alternative education programs provide an environment conducive to learning for at risk students or students who did not succeed in the traditional classroom for a variety of reasons. A recent study claims that nearly 25% of high school students in the U.S. are considered at risk. Considering the large numbers and the success of innovative programs, alternative education seems to be the trend for the future.
Several commonalities exist in successful alternative programs. Due to the innovative nature of creating a system specifically designed to fit the diversity of the at risk student population, most of the programs feature creative, yet common sense solutions to standard classroom obstacles. In reality, the attributes found in quality alternative educational programs could also greatly enhance student learning in traditional settings as well.
Effective alternative programs eliminate archaic rules, reduce numbers of students in a classroom, individualize instruction, create a welcoming environment with personalization whenever possible, consider different learning styles and teaching styles, implement technology to create 21st century learners and offer curricula relevant to students in order for them to make real-world connections.
Roles of key players also evolve into a more natural learning process with teachers guiding students to discover information, rather than the teacher being the expert.
One common element often found in alternative settings is empowerment of the teachers and students. In an attempt to help more students finish high school, many successful alternative programs eliminate punitive rules that serve little purpose, allow teachers to use more creative methods, and design curriculum more relevant to students.
Phasing out teachers as the expert and blending in the philosophy of teachers becoming mentors who guide students to take control of their learning, aids in creating an autonomous learner who begins to think on his own, research on his own and discover on his own. In many quality alternative programs teacher/student relationships look more like collaborative or cooperative learning.
The idea is to teach students how to think on their own and hone critical thinking skills applicable to school and life. When students are allowed to be part of the learning process, they are more likely to take pride in ownership of the work they achieve. The results will be authentic and relevant to the lives of students.
Personalization and individualized instruction. Research covering many successful alternative programs reveals personalization as a key ingredient to success. Personalization creates a warm environment where students feel safe and are willing to take risks.
A deep sense of community forms when students and teachers work as a team. The student takes charge of his learning experience as a personal stakeholder. Advocacy teams, community service and other support resources let students know they are valued.
The at-risk student population is generally considered those who most likely will not finish high school. At-risk learners do not achieve in standard high schools.
These discouraged learners may have issues including poor attendance, teen parents, full time jobs, habitual truancy, or lag behind in academics. They may live in poverty or experience homelessness. Flexible schedules regarding time of day, days of the week or year-round school options are needed to work around student schedules. Variations on attendance rules also help with individual needs.
Innovations such as programs featuring on site as well as on line classes focus on student needs and can be adapted to different grade levels. Other innovative options to keep teens in school include computer based programs, smaller learning communities, community-based services, and other models designed to serve a diverse population of students who need to be exempt from the bureaucratic standard rules.
Disengaged students in traditional schools cited boring subjects that didn’t relate to their lives as a big problem. They wanted to gain skills to apply in the workplace. They wanted to make real life connections to make sense of what they learned in the classroom. Technology assists that goal.
Students can access people, places and resources all over the world. Access to updated computer hardware and software, the latest trends in technology and digital media, play a large role in student success in alternate schools. Encouraging use of electronic technology such as Opts, cell phones, blogging, Face book, Twitter, live or interactive research, video games and many other tools helped students research and make connections to their lives.
A large variety of instructional methods and changes in traditional curriculum exist in alternative settings. One of the current trends finding successful results features Project Based Learning (PbL). Many classroom teachers have students do projects as part of a unit. However, not all projects lead to learning.
PbL, on the other hand, is a methodology design based on research, critical thinking, content mastery and accountability. It teaches students the 21st century skills they need for success in life. PbL helps students through an inquiring process designed to stimulate thinking and engage learning. The PbL model comes from the Buck Institute for Education originating in Indiana.
Project Based Learning allows the student to research areas of interest on a deeper level. The Buck Institute model reflects current thinking on secondary school reform focused on relevance and relationship as keys to success. The Institute defines Project Based Learning as:
a systematic teaching method that engages students in learning essential knowledge and life-enhancing skills through an extended, student-influenced inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.
Information on PbL can be found at www.bie.org
Project Based Learning is only one example of a new approach to student learning. Many other models exist. Whether it’s PbL or another innovative method to engage and improve student learning, it’s apparent that the best alternative programs incorporate innovative, creative models. The out-dated methods and irrelevant material taught in many standard classrooms simply don’t exist in most quality alternative programs.