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Strategy: Alternative High Schools

Strategy Alternative high schools assist youth who have school performance, behavioral, emotional, or learning problems by helping them to . . .


Alternative high schools assist youth who have school performance, behavioral, emotional, or learning problems by helping them to focus on educational goals in an environment that meets their needs, helps keep them from dropping out of school, and serves the community's interest in seeing them complete high school successfully.

Community Problem Addressed

Each day in the United States, an estimated 2,000 youth drop out of school because of academic failure, behavioral problems, or early pregnancy.  Thousands of youth are suspended or expelled because of disruptive or violent behavior.  Out-of-school youth are substantially more likely than their peers to be involved in delinquent or criminal activities.  This strategy provides a structured learning environment for a smaller group of high school-aged youth, which includes supervision, counseling support to establish goals, and guidance on improving behavior.   Alternative high schools are useful for dealing with youth having problems in school and those involved with the juvenile justice system for minor offenses.

Key Components

Alternative high schools, often called "learning academies," are small-scale school environments where a limited number of students receive intensive tutoring, consistent discipline with sanctions, counseling to establish goals for academic success and a transition to work, and guidance on developing life skills to cope with any special needs (child care, learning style that makes traditional teaching or studying techniques a challenge to the student).  The programs are run as separate sections of existing schools or as off-site programs serving students from several areas in the community or a juvenile court jurisdiction.  The alternative schools also can require parents to give permission for their son or daughter to be placed in the environment.  The programs can be voluntary or mandatory.

Key Partnerships

Alternative schools are usually developed in partnership with the juvenile court or police department to handle suspended students or juvenile offenders. School administrators work with teachers, parents, students, and school resource officers to identify students who would benefit from an alternate high school environment.  Parent-teacher organizations can support the program by providing information to all parents, so that any family in need will be aware of services available.

Potential Obstacles

Some local school systems, particularly those in growing communities already strapped for classroom space, will have difficulty financing such programs.  This is a particularly important potential challenge to confront since the alternative school setting requires a more intense concentration of teaching and other resources than traditional classroom environments.  Believing that alternative schools help deter youth from experience with school failure and eventually crime, some local juvenile court and corrections systems support alternative high schools in their communities.  In addition, nearby school districts can pool resources to develop an alternative high school to serve the needs of students from several communities at once.

Examples of Success and Results

The Deer Park Independent School District in Deer Park, Texas [population 35,400], operates the Wolters Learning Center, an alternative high school located across the street from the main high school campus in the suburban community southeast of Houston.  The center is an individualized, self-paced school, which in 1998 had approximately 150 students.  Students who apply are interviewed with a parent, and priority is given to applicants needing credits for graduation and those students who are behind on credits.  The typical Wolters student is one who has not been able to function well in a regular school setting and may experience discipline problems, is pregnant or has a child, has failed at least half of their courses in the previous semester, is employed and looking to increase earning potential by finishing high school, or has been in high school more than four years. 

Credits are awarded by Deer Park High School when students have mastered course requirements.  Performance pacing and goal-setting techniques are used to help students establish measurable objectives and address their problems or special learning styles.  When students complete the required courses for graduation, a diploma is conferred by Deer Park High School.  The center maintains a dress code, promotes a "student of the week" recognition program, and even arranges for students to walk down the main hallway to the cheers of their peers when they complete the last of the required courses.  These activities and intensive staff support offer the youth guidance and reinforcement to reach their academic and employment potential.  In 1998, the Center graduated over 100 students, a number typical for the facility.

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