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What Should You Look For in an Alternative High School Program?

Authored By: 
Maren Holmen, Academic Liaison

There’s a lot of buzz around the term “alternative high school.”  Students (and their parents) who are not performing well in a more traditional setting are looking for other educational options that don’t sacrifice instructional quality.  But what should you be looking for when researching alternative education?

Identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  Is it just one or two subjects that are difficult, or is it multiple courses?  How does your child approach homework?  Is your child better at learning experientially, visually, or aurally?  Look through old comments on report cards or other teacher correspondence to get some guidance based on a history of educator observations.

What works for one situation may not work for all situations.  As new initiatives like the Common Core cause many parents and students to search for options that aren’t as dependent on assessment, changing to another program that doesn’t have any assessments isn’t always the solution.  Some students do better with more structure, while others are better with a self-paced environment. 

Visit the school.  The internet makes some aspects of research so easy.  You type your keywords into a search engine, you get a myriad of websites to view, and you look at lots of information.  But when it comes to choosing a new program, there is no substitute for visiting the school.  Schedule a visit during the day when classes are in session.  You and your child want to be able to see how students interact with each other and with their teachers.  No virtual tour can replace your gut feeling when it comes to such an important decision. 

You’ll also want to engage the admissions team.  But what questions should you ask?

  • What is the school community like?  How welcoming is the student body?  How much social interaction is there among the students?  It’s important for your child to feel like her school is a place where she feels welcome and can get work done.
  • How experienced is the staff?  How long have they been a part of the school?  High turnover rates usually indicate a lack of faculty satisfaction, which often translates to the classroom.
  • Is it an established program?  Do they have a history of success?  You can also check websites (e.g., www.GreatSchools.org) for parent reviews.
  • How flexible is the program?  Do they have one teaching style/philosophy, or are there multiple styles?  What kind of academic support do they provide?   You are looking for a change to address specific educational needs: can the school address them, and how do they address them?
  • How up-to-date is the school?  Do they have a fully-equipped science lab?  How current are the computers?  Are SMARTBoards, iPads, and/or laptops available?
  • Can you join the program at any time?  How flexible is the scheduling?  Can you make up missing credits during the school year or over the summer?

Hopefully, all of this research pays off, and you and your child find a school that is a great match.  But, despite all of your legwork and pre-planning, there is always a chance that things still won’t work out.  Ask about the school’s tuition policy; many schools do not offer refunds if students withdraw during the year.

Because it’s not just about finding an alternative; it’s about finding an alternative that works.