Alternative education has historically served diverse populations of students, including those whose academic, social, political, or religious values diverged from the mainstream, as well as those who were unsuccessful within the regular public school system. There are two basic types of alternative schools: (1) those for students who would be considered "at risk" or who simply have not flourished in a traditional setting, and (2) those for students with disciplinary problems or disruptive behavior.
Many students who are enrolled in alternative schools and programs are considered "at risk". "At risk" can be generally defined as involving the risk of education failure, as indicated by poor grades, truancy, disruptive behavior, pregnancy, or similar factors associated with temporary or permanent withdrawal from school. Research also indicates that about 12% of all students in alternative schools and programs for at-risk students were special education students (typically with learning or emotional/behavioral disabilities).
The 1970s were a period of growth for the more traditional alternative programs (targeted at at-risk students), although new programs continue to be established. The second wave of programs — those serving students with discipline problems — grew out of the federal Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 and out of state laws that put zero tolerance in place in the mid-1990s. Although initial state enactments were targeted to expel students who brought weapons to school, many states later modified their laws to address lesser offenses as well, resulting in increased numbers of expelled students. However, alternative education programs can address this problem by reaching and helping students when traditional schools have not. Many programs can provide safe harbor for students who have been bullied or who have felt neglected or rejected in comprehensive school settings.
Typically, the biggest advantages of alternative schools are their personalized, diverse programs and teaching that is more likely to be targeted toward individual student strengths. Nontraditional programs offer unique educational experiences and opportunities that often defy conventional structures bound by rigid curricula.
- Are designed to meet a variety of needs including preventing students from dropping out of school, providing another educational option, serving as a disciplinary consequence or providing academic/behavioral remediation
- Are primarily designed for high school-age students, although many states have schools that are serving younger students
- Are accessed by students in a variety of ways ranging from student choice (usually with some specified parameters) to mandatory placement
- Often have criteria for enrollment (e.g., students may be admitted as a result of suspension or expulsion or they must meet some form of at-risk criteria)
- Serve students for varying amounts of time (e.g., short-term placement and transition back to traditional school or long-term commitment through graduation)
- Offer educational programs that typically include one or more of the following: an emphasis on individual instruction, a focus on basic academic skills, social services (e.g., counseling or social skills instruction) and/or community or work-based learning.
National Center for Education Statistics, Public Alternative Schools and Programs for Students At Risk of Education Failure: 2000–01, September 2002
National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, Alternative Schools and Students with Disabilities: Identifying and Understanding the Issues, October 2004
Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University College of Education, Innovation and Accountability: Vouchers, Charters, and the Florida Virtual School, April 2004
Education Commission of the States, State Policies Related to Alternative Education, November 2005