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"Everybody who goes to alternative gets the label," says Zachary. "Automatically."
The label, he explains, is that of "the bad kids in town." Zachary is 16 and a student at the alternative high school in Stockbridge. He says everyone in his small town just grows up thinking "alternative kids" are somehow more trouble than their traditional school counterparts.
There are a lot of misconceptions about what alternative education is, and who it's designed for. There isn't a lot of information available from the state or anywhere else on how these alternative schools stack up against each other, or against traditional schools.
So what should you expect from an alternative school in Michigan?
What is an alternative school?
- Alternative schools are public schools designed for kids at risk of not graduating from high school. In alternative schools, kids can move through classes more quickly than a traditional high school allows.
- A student can attend alternative school through age 20.
- Most alternative schools are high schools, although there are some alternative middle schools around the state.
- A focus on graduation often means most alternative schools do not offer as many elective classes as a traditional school – things like art or music, for example. Alternative schools usually have fewer extra-curricular activities too, although some have sports teams and clubs. Some districts might let kids from the alternative school participate in sports or activities at another school in the district.
- Some alternative schools will allow students to graduate with fewer credits than a traditional school.
- Those alternative schools that require 29 credits to graduate, like traditional high schools in Michigan, usually won't include the word "alternative" on the high school diploma.
- Not every town or school district has an alternative school option. Larger districts are more likely to have alternative programs.
- Every district has different enrollment procedures and requirements. Some schools require an application.
What kind of students does an alternative school make sense for?
Alternative schools work best for two groups of students: those who have already fallen far behind, and those at risk of falling far behind.
For those who have already fallen behind, the reason why is usually more complicated than somebody just being "a bad kid." Deb Bauman is the school social worker at Lincoln High School, an alternative school in Owosso. "Many of them have trauma in their past," she says of her students. "So they came here for [a] loss of credits, but there are a lot of things that contributed to them being in that position." Many of the kids interviewed for this story missed a lot of school because of things like serious health concerns, pregnancy, family issues, homelessness, and suspensions or expulsion from another school.
Another thing that came up repeatedly in interviews with students was ADD and ADHD. Several students said these learning disabilities keep them from being successful in a traditional school. Zachary from Stockbridge is one of these students. He said he was "failing too many classes" in the traditional high school, and chose the alternative school because it had "fewer distractions." Zachary says his grades have improved remarkably since he made the switch.
How can you tell if an alternative program will be a good fit?
- It needs to have high expectations: Just because students have not been successful in a traditional school doesn’t mean they are not interested in education. There is a risk in all alternative programs of low expectations.
- Any alternative program should have help available for kids to see their future beyond a high school diploma: All these schools should be able to help a kid get to college or career training. They should have a history of graduates who have gone on to be successful in many ways.
- Emotional support is key: Many students in alternative schools have emotional and behavior issues that can get in the way of learning if they aren't addressed. A professional like a full-time social worker is a good thing to look for in an alternative program.
Do they work?
Alternative school graduation rates are often much lower than traditional high schools. To be fair, it’s hard to tease out what those numbers say about the school and what they say about trouble in the lives of kids in that school. The population of students in alternative schools move much more often than kids in traditional high schools, and they can age out of these programs easily.
Individual alternative schools and the state should come up with ways to measure the success of alternative programs. Until then, parents and students will just need to visit.
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