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What Is an Alternative High School? Is It Right for You?


Will you be attending an alternative high school or are you wondering if it's the right choice for you or your child? For some students, alternative high schools fit their personality and learning style much better than traditional high schools, and they can be a way for these students to achieve success.

What are alternative high schools? How are they different from traditional high schools? Is attending one the right choice for you? How can you find the right alternative high school? Read on for answers to each of these questions and more.


What Are Alternative High Schools?

An alternative high school is simply a school that doesn't provide a completely traditional learning experience. This is a very broad definition, and, because of that, alternative high schools can vary widely. They can be public or private and can include magnet, charter, and online schools (although not every school in these categories would be considered an alternative high school).

Some alternative schools are offered through the student's regular school district, while others, such as magnet, charter, or private schools, operate independently of the public school system. Classes at online schools are conducted primarily or completely over the internet.

There is no official "alternative school" designation or requirements a school must meet in order to be considered alternative. An alternative high school will usually include the word "alternative" in its name or mention it in its mission statement or website homepage.

Alternative schools were first created to help "troubled" students who had behavioral problems that traditional public schools were ill-equipped to handle. However, today students attend alternative schools for a variety of reasons which are discussed in more detail below. In general, alternative high schools exist to give students who do not do well in a traditional academic environment an opportunity to succeed in high school and earn a high school diploma.


How Are Alternative Schools Different From Regular High Schools?

As mentioned above, there can be large variations between alternative high schools. Some alternative high schools don't give out grades, some allow students to develop their own graduation requirements, some include a significant work component, some take place during non-traditional hours, and more.

Common features of many alternative high schools include:

Smaller Class Sizes: Smaller classes allow teachers to give students more individual attention and make it easier to tailor lessons to specific student needs.

More Flexible Schedules and Graduation Requirements: Some alternative high schools offer classes at night, which can be helpful for students with jobs or children. Others have flexible graduation requirements and give students more choice in the classes they must take (as opposed to one math class, one science class, one English class, etc. each semester). This can give students the opportunity to study a subject of particular interest to them.

Wider Variety of Teaching Methods: Alternative high schools often use numerous teaching methods that emphasize creativity and interaction. This can help students who struggle with sitting in a classroom and taking notes all day.

Non-Traditional Evaluation Methods: Some alternative schools don't give out grades, instead they provide written evaluations. Others offer academic credit for work experiences or internships.

Address Social, Mental, and Emotional Needs of the Student: In addition to addressing academic needs, alternative schools often have additional resources, such as counseling and support groups, available for students.

You can also research specific alternative schools to get a better idea of what they can offer. For example, City-As-School in New York City, has no grades, exams, or class years. Students complete projects and papers which are added to their portfolio, and they spend about half of each week at an internship instead of in the classroom.

It's also easy to find student testimonials of alternative schools online. One former student of an alternative high school credits the school with saving her life. You can read these to get a better idea of the types of students alternative schools have helped and how they overcame their difficulties.



Even if you never wanted to show up to class at your old school, an alternative high school may have teaching methods that work for you.


Why Do Students Attend Alternative High Schools?

There are multiple reasons why someone may begin attending an alternative high school, but they usually relate to the student not thriving in a traditional school. Specific reasons include:


Trouble Learning in a Traditional Classroom

One of the main reasons students attend alternative schools is because they don't learn well in a traditional school. They may have learning disabilities that make it challenging for them to sit in a classroom all day, they may struggle to retain information learned this way, or their classes may interest them so little that they have no desire to attend school or complete homework.

Alternative schools specialize in using varied and creative ways to teach the material, and their teaching methods are often much more tailored to each student's learning preferences.


Need More Support/Guidance

Some students also need more guidance than traditional schools can provide. This can be academic support or emotional support/counseling. They can benefit from the smaller classes of alternative schools as well as the increased access to counselors and support groups. Many alternative schools also often have regular meetings with a student's teachers, parents, and counselors to make sure the student is on track, which can also be beneficial for many students.


Bored or Not Challenged at Their Current School

Alternative high school may also be an option if you don't feel challenged or interested at a traditional school. This may be the case if you don't find yourself caring about your classes, struggle with sitting at a desk all day, find the coursework too easy, or want to focus your studies on a subject your school doesn't offer.

Alternative schools often use a wider variety of teaching methods, including hands-on, interactive, and self-directed work, which can benefit you.


Social or Behavioral Difficulties

A student might also have issues with classmates or teachers. This can include being bullied, struggling to make friends, befriending the wrong crowd, or coming into conflict with teachers and students. A student's social network is a huge part of their high school experience, and if they don't feel included or welcomed at their school, or don't contribute to an inclusive and welcoming environment, it can be very difficult for them to do well. Attending a new school with new classmates as well as teachers and counselors who can better meet their needs can have a significant improvement on their high school performance.


Difficult Life Circumstances

Additionally, some students have experiences that make attending traditional high school challenging. These can include pregnancy, serious illness, family problems, and more. Circumstances like these can make it difficult for a student to concentrate on classes, and they may need more individual support and flexible scheduling.


Is an Alternative High School the Right Choice for You?

So, should you attend an alternative high school? The answer varies depending on the person, but, in general, if you are very unhappy or performing poorly at your current high school, some major changes need to happen for you to get on track to graduate high school and set yourself up for success in the future.

Transferring to an alternative school that uses learning styles that suit you better than your current school can help you do well and even begin to enjoy high school if you didn't before. The new school, teachers, and classmates can help give you a fresh start with high school.

However, some students prefer to stay in their current high school and aren't receptive to the idea of attending a new, "different" high school. Making a student transfer to a new school when they are against it can make them even less likely to succeed in school. If a student is extremely opposed to the idea of transferring schools, and it is possible for them to stay at their current school, you could try letting them remain "on probation" at their current school. If students make required changes that are laid out beforehand (improving grades, meeting attendance requirements, disassociating with a bad crowd, etc.) they can be allowed to remain at that school, but, if they do not, they will have to transfer to an alternative school.

If you do decide that attending an alternative high school is the right choice, or even if you just want more information on what your options are, read the next section on how to select the best alternative high school for you.



Choosing whether to attend an alternative high school can take a lot of thought in order to make the right decision.


How to Choose the Right Alternative High School

Selecting the right alternative school is an important undertaking; you have to make sure you choose a school that fits with your personality and learning style. Attending an alternative school that isn't a good fit won't help you do any better in high school than you were doing before.

Choosing which school to attend requires more work than simply finding the alternative school that's closest to you. Follow these three steps to make an informed choice and give yourself the best chance of success in high school.


Step 1: Identify the Issues With Your Current School

Before you do anything else, you should figure out exactly why your current school is not working for you. Make a list of all the reasons you are switching schools. Was it due to problems with classmates? Boredom with traditional education? A need for more guidance and support?

Really think about all the reasons you aren't happy with your current school. The more complete and specific your list the better your chances of finding the best alternative school for you are.

If you're unsure of whether or not you want to change schools, this is also a good time to see if you can solve these problems while remaining at your current school. You may be able to make changes to your class schedule, join a program that includes more non-traditional learning, or a different option. If you'd like the option of staying at your current school, set up a meeting with your guidance counselor and possibly some of your teachers. They'll be able to go over all your options with you so you can make the best decision.


Step 2: Make a List of the Qualities Your New School Should Have

Next, use the list you made in the previous step to come up with a new list of things your new alternative high school should have for you to do well there. Research different alternative schools online to get a better understanding of what alternative schools can offer.

Perhaps you want an alternative school with smaller class sizes, non-traditional teaching methods, the opportunity to earn academic credit through a job/internship, or other qualities. You should use your list from step one to develop this second list. For example, if one of the reasons you were unhappy with your current school is because you get bored sitting at a desk all day, your second list should mention that you'd like an alternative school that offers more hands-on work.


Step 3: Research Nearby Schools

Now that you know what you're looking for, start looking at potential alternative schools you can attend. Most students will be limited to schools that are close to them because they will still be living at home, but if that isn't a requirement for you, you can look at alternative schools in a wider area that offer boarding options.

You should also take cost into consideration. Some alternative high schools are free or low-cost while others can have large price tags attached. There are often ways to reduce costs through grants or scholarships. If you find an alternative school you're interested in but is out of your price range, talk to someone at the school's office. They should be able to give you advice on financial aid options.

Once you find a school you're interested in, research it thoroughly before applying for enrollment. Talk to teachers and staff, research the school and its goals, and see if you can speak with past or current students to get their opinion.

Many alternative schools offer potential students the chance to attend classes for a day or a few days to get a feel for the school and see if it will be a good fit for them. Definitely take advantage of this if it's an option because it's a great way to decide if the school is really the right one for you.

Once you've decided on a school, contact the office to learn how you can enroll or apply for enrollment. Not all alternative schools can accept everyone who wants to attend, especially smaller schools, so be aware that it's not guaranteed that you'll get in. Talk to staff and teachers to get a better idea of what you need to do to get enrolled at the school.



Once you've found your ideal alternative high school, you can begin the enrollment process!


How Do Colleges View Alternative High Schools?

Will attending an alternative high school hurt your chances of getting into college? Will it make colleges think you're a "bad" kid who will have a negative impact on their school?

In short, no. Colleges understand that there are many reasons why a student may attend an alternative school, and there are multiple areas on your application for you to put your alternative school experience in a positive light.

If you don't have any behavioral issues (like suspensions or expulsions) on your transcript and your attendance record is good, that is a huge benefit for you when you apply to college. You can use your personal statement to discuss why you attended an alternative school, how it helped you, and how it has prepared you for the future.

Even if your grades from your first few years of high school aren't great, showing significant improvement and being able to clearly discuss how you've overcome difficulties will put your alternative education in a positive light and show colleges that you're able to overcome challenges and still be successful.

If you do have a record of behavioral issues and/or truancy, convincing colleges that you should attend their school will be a bit more difficult, but you should still follow the above steps. In your personal statement (some schools also have an area on their application where you can provide them with additional information on yourself), mention that you had problems before, then clearly and specifically discuss how you've worked to overcome them and the progress you've made since then. Obviously, this is much easier to do when you've made a lot of progress, so keep staying on track in order to make the best impression.

If you're worried that colleges will think that your non-traditional learning environment hasn't prepared you enough for college, taking the SAT or ACT and receiving strong scores will help show them that you have the knowledge necessary to do well in college.



Alternative high schools can be a great, and even life-changing, option for students who haven't thrived in traditional high schools. A wide variety of alternative high schools exist, but, in general, they use more non-traditional methods of teaching and are able to be more flexible in accommodating student needs than traditional high schools.

Some alternative high schools use grades, some allow students to work part-time for class credit, some allow students to develop their own class schedule, and more. Students attend alternative high schools for a variety of reasons, but, in general, it's because they are unhappy at, not challenged by, or uninterested in a traditional high school environment. If you decide to attend an alternative high school, be sure to research potential schools thoroughly to find one that fits you well.


What's Next?

Have you decided to attend an alternative school and will now be transferring schools? Our complete guide to transferring high schools will walk you through each step of the process and help you make sure you've completed each requirement you need to!

Considering online high school? They're becoming increasingly popular, but it's important to be well-informed before you make the decision to attend school online. Check out our guide to online high schools to learn if they're the right option for you.

Studying for the SAT or ACT? We have great guides to help you study for the SAT and ACT and get your best score!



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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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