Alternative schools - American EducationPrimary and secondary schools offering unique, custom-designed and often experimental educational programs designed sometimes for gifted students but most often associated with high-risk students with behavioral, emotional, physical or intellectual problems. The number of publicly funded alternative schools has declined sharply in recent years, from a high of 2,860 in the 1984–85 school year to well under 1,000 by 1995. There are several reasons for the decline. Simple economics forced some school districts to move alternative school programs into conventional public schools. Free-standing alternative schools are far costlier than conventional schools. Normally limited to about 200 students, they offer each student a faculty advisor, with each advisor seldom responsible for more than about a dozen students. Pupil-teacher ratios are half those of conventional public schools.
Another reason for the decline in the number of alternative schools was enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, a 1975 federal law that forced all U.S. public schools to guarantee all children, including the physically, intellectually and emotionally handicapped, “free and appropriate” public school education. The law allows such children to attend regular classes in conventional public schools with ordinary students and thus avoid the stigma often associated with attending alternative schools. Most alternative schools still operating are either special schools for exceptionally talented students in art, music, science or mathematics, or for students so severely disabled physically or emotionally that they cannot function in a conventional school setting.
Pedagogical techniques at alternative schools for high-risk students vary as widely as the individual personalities and disabilities of the students. Some alternative schools combine instruction with flexible attendance policies that permit students to work. Others provide continuing, intensive, individual help to potential dropouts whose diminished language ability has made school a site of constant failure.
One experimental program called Citiesin- School links social services to public school education in Atlanta, Houston, New York and other cities. Backed by public and private funding, Cities-in-School assigns each high-risk student a professional counselor from a public or private agency to monitor the student’s school work and school attendance and to provide continuing, long-term counseling. Much of the criticism leveled at alternative schools, however, derives from the flexibility and lack of standardization in alternative-school education. Lack of standardization has prevented many schools from earning accreditation.
(See also INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES; EDUCATION ACT; MAGNET SCHOOLS; MAINSTREAMING.)