As every teacher can testify, not all students learn the same way. Teachers try to accommodate by varying their teaching styles or activities; however, some students still slip through the cracks. To give these students more appropriate learning opportunities, some attend alternative schools.
Alternative schools are designed to accommodate not only students who are considered at risk for failing academically, but also students of all academic levels and abilities who are better served by a non-traditional program. With the different purposes an alternative school can serve, a wide range of perceptions and misperceptions about them has developed. As an instructor at an alternative school for the past 12 years, McKay School alumna Sharolyn Griffith shares her perspective with her thoughts on teaching.
An alternative high school is a high school that offers an alternative experience to youth who are generally struggling in some [way] at the regular high school. It is not necessarily for at-risk students, but usually becomes that.
In my experience, I have visited several alternative schools in Wyoming and Idaho, and a couple in Utah. Many of the schools are quite similar to regular high schools in scheduling and classes offered. However, our school in Wyoming is quite different, as we have intensive block classes that last for a few weeks. Students attend the same class all day. We use Fridays as remediation. Students earn a semester credit at the end of the block.
Some alternative schools are credit-recovery centers where students go work on online classes or packets and report to certified teachers to pass them off. I think these can be beneficial for some students, but they require more self-discipline. Our school started out this way but transitioned after a few years to regular classes and the intensive blocks. Students in these classes have been more successful in my opinion.
Alternative schools are intended to be as rigorous as regular high schools. Our students are required to pass similar assessments . . . and we are responsible for adequate yearly progress. We must be accredited with our district the same as the regular high school. I have found in my teaching that alternative schools are generally targeted toward struggling students, while charter schools are targeted toward gifted students. While I have had a few students who are gifted, most of the students I have taught are truly struggling learners.
Usually the alternative school classrooms are smaller. This, to me, is the greatest benefit they have because the smaller teacher to student ratio builds relationships and makes school a positive and successful experience. Students get more individualized attention, and it is easier to differentiate instruction. Because of our intensive schedule, students are able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and work on one course at a time, rather than trying to juggle several subjects over the course of four or five months.
Also our school has a greater focus on life skills instruction and behavior skills instruction than many regular high schools. All of our staff received the same training, and so we have a common behavioral language and plan for students. We work with many students living in generational poverty, students with difficult family backgrounds, and students participating in illegal drug use. While these issues occur at the regular school, they are more predominant in our population of students as a whole, so we often get more specialized training on how to teach these students and help them be successful.
Further, we provide time for teaching skills that will help them transition from high school like requiring them to learn how to fill out job applications, apply for tech schools and colleges their senior year, and fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
I have found that there is a wide range of preconceived notions about alternative schools, from positive to negative.While it has been a blessing for me personally to teach at such a school, it sometimes can be a struggle to work with students who can often be less motivated than others. It is a belief of mine that the best teachers, not the ones who have not been so successful, be placed at alternative schools. Working at an alternative school teaches great life lessons and provides challenges in a teaching career. I believe alternative education is necessary. Some students like to have a different place from the regular school—a place that is more open to them where they don't feel lost in the cracks. Every year at graduation all the hard work is rewarded. Some students are the first to graduate from high school in their families.
Griffith graduated from BYU in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in history education and a minor in biology. She earned her master’s degree in history from Adams State University. She currently teaches history and government at Swift Creek High School in Afton, Wyoming, where she also serves as the coach for National History Day and the coach for Model UN.