Journal of Secondary Alternate Education

Journal of Secondary Alternate Education: Homepage Reviews of and Comments About the Journal Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 2012 Volume 9, Number 2, April 2012 Volume 9, Number 3, May 2012 Volume 9, Number 4, June 2012 Volume 9, Number 5, July 2012 Volume 9, Number 6, August 2012 Volume 9, Number 7, September 2012 Volume 9, Number 8, October 2012 Volume 9, Number 9, November 2012 Volume 9, Number 10, December 2012 Volume 10, Number 1, January 2013 Volume 10, Number 2, February 2013 Volume 10, Number 3, March 2013 Volume 10, Number 4, April 2013 Volume 10, Number 5, May 2013 Volume 10, Number 6, June 2013 Volume 10, Number 7, July 2013 Volume 10, Number 8, August 2013 Volume 10, Number 9.0, September 2013 Volume 10, Number 9.1, September 2013 Volume 10, Number 10, October 2013 Volume 10, Number 11, November 2013 Volume 10, Number 12, December 2013 Volume 11, Number 1, January 2014 Volume 11, Number 2, February 2014 Volume 12, Number 1, December 2015 Volume 13, Number 1, January 2016 Volume 13, Number 2, February 2016 Volume 13, Number 3, March 2016 Volume 13, Number 4, April 2016 Volume 13, Number 5, May 2016 Volume 13, Number 6, June 2016 Volume 13, Number 7, July 2016 Volume 13, Number 8, August 2016 Volume 13, Number 9, September 2016 Volume 13, Number 10, October 2016 Volume 13, Number 11, November 2016 Volume 13, Number 12, December 2016 Volume 14, Number 1, January 2017 Volume 14, Number 2, February 2017 Volume 14, Number 3, March 2017 Volume 14, Number 4, April 2017

Reviewing the History of Alternative Education in the United States:

A Critical look

 [a peer-reviewed article]

By Shane A. Smith

University of New Haven




Alternative education and programs have always been part of the American education landscape. Despite the long and storied history of this aspect of American education, it has not received much attention in the pages of education journals, nor is heavily discussed in the media or other forums. Consequently, issues relating to alternative education, especially the history that is its foundation, are not widely known and understood. This review takes a detailed and systematic look at the history alternative education in the United States. This historical perspective provides the changing contexts and social phenomena that have defined alternative education over the years.  The review also critically examines the current state of alternative education by exploring how alternative education programs are presently defined, the prevalence of such programs, and current issues in alternative education including curriculum and instruction and the characteristics of the students and teacher in these settings.


Literature Review

Public education in the United States is a dichotomy of two systems, traditional education and alternative education. While both have existed since the genesis of public schooling, the former has received much greater research attention compared to the latter.  Consequently, the field of alternative education is not widely known on the public education landscape.

The purpose of this literature review is to examine the history of alternative education, and its implication for educating students with unique learning needs. The review begins with an historical overview of alternative education in the U.S.  This historical perspective provides the changing contexts and social phenomena that have defined alternative education over the years.  Next, the review examines the state of alternative education today by exploring how alternative education programs are presently defined, the prevalence of such programs, and current issues in alternative education including curriculum and instruction, as well as the characteristics of students and teacher in these settings.

History of Alternative Education and Programs

Alternative education has had a long history in the United States.  Young (1990) asserts that alternative schools have been part of the educational landscape since the beginning of the U.S. education system.  During the early years students were educated in different settings based on various demographic characteristics such as race, gender, and class.  For instance, children from more affluent families were largely educated within highly academic-centered alternatives, or private academies (Conley, 2002).  Additionally, Young affirms that these academic-centered alternative programs were considered to be elite learning alternatives at the top of the alternative-school spectrum. On the one hand, elite alternative schools provided a well-rounded academic experience to middle and upper class boys.  On the other hand, other alternative programs, or charity schools, were designed to provide basic literacy instruction to poor and minority students. 

A large body of evidence points to the 1950s and 1960s as the periods during which present day alternative education programs were conceptualized and developed (Atkins, 2008; Lange & Sletten, 2002; Raywid, 1994).  Ironically, this was during the same period as the 1954 Brown v. Board decision to end school segregation so as to insure that all students had equal and equitable access to an education (Brown Foundation for Education Equity, Excellence and Research, 2011).  The end of legalized segregation seemed to have prompted schools to find new ways of segregating students, a desire fulfilled by alternative education.   Alternative education programs particularly flourished in the 1960s under the restructuring of the education system (Atkins, 2008; Lange & Sletten 2002; Raywid, 1994), catering to a wide, and sometimes undefined, group of students.  Guided by the principles of the Civil Rights moment, however, some early alternative schools focused on providing meaningful educational opportunities to disenfranchised minority children (Lange & Sletten, 2002; Raywid, 1981). Unlike charity schools, multicultural schools complemented the regular academic curriculum with an emphasis on cultural pluralism, and offered courses in African and Black studies, human relations, and cultural identity. Barr (1975) identified multicultural schools as one of several groups of alternatives that evolved in the 1970s. Other alternative schools included continuation schools, learning centers, schools without walls, and schools within schools. 

The fastest growth of alternative education programs in the U.S. happened between the late1960s and the early 1980s.  The number of such programs exploded from about 100 in the early 1970s to over 10,000 by 1980 (Raywid, 1981).  Despite the rapid expansion of alternative schools nationwide, the purpose for such programs and the students they served were not exactly clear.  Raywid (1994) describes the purpose of early alternative programs as ambiguous and lacking in overarching goals.  Not until the mid 1980s did alternative education programs begin to take on a more focused, more specialized approach designed to address individual needs of specific populations of students (Lange & Sletten, 2002; Young, 1990).

Alternative schools have been sustained by various sources of funding over the years. According to Conley (2002) funding for alternative schools has largely been driven by the existing sociopolitical climate.  In the early 1960s, for instance, conservatives promoted the voucher program, which meant providing credits to parents who would then have the option of choosing an alternative school for their child.  This momentum of the voucher system slowed between the mid 1960s and 1980 when studies found the voucher program to have a negative effect the education system and how students were being educated.  While support, and ultimately funding, for public voucher programs dwindled, the private sector chipped in to sustain alternative schools.  In 1969, for example, the Ford Foundation was one of several agencies that granted funds to alternative schools across the country.  These types of grants sustained historically significant alternative schools such as Philadelphia Parkway, Metro High in Chicago, and City School in Madison, Wisconsin (Young, 1990).

Conservative President Ronald Reagan reignited the debate over vouchers for alternative schools in the early 1980s, when he proposed an expansion of the program (Young, 1990).  While this provided a temporary boost to voucher programs across the US, local school districts gradually took responsibility for directly, or indirectly, funding alternative schools as an arm of the district's programs.  Sources of funds included direct state allocation, federal funds that are procured through grants, specific laws and initiatives, special programs, or funds secured through the private sector.  In one of the first comprehensive surveys of alternative schools across the U.S. Katsiyannis and Williams (1998) found that 90% of alternative schools are primarily funded through their local school districts.  Sixty six percent of alternative schools also receive additional funding from the federal level through specific laws or initiatives such as IDEA and the Safe and Drug-free Schools program (Katsiykannis & Williams, 1998).  Similar findings were reported by Aron (2006) and Lehr et al. (2009).

Certainly, the debate over the efficacy of voucher programs and the use of public funds to support students attending private or choice schools has transcended decades of education reform.  Recently, this debate has fast regained prominence in many state legislatures across the nation.  As with past debates, ideological persuasions, political affiliations, and even influential interest groups seem to dictate current deliberations.  These complexities have contributed to the uncertain future that has historically faced alternative schools.

Defining Alternative Schools

The definition of alternative school continues to be debated in the field. Researchers largely agree that there is no single or universal definition that fully captures the meaning of alternative programs and the purpose these programs serve (Atkins, 2008; Lehr, Tan, & Ysseldyke, 2009).  Over the past half-century, alternative education programs have evolved to mean different things including specialized schools, separate classes within a traditional school setting, private programs, and charter schools (Aron, 2006; Lange & Sletten, 2002; Raywid, 1981).  Despite the persistent ambiguity and lack of consensus on the definition of alternative education programs, however, there is growing consensus on the general purpose served by these programs.  Most researchers agree that alternative programs are defined by the population of students they serve.  Specifically, researchers conclude that alternative programs are usually designed for students whose educational, social, and emotional needs cannot be met within the traditional educational setting (Aron, 2003; Atkins, 2008; Foley & Pang, 2006; Lange & Sletten, 2002; Gable, Bullock, & Evans, 2006; Munoz, 2002; Raywid, 1994).

Alternative education programs are defined differently throughout the 50 states, and even across local districts within a given state (Lehr & Lange, 2003; Lehr et al., 2009).  The majority of states seem to institute a variation of the definition offered at the federal level.  According to the Department of Education's Common Core of Data (CCD), alternative education programs are defined as a public elementary/secondary school that (1) addresses the needs of students that typically cannot be met in a regular school; (2) provides nontraditional education; (3) serves as an adjunct to a regular school; and (4) falls outside of the categories of regular, special education, or vocational education. (Garofano & Sable, 2008, pp. C-1).

In its latest report on alternative schools and programs, the NCES explains that alternative education programs are for students who "are typically at risk of educational failure" evidenced by factors such as poor grades, truancy, and disruptive behaviors (Carver & Lewis, 2010).  The NCES also explains that alternative education is often defined under two broad categories - alternative schools and alternative programs.   While both tend to serve the same purpose, the former is "usually housed in a separate facility where students are removed from the regular school" and the later is "usually housed within regular schools" (Carver & Lewis, 2010, p. 1).  In this literature review, however, the two terms are used interchangeably as is often the case among scholars who have undertaken research on this topic (Atkins, 2008; Lehr & Lang, 2003).  The reason for this lies in the emphasis of the current study - the purpose of the alternative program rather than the location of the environment within which students are educated.  In other words, why are students being educated in an alternative setting and what are the service delivery mechanisms (e.g., curriculum, instructional methods) in place to educate the students served in such settings?  Both terms, alternative education and alternative program, are used in this review to mean public schools or programs that have been established to address the academic, social, and/or emotional needs of students whose needs cannot be adequately met in the traditional education context, or who are at risk of failing or have failed in the traditional setting.  

Characteristics of alternative education programs.  The past 50 years have been marked by significant changes in the student population across the U.S. (Barr & Parret, 2001) while schools struggle to keep up with this change.  According to Van Acker (2007), school personnel gradually used alternative programs as a means of addressing some of the challenges that resulted from the increasing diversity among the student population.  Consequently, alternative programs have taken on many different configurations since the early 1960s in response to the demands of the traditional school setting.  Despite the evolution of alternative programs, however, there remain some fundamental characteristics that have continued to shape the design and definition of alternative schools.

 In what many scholars consider among the earliest and most significant works in alternative education in the U.S., Young (1990) offers a comprehensive historical, sociocultural, and structural analysis of alternative education in the U.S.  Young frames his analysis around certain defining characteristics of alternative schools that, he argues, distinguish alternative education from the traditional education setting.  According to Young, alternative schools typically have greater responsiveness to a perceived educational need of a community and a more focused instructional program. Such schools operate on a student-centered philosophy with a shared sense of purpose and common goals. Alternative schools are generally smaller in size and numbers, afford for more personalized relationships between students and staff, and create greater autonomy among administrators and staff (Young, 1990).

Experts in the field of alternative education have offered several modifications of and alternatives to the characteristics articulated by Young.  Some scholars have argued that issues such as curriculum, staffing, and the rapid expansion of technology must be represented in how alternative programs are characterized (Kellmayer, 1998).  Others posit that the characteristics of alternative school more explicitly address the population of students served in such settings and the services provided to the students (Raywid, 1994). 

Similar to Young (1990), Dugger and Dugger (1998) and Kellmayer (1998) identify small size as an important characteristic of alternative schools. These researchers also conclude that characteristics such as student centered curriculum, a sense of community, a clear and shared mission, and teacher buy-in and autonomy are crucial for the success of an alternative school. Dugger and Dugger take the issue of teacher buy-in even further by arguing that teachers need to volunteer to work in an alternative setting, rather than being involuntarily assigned, to insure a greater sense of belonging, responsibility, and ownership.  Unlike Young and the Duggers, Kellmayer posits that access to social services and technology are two other essential characteristics of alternative programs. These services complement academic and other social supports students typically receive to provide students with a wholesome experience at an alternative school.         

The tenets of alternative schools espoused by Dugger and Dugger (1998), Kellmayer (1998) and Young (1990) continue to have a significant impact on the ways in which alternative programs are conceptualized and developed.  In a comprehensive evaluation of alternative schools, however, Raywid (1994) offers yet another characterization of alternative programs.  In her analysis, Raywid argues that alternative schools cannot be classified en bloc, but rather by the types of services such schools provide and each program's goals. 

Raywid (1994, pp. 64-65) offers the following typology of alternative programs:

§  Type I - Called Popular Innovations, are schools developed to address the educational needs of students by taking an individualized approach to learning that both challenges and motivates students to learn.  Type I schools typically offer full instructional programs that provide opportunities for students to make up for credits, earn General Educational Development (GED) certificates, or high school diplomas.  Schools in this category tend to focus on students who wish to advance their academic achievement after having dropped out of the tradition school setting or simply did not benefit from the traditional curricula.  The structure of Type I schools varies and may include charter schools, career-focused and job-based schools, dropout recovery programs, schools-within-schools, etc.;

§  Type II - Termed Last-Chance Programs, Type II alternative programs focus on discipline rather than academic modifications.  The goal of these programs is typically to remove students from their traditional setting and modify and/or change students' behaviors.  While undergoing corrective disciplinary procedures for behavior infractions, students in Type II programs are typically required to meet the academic expectations of students' traditional school.  Last Chance programs are usually short-term placements where students have a final opportunity to improve their behaviors before being expelled from their traditional school; and,

§  Type III - These programs are the most comprehensive of the three in terms of the kinds of services they offer.  Type III programs focus on students' academic, social, and emotional growth.  However, unlike Types I and II, all services offered in Type III programs are remedial in nature, and at times inconsistent.  The academic work in these settings is usually below age/grade level, with the goal of helping students to first become functionally successful, and eventually progress to grade level, while behavioral and social concerns are simultaneously addressed.

One of the most distinguishable characteristics among the three types of alternative schools that Raywid articulates is the means by which students initially access their alternative programs.  The difference among the three types of schools is marked by whether students choose to attend (Type I), are sentenced or forced to attend (Type II), or are referred to attend (Type II & III; Raywid, 1994).  In fact, researchers have placed increased attention on the issue of student choice versus student placement/referral.  Lehr and colleagues (2009), for example, found this issue to have considerable influence on the characteristics of alternative programs.  From their combined synthesis of alternative school policies across the U.S. and national survey about alternative programs, Lehr et al. (2009) conclude that alternative schools are heavily defined by whether students elect to attend or are placed in the alternative program.  The researchers identify flexibility, small size, parental involvement, and individual programming as hallmarks of alternative programs to which students elect or volunteer to attend. Meanwhile, the most prominent characteristics of alternative programs to which students are referred or placed include a focus on discipline, behavior change, and academic remediation, and typically serve as a short-term placement, and/or an alternative to expulsion (Lehr et al., 2009)

Despite the lack of consensus on the definition for alternative schools, there is clear agreement on some of the fundamental characteristics of alternative programs.  Throughout the literature, researchers consistently identify some basic tenets that characterize alternative programs.  The characteristics espoused by Lehr and colleagues (2009), for instance, are very similar to those within Raywid's (1994) typology.  Also apparent from the above information is that whether students elect or are forced to attend an alternative school the fundamental characteristics espoused by Dugger and Dugger (1998), Kellmayer (1998), and Young (1990) typically hold across different alternative settings. Other researchers also agree on the fundamental tenets of alternative schools including small size, individualized learning, flexible scheduling and innovative teaching, staff and student buy-in, family friendly environment, student membership, and having a clear mission (Aron, 2006; Atkins, 2008; Barr, 1981; Foley & Pang, 2006; Groves, 1998; Jacobson, 1998; Koetke, 1999; Lange, 1998; Ruzzi & Kraemer, 2006)  

Prevalence of Alternative Schools and Programs 

The number of alternative schools in the U.S. has rapidly increased over the last 50 years.  While the expansion of alternative schools has slowed since the explosion of 1970s and 1980s, there has been a steady increase over the last 15 to 20 years.  Raywid (1998) describes the early growth of alternatives schools as a necessary endeavor intended to change the education landscape for some students and to address weaknesses in the wider education system. . .jjjpoi. The increased numbers was also seen as a means of testing new innovations in education (Barr, 1981).  Today, alternative schools continue to play an integral role in how students are educated, and remain a viable option for many schools and/or students.  Some researchers suggest that the relevance of current-day alternative schools is sustained by the traditional school system's capacity, or lack thereof, to address the challenges inherent in a diverse student population (Atkins, 2008; Atkins & Bartuska, 2010; Gable et al., 2006; Lehr & Lange, 2003; Van Acker, 2007).  Hence, the number of alternative schools continues to increase.  

Estimates on the prevalence of alternative schools and programs vary quite vociferously (Aron, 2006; Lange & Sletten, 2002).  According to the U.S. Department of Education's CCD, the number of public alternative schools in the U.S jumped by 24% between 1993 and 1995, from 2,606 to 3,850, respectively.  Still, there is debate about the accuracy of the U.S. Department of Education's estimate.  In their book detailing effective programs and practices for at-risk youth, Barr and Parrett (2001) estimate that there are over 20,000 alternative schools and programs in the U.S.  Conversely, in its latest report on alternative schools, the U.S. Department of Education provides a more conservative estimate of just over 10,000 alternative schools and programs serving at-risk students during the 2007-08 school year.  Worth noting, however, is that the lower estimate from the Department of Education only reflects district-operated alternative programs; another 6,000 are administered by other entities (Carver & Lewis, 2010).   The report further states that 64% of districts have at least one alternative school or program for at-risk students that is administered by the school district or another organization.  Only 40% of school districts, however, reported having at least one alternative school that is operated by that school district (Carver & Lewis, 2010). Also worth noting is the concentration of alternative schools across different states. A comprehensive review of research in alternative education by Cox, Davidson, and Bynum (1995) revealed that 77% of alternative schools resided in larger urban cities. In Wisconsin, for example, over two-thirds of alternative schools are situated in Milwaukee, the state's largest and most urban city (Howard, 2003).   

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the sustainability of alternative schools lies in the demand for placement versus the capacity of school districts to fulfill placement requests.  Over the last two decades, demands for placement have greatly exceeded school districts' capacity to provide alternative placement for students. One-third of school districts were unable to accept new enrolments in the 2007-08 school year (Carver & Lewis, 2010). Further analysis of these numbers reveals the disparity that exists among districts in rural areas, towns, suburbs, and major or urban cities.  Almost 50% of school districts in large cities reported being unable to enroll new students in alternative schools due to staff and/or space limitations compared to 38% of districts in suburbs, 34% in towns, and 25% of districts in rural areas (Carver & Lewis, 2010).  What happens to the students who are denied enrolment into an alternative program, post-referral, is not entirely clear.  That students are denied enrolment does, however, raise concerns about the educational opportunities for those students who are ‘rejected' from alternative programs, and the implications for the students' futures. On the one hand, it speaks to the failure of the current education system to educate all children. On the other hand, it reflects the increasing demands for alternative programs. 

Students Served in Alternative Schools  

The fastest increase in the number of students served in alternatives settings occurred in the 1970s (Raywid, 1994).  Since then, the rapid expansion that marked the early history of alternative education has slowed.  Over the past ten years, however, there has been a steady increase in the number of students served in alternative programs.  The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the number of students attending alternative programs increased by over 33,000 between 2000 and 2007. By 2008 an estimated 646,500 public school students attended alternative programs, accounting for nearly 2% of public school students across the U.S. (Carver & Lewis, 2010).  Other estimates suggest that this number is, in fact, much larger. An analysis of alternative education programs across the U.S. by Lehr and colleagues (2009) assert that more than 1 million students are served in alternative schools.  Despite the variation in estimates, it is clear there continues to be an increasing trend in the number of students served in alternative schools.  Clearly, if the current trends hold, alternative programs will continue to play a prominent role on the education landscape, serving increasing numbers of students with varying characteristics and from different backgrounds.

Age group.  While the population of students in alternative schools ranges from grades one through twelve, the majority of students served in such schools are grades nine through twelve.  Grunbaum and colleagues (2000) conducted a national survey of students in grades nine through twelve and found that almost 300,000 high school-aged youth attended alternative schools during the 1998-99 school year.  Today, an overwhelming majority of alternative schools serve high school-aged youth.  The U.S. Department of Education reports that 88% of school districts have at least one alternative school serving students in the ninth grade.  This percent increases each additional high school year to 96% of districts serving students in grade twelve.  A synthesis of state-level policy and research in alternative education by Lehr and colleagues (2009) reveal similar findings.  The authors report that 94% of states indicated that their alternative schools serve students grades nine through twelve.  While Lehr et al. (2009) also found a growing number of alternative schools serving students in grades one through five, Carver and Lewis, (2010) report that less than 10% of school districts have one or more alternative schools that serve elementary-aged students. 

Reasons for placement.  The definition of alternative schools converges on a single tenet; that is, the population of students typically served in alternative environments.  At the core of this consensus is that alternative schools are designed to serve students for whom the traditional education environment has proven inadequate (Aron, 2003; Atkins, 2008; Lange & Sletten, 2002; Gable et al., 2006; Raywid, 1994).  Some students simply have not made sufficient progress in the traditional school system (Atkins, Hohnstein, & Roche, 2008; Lehr, 2004), some are considered at risk for dropping out of school (Aron & Zeieg, 2003; Bauman, 1998; Kleiner, Porch, & Farris, 2002; Lehr & Lange, 2003; Lehr et al., 2009), while others have actually dropped out or have been pushed out of the traditional setting (De La Rosa, 1998; Gable et al., 2006; Lehr, 2004).

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education states that the majority of public alternative schools educate students who were involved in physical attacks or fights while attending their traditional school.  Many students also used, possessed, or distributed illegal drugs, alcohol, or weapons, engaged in disruptive verbal behaviors, or had chronic truancy and academic problems (Carver & Lewis, 2010).  Grunbaum and colleagues (2000) produced similar findings.  The researchers found that more than one-third of youth in alternative schools had carried a weapon, 60% had been in physical fights, and over 85% smoked marijuana, all within 12 months or less prior to the study.  In a cross-case analysis of placement considerations in three alternative schools, Atkins and Bartuska (2010) found that students in the alternative programs had several encounters with the juvenile correction system for violations including drug and alcohol use, robbery, physical and sexual assault.  Lange (1998) also examined the characteristics of students in alternative schools in the state of Minnesota.  Her findings reiterate some of the previously mentioned characteristics of students in alternative schools while adding new ones, including: life circumstances (e.g., homelessness), school-related issues (e.g., being expelled), and illnesses (e.g., mental illness).

Clearly, alternative school populations consist a variety of students who have had various social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.  And for many of these students alternative programs become their last hope of redemption, of success.  An interesting concern that arises is the manner in which students in alternative programs are treated.  What are adults' perceptions of these students and to what extent do these perceptions influence the way adults treat and interact with students?  Indeed, the above characteristics provide a glimpse into the challenges teachers face in alternative schools.  Student characteristics no doubt have some bearing on the interaction between teachers and students.  But how does this affect instruction?  Do students truly get opportunities to move beyond their challenges and achieve success?  After all, this is the reason for which students are typically placed in alternative schools, regardless of their shortcomings (Lange & Sletten, 2002).

Students with disabilities.  The historical roots of alternative education suggest that alternative schools were not originally established for students with disabilities (Raywid, 1981; Young, 1990).  Alternative schools have, however, evolved into an often-used option for educating students identified with disabilities.  This is especially true for students identified with EBD who are considered to be persistently aggressive, disruptive and/or verbally abusive (Reid et al., 2004; IDEA, 2004; Van Acker, 2007).  Alternative school placements are also often used for students with LD who are performing significantly below potential (IDEA, 2004). Additionally, the dropout rate for students with disabilities from the traditional school setting continues to hover above 30% (U.S. Department of Education, 2009), serving almost as a ‘lifeline' for alternative schools.  Indeed, many students with disabilities who fail to complete their traditional schooling end up attending an alternative school (Aron & Zweig, 2003). 

Estimates on the number of students in alternative schools who have been identified with disabilities vary.  The latest numbers from the Department of Education indicate that just over 16% of students with disabilities attended a district administered alternative school in 2007-08, (Carver & Lewis, 2010) up from 12% in 2000-01 (Kleiner et al., 2002).  The number of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in alternative school varies across states.  In Minnesota, Lange and Sletten (2002) found that 19% of students attending alternative schools had IEPs, while in another statewide study, Foley and Pang (2006) found that students with IEPs constituted the majority of the alternative school population in the state of Illinois. Foley and Pang also found that the majority of students with disabilities who were served in alternative schools had been identified with EBD or LD.  Additionally, 50% of the students with IEPs were identified with EBD and 10% with LD across alternative schools in Illinois.  Similarly, Lehr (2004) found that, in Minnesota, the majority of students with IEPs in alternative schools were identified with EBD.  These findings were replicated in a national study in which Lehr and colleagues (2009) found that a majority of students with IEPs in alternative schools were identified either as having EBD or LD.

There is debate in the field as to the accuracy of the reported and estimated numbers of students identified with disabilities in alternative schools.  Some researchers posit that alternative schools generally lack the capacity to adequately keep track of student records (Lehr, 2004; Ruzzi & Kraemer, 2006), as well as not being able to provide the services specified in the IEP (Lehr et al., 2009).  As a result teachers and administrators in some alternative schools may not know which of their students have IEPs.  Other teachers may choose not to find out because providing appropriate services could complicate existing service delivery models and further strain the limited resources typically available to alternative schools (Foley & Pang, 2006; Lehr & Lange, 2003).  Such actions both violate the law and students' educational rights, and result in students being denied the individualized services needed for future success.  While the exact number of students with disabilities in alternative schools continues to be an issue of debate, there are a couple issues on which researchers seem to agree.  There is consensus that a large number of students identified with disabilities are being served in alternative schools - and in most cases constitute the majority of the alternative school population.  Researchers also largely agree that the service delivery models in alternative schools may sometimes not be in compliance with students' IEPs, thus failing to appropriately address the needs of students with disabilities (Atkins & Bartuska, 2010; Foley & Pang, 2006; Lange, 1998; Lehr, 2004; Lehr & Lange, 2003).

Alternative schools may very well be able to successfully meet the needs of students with disabilities (Lange & Sletten, 2002, Lehr, 2004).  To be effective for students with disabilities, however, alternative schools must take an approach that capitalizes on the small-size and one-on-one affordances that typically characterize alternative settings.  From her study of alternative schools administrators across the U.S., Lehr (2004) posits the following guidelines for addressing the needs of students with disabilities:

§  Carefully document and track the number and disabil­ity category of students attending alternative schools;

§  Determine whether students have received special ed­ucation and related services in the past before enroll­ment (by contacting previous school, record review, student or parent report during intake interview, etc.);

§  Develop clear procedures and criteria for enrollment to ensure that students are being referred or placed in the alternative school/program for appropriate reasons;

§  Meet with staff from the student's previous school to develop a program of services that will best meet the student's needs. Include the parents, guardian or a family member, and the student in this meeting. Establish procedures for obtaining student records and facilitating successful transition between school settings;

§  Implement a procedure to determine whether the services that are documented on a student's most recent IEP are appropriate and modify as required. Address transition service needs for students who are age 14 (or younger, if determined appropriate by the IEP team) and older;

§  Meet periodically to determine whether services are being provided as documented on the student's IEP. Measure and document student outcomes;

§  Ensure qualified special education staff are avail­able to provide services as specified on the IEPs for students with disabilities;

§  As a team, meet at least annually to determine whether the alternative school is the most appropriate educa­tional setting (and least restrictive) for the student; and,

§   If an alternative school is being used as an Interim Alternative Educational Setting, make certain con­tinued provision of service occurs and other require­ments under the IDEA are met (Lehr, 2004, pp. 4-5).

The guidelines articulated by Lehr (2004) are crucial to ensuring the success of students with disabilities in alternative schools.  Because teachers in alternative settings are not typically trained special educators (Lehr & Lange, 2003), having the kind of systematic approach put forth by Lehr will better equip alternative school teachers to provide individualized services for students. This includes having a better understanding of the students they teach, working more collaboratively to design and implement meaningful lessons and activities, and being able to accurately measure students' progress over time.

While students with IEPs make up a large portion of the more frequently used alterative school models, other models such as Type I alternative schools offer specialized programs for students according to students' interests and career goals. Meanwhile, Type II and III alternatives account for programs that are designed exclusively for students identified with a disability.  The following Venn diagram illustrates a simplified spectrum of alternative education settings, the students served, and the process of placement.

[Editorial Note: This Web site's word processor won't reproduce this chart.] 

Mode of enrollment. One of the distinguishing characteristics of alternative schools is the mode of enrolment; that is, do students attend an alternative school by choice or are students placed there (Lange & Sletten, 2002)? Typically, placement in an alternative school happens through a process of referral by students' attending school district (Atkins, 2008; Atkins & Bartuska, 2010; Carver & Lewis, 2010; Gable et al., 2006; May & Copeland, 1998), through the courts (Lehr et al., 2009; Raywid, 1994), or at the request of a parent or guardian (Aron, 2006; Carver & Lewis, 2010).  Over 70% of alternative schools to which students are referred through a process at the school district level, compared to 40% of districts that have at least one alternative school that students are allowed attend on a voluntary basis (Carver & Lewis, 2010).  Similar findings were produced from a statewide study of alternative schools in Illinois.  The report indicated that referral by students' home school was one of the top modes for enrolling students in alternative schools.  A student choosing to attend an alternative school was not among the top 10 reasons for enrolment (Foley & Pang, 2006).

Raywid's (1994) work on the typology of alternative schools was one of the first to take a comprehensive look at the issue of choice or voluntary enrolment, versus referral or forced enrolment.  She concluded that the most effective alternative schools are those that are attended on a voluntary basis.  Clustered in her Type I alternatives, these schools offer students a ‘second-chance' at success by offering instructional programs that provide opportunities for students to advance their once-derailed educational goals.  Researchers have also found that alternative schools that offer voluntary enrolment tend to focus more on creative and individualized academic instruction, and providing more opportunities for students to engage in the learning process (Lehr & Lange, 2003; Lehr et al., 2009).  Consequently, schools that allow for voluntary enrolment tend to produce better outcomes than schools to which students are referred or otherwise forced to attend (Cox et al.,1995; Dugger & Dugger, 1998; Groves, 1998; Lehr et al., 2009; Ruzzi & Kraemer, 2006).

Student demographics. Demographic data on students in alternative schools are somewhat limited.  This is especially true for gender demographics. Foley and Pang (2006), for instance, found that males outnumber females by approximately two to one in alternative schools in Illinois.  Further results from Foley and Pang's investigation on the demographic characteristics of students in Illinois alternative schools indicate that approximately 63% of the students were identified by program administrators as White, 31% as Black, 15% as Latino, and a combined 6% as Native American and Asian.  However, the national numbers on the racial breakdown of alternative schools are quite different.  According to the U.S. Department of education (2010), over 70% of students in alternative schools across the U.S. are from one of four racial minority groups; namely, Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, or American Indian/Alaska Native (Carver & Lewis, 2010).  This is an alarming figure especially when compared to the 45% of students of color who comprise the regular school system (Aud et al., 2010). 

Cobb et al., (1997) report similar findings to those at the national level in their evaluation of alternative schools in North Carolina.  The authors found that Black and male students were significantly overrepresented in alternative schools.  Certainly, these numbers raise serious concerns about the way in which the current school system educates its students, especially students of color and, particularly, those who are male.  School administrators' expressions of concern about these disproportionate numbers (Lehr & Lange, 2003) simply cannot and will not suffice.  That students of color are far more likely to be served in alternative schools demands immediate steps be taken to reverse the trend and, in so doing, making education more accessible to, and equitable for, all students. 

Instruction in Alternative Settings

An examination of the alternative school literature reveals that instruction in alternative settings is distinguished mainly by whether students elect or are forced to attend their alternative school (Raywid, 1994; Lehr & Lange, 2003; Lehr et al., 2009).  Despite this difference, the curricula and service delivery models in alternative schools are largely approached from a remedial paradigm within which students are instructed at lower levels compared to their peers in the traditional school setting (Aron, 2006; Atkins, 2008; Raywid, 1994; Lehr et al., 2009).  It is, therefore, not surprising that students in alternative settings do not experience much social and academic growth (Beken et al., 2009; Dynarski & Wood, 1997).  Some researchers, however, maintain that many alternative schools usually take a more hands-on, practical approach to addressing students' needs (Atkins, 2008; Cobb et al., 1997; Dugger & Dugger, 1998; Foley & Pang, 2006; Koetke, 1999; Lehr & Lange, 2003; Ruzzi & Kraemer, 2006), thus having a greater potential for providing more meaningful opportunities for students to succeed.

Over the last few years there have been increased efforts to improve curriculum quality in alternative schools.  These efforts typically occur through particular, or combinations thereof, changes in education policy, professional development, and/or improved alignment of curriculum to state standards (Lehr et al., 2009).  This has led to increased accountability for academic success (Lehr et al., 2009), and has caused a significant boost in the number of alternative schools whose curriculum mirrors that of the traditional school setting (Kleiner et al., 2002).  The U.S. Department of Education reports that over 91% of school districts had policy requiring alternatives school to have curricula that lead toward a regular high school diploma, while 84% had policy requiring remedial instruction (Kleiner et al., 2002).  In their evaluation of state policy on alternative education, Lehr and colleagues (2009) found that over 70% of states have enacted education legislation and policies that specifically target improved curriculum in alternative schools in recent years.  Despite the high level of autonomy with which alternative school administrators typically operate (Aron, 2006; Howard, 2003; Kellmayer, 1998; Knutson, 1998; Lange, 1998; Lange & Sletten, 2006; Young, 1990) the efforts discussed above have gradually led to an alignment of alternative school curricula to the education standards that govern instruction in the traditional education setting, including the Common Core Standards (Lehr & Lange, 2003).

Types of curricula.  The population of students in alternative settings dictates that the curricula in alternative schools offer a variety of social and academic instruction.  Consequently, the curricula in alternative settings often include some element of behavior management and intervention, counseling, vocational programs and job coaching, and/or life skills and training (Atkins & Bartuska, 2010; Dugger & Dugger, 1998; Kleiner et al., 2002; May & Copeland, 1998; Ruzzi & Kraemer, 2006).  There are, however, great inconsistencies across different states and local school districts in the U.S. on the types of services and instructional models stipulated for alternative schools.  From their national analysis of state policy on alternative education Lehr, Lanners, and Lange (2003) report that twenty-eight states had policy addressing curriculum issues.  These states adopted the same, or very similar, content standards to those used in the traditional education setting to govern their alternative programs.  Additionally, 10 states had policies regarding work or community-based learning requirements.  Areas covered under such policies included multi-disciplinary work-based learning and community service.

Twelve states have legislation or policy stating that social services must, or should, be available to students in alternative schools.  Social services were typically defined as counseling, life skills, and social skills.  Nine states included legislative or policy language requiring an individual instruction plan for each student by having an Individualized Program Plans (IPP) or an Individual Instruction Plan (IIP).  Such plans typically compliment students' IEPs, a legally mandated document for all students identified with a disability.  Additionally, Lehr, and colleagues (2009) found that just over half of the states had language that indicated students must complete state graduation requirements. 

Barriers to meaningful instruction. The capacity of alternative schools to deliver appropriate and meaningful instruction to their students is affected by several internal and external factors, or combinations of both.  The chief consideration, of course, is the students - their needs, learning styles, and the unique approaches that are necessary to successfully address their needs.  Knowing the students for whom instruction is being developed is most critical to ensuring and advancing students' success (Levy, 2008).  There is also tremendous information in the literature on the existence of other external factors in alternative schools and the extent to which these factors might influence the type and quality of instruction.  These factors can be summed up by two main categories: resources including funding and materials, and staff quality including teacher qualification and training (Aron 2006; Carver & Lewis, 2010; Foley & Pang, 2006; Lange, 1998; Lehr, Lanners, & Lange, 2003; Lehr et al., 2009).

Resources.  The quality of life one experiences often depends on the resources to which one might have access.  This assertion holds true for the quality of instruction in alternative schools.  One of the main factors affecting the resources available to students in alternative settings is the issue of funding (Foley & Pang, 2006; Lehr & Lange, 2003).  Lehr and Lange (2003) reported that funding, or the lack thereof, was one of the major challenges and concerns expressed by state directors of special education in regard to the ability of alternative schools to successfully meet the needs of students.  A lack of funds can have severe ramifications with a negative domino effect on other resources such as school facility, classroom equipment, and instructional materials, the ultimate result being a severe negative effect on students' learning (Foley and Pang, 2006).

The concerns over funding for alternative schools largely stem from the uncertainties that often characterize the source of funding.  Responsibility for funding has vastly shifted from primarily a Federal undertaking, through its voucher programs (Conley, 2002; Young, 1990) to a more mixed and/or localized approach.  While many alternative schools get partial funding through their school districts, many rely on sometimes short-term or temporary funding from federal, state, or local agencies (Aron, 2006; Lehr et al., 2009) or from even less sustainable sources such as donations (Koetke, 1999).  Foley and Pang (2006) found that the majority of alternative schools in Illinois got more than 50% of their funding through state grants, while 48% of schools were primarily financed through their local school district.  Slightly different conclusions are drawn by Knutson (1998) who reviewed alternative schools in Wisconsin's largest urban city.  The author reported that alternative schools in the city were, by-and-large funded by the local school districts.  In addition to state district funds, Foley and Pang (2006) found other primary funding sources to include federal aids and grants, as well as contributions from local entities.  The inconsistencies with which alternative schools are funded led Lehr et al. (2009) to conclude that alternative schools are often left susceptible to the changing economic conditions.  This, of course, has serious implications for instruction in a time when the U.S. still struggles to recover from its worst recession in almost a century (Willis, 2009).  It might also help to explain why, in recent years, an increasing number or alternative schools are refusing to enroll new students due to a lack of resources, while others struggle to hire qualified staff (Carver & Lewis, 2010).     

Staffing. Teacher characteristics are consistently identified in the literature as one of the most prominent factors affecting instruction in alternative schools (Dugger & Dugger, 1998; Lange & Sletten, 2002; Lehr & Lange, 2003; May & Copeland, 1998; Munoz, 2002; Ruzzi & Kraemer, 2006).  Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requiring schools to employ highly qualified teachers (NCLB, 2001) many alternative schools have moved toward hiring more teachers who are certified, or specially trained, in the areas they teach in alternative schools (Aron, 2006; Lehr et al., 2009).  Despite the NCLB provision, however, many alternative schools are continually staffed by teachers who are not professionally trained or certified in the areas they teach, while many others have never been certified or licensed at all (Knutson, 1998; Lehr & Lange, 2003).  Additionally, many states still do not have any explicit legislation or requirement for the certification of alternative school teachers.

From their analysis of alternative schools across the U.S. Lehr et al. (2009) found that only 29 states have legislation or policy on staffing at alternative schools, with variation across states.  While some states have more general requirements such as regular licensure or certification other states, such as West Virginia, have more specific policy for teachers including being trained to effectively deal with disruptive behaviors or having experience in teaching students with problem behaviors.  Across the 29 states with legislation addressing staffing, Lehr and colleagues (2009) established that teachers must be certified or comply with state teaching standards to work in alternative schools.  There were, however, no specifications such as subject areas, special education, or grade level certifications stated in the legislation related to alternative schools.  Consequently, many alternative schools do not, or are unable to, hire staff with specific training in the field they are hired to teach.  In Illinois for example, only a small number of teachers at alternative schools are certified special education teachers.  Consequently, alternative programs utilize a number of paraprofessionals to support students (Foley & Pang, 2006).

The reliance on paraprofessionals is a concern in light of the evidence that paraprofessional are usually not equipped to effectively educate students with learning and behavioral challenges (Gianreco, Edelman, Broer, & Doyle, 2001; Malmgren & Causton-Theoharis, 2006). Additionally, the lack of consistency across and within states has serious implications for instruction, especially for students identified with disabilities.  If there are no requirements for teachers to be certified in EBD or LD in order to teach in alternative schools designated for students with those labels, it means persons with limited knowledge and skills may end up teaching youth identified with disabilities in such settings.  Consequently, such persons may lack the prerequisites needed to successfully instruct students identified with disabilities, ultimately perpetuating the lack of performance and achievement by these students in alternative settings.  

Professional development. Ruzzi and Kraemer (2006) assert that ongoing training and professional development for teachers in alternative settings are essential for instructional success. Consequently, Koetke (1999) argues that alternative school administrators must ensure that opportunities for professional development are available to teachers.  Yet, according to the U.S. Department of Education, only 48% of school districts have specific requirements for teachers in alternative schools to receive professional development (Carver & Lewis, 2010).  Absent this requirement, schools are less likely to provide adequate professional development for teachers to aid their continued growth.  As a result, teachers in many alternative schools may lack, or lose, the capacity to provide meaningful instruction to their students (Lehr & Lange, 2003).   


Despite its lack of prominence in the education literature, alternative education has had a long and storied history. Certainly, many of the issues that impacted alternative education 50 years ago still affect the field today. From politics to moral obligation, resources to outcomes, alternative education has faced, and still faces, challenges on many fronts. Still, for many schools and families alternative education provides the best hope for the educational success for their children. As to whether alternative education has truly had the intended effect is beyond the scope of this review. The next logical step is to take a critical look at the social and academic outcomes of students who are served in alternative settings. Then, we can begin to have a greater understanding of the impact of the rich history of alternative education.



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