Eye on Education

Alternative Schools Work to Educate At-Risk Students

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Students at the Cleveland Heights alternative school get a graduation cap - out of paper - for every class they pass.

Last week’s school shooting in Chardon sparked a new round of discussion on how to prevent future school violence.

In the past, part of the answer has been sending at-risk students to alternative schools, like the one alleged shooter T.J. Lane attended.

But not everyone thinks alternative schools should just be a place to hold troubled youth.

Details about T.J. Lane’s background emerged just hours after the shootings happened.

Lane would wait at Chardon High School for a bus to take him to Lake Academy Alternative School.

Lake Academy declined an interview request and won’t disclose why Lane was referred to the school. Its website says it serves “at-risk” students – a catch-all term used by most alternative schools.

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Brian Williams heads the alternative programs for Cleveland Heights. He says his students succeed because his staff is convinced of their success.

For Brian Williams, alternative programs director for Cleveland Heights, that means “at risk of not graduating high school.”

“We’re talking about issues of truancy, you may have some students that may have been making poor choices, they may find themselves experiencing issues with the criminal justice system in the past,” Williams says. “But many of our students it was really just a lack of motivation.”

Students at an alternative school might have had a serious drug problem, or they may just have skipped too many classes.  Williams says the point is that these students did not perform well in the traditional school setting.

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Senior Kiara Herst says she's doing better at the alternative school than she did before, thanks to the online and flexible curriculum. She recently won a writing competition, if she wins in the next round her story will be made into a short film.

The students at the Cleveland Heights alternative school only spend half the day at the school. The school provides them laptops to follow their own curriculum online.

Senior Quantina Scales says the school is “better, but harder, because you have to teach yourself.”

Quantina says learning online can be challenging, “but you get help from the teachers, and they are really good teachers.”

Teachers are key to helping alternative school students.

In fact, senior Santwan Jones says his math teacher, Brad Hallam, is the “best teacher ever.” At least, the best teacher Santwan has ever had.

This is Hallam’s first time working with at-risk students, but he says it’s no different from working with his previous middle school students.

“They’re just kids,” Hallam says. “They come with a certain amount of baggage but everybody does, and at the end of the day they’re just kids.”

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Math teacher Brad Hallam says his students at the alternative school are just like any other students.

Hallam says outsiders often make assumptions about his school. He says there can be an interpretation that alternative schools are “just places that you have problematic students – whatever that is – and now you can just section them off and remove them from the general population.”

But segregating problematic students is exactly what many alternative schools end up doing.

Terry Cash is the assistant director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University. He says Ohio laws around alternative education advocate for removing at-risk students from regular schools.

“It’s really no wonder that people have an opinion that alternative schools are for bad kids,” Cash says.

He says 80 percent of the more than 10,000 alternative programs in America are punitive. That means students are ordered to attend

That wasn’t always the case.

Alternative schools used to be options for students who struggled academically, but over the years they were redefined to serve students who had trouble with more than school work.

A turning point came in 1999.

Cash says, “it was right after Columbine that we began to see schools and districts and superintendents who were saying ‘we’ve got to be able to identify these kids who are at risk and put them in an environment that will protect our other kids who want to learn and aren’t disruptive.’”

Since then alternative schools have increasingly been used as a way to protect the “good” kids from the “bad” ones.

“I think that’s the prevailing thought, you know, ‘if we could just somehow identify these kids and get them over here in an environment, these things will not be happening.’ And unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.”

–Terry Cash, Assistant Director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University

“I think that’s the prevailing thought, you know, if we could just somehow identify these kids and get them over here in an environment, these things will not be happening,” Cash says. “Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.”

In the short-term, alternative schools have proven to be successful at keeping at risk students in school and out of trouble.

But there is less evidence to gauge their long-term results.

Cash says that’s because many cash-strapped alternative schools focus more on keeping kids in line than on solving the emotional and social issues that caused them to act out in the first place.



  • guest

    For Brian Williams, alternative programs director for Cleveland Heights, that means “at risk of not graduating high school.”

    I have to agree! We recently enrolled my son into an alternative school in Cuyahoga County. He is a Senior who is more concerned with being “social” instead of completing homework. It has been an issue since his was in 5th grade. Which at that time I requested the teacher to hold him back thinking he was not mature enough to move into 6th grade, I was flat out told “this would hurt him socially”.. Really??? So who cares about academics? Now, he is a Senior and has falling behind, which brings us to the Alternative school. They have done a wonderful job!! He has completed a semester of English (which he needs to graduate), and now on his way with his Math. Oh by the way, he started at the beginning of this year (Jan) so it hasn’t been that much time! In addition I might add, the school is tied into his previous school so he will walk with his “normal” classmates to receive his diploma. One more thing, he is currently enrolled for the last 1 1/2 at the nearby vocational school completing their Criminal Justice program!!! So, I am here to say…… alternative schools is not just for the “bad” kids!! I’m very proud of what mine has accomplished!!!! Kudos!

  • bdleaf

    There’s no doubt in my mind that a great teacher can make a significant impact. The numbers speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of most schools and “mainstream” assessment don’t allow for the type of one-on-one work that would improve learning or give at-risk students the attention they need. It goes far beyond training teachers to identify and treat.

    Increased pay or training does not address the lack of school resources and time that teachers get to deal with these issues. Manage 120-150 students on not just an academic level, but emotional, psychological, and health issues. Grade papers knowing that despite several years’ growth within a year, the student will still be labeled a failure because their growth doesn’t matter as much as their performance on standardized assessment.

    There aren’t bugs in the system. It’s the system itself that is flawed. I think alternative schools can be a solution, especially if they operate on more progressive models. But all they can really do is temporarily alleviate the workload, not fix the problem–not that I’m downplaying their value at all. We need to give our kids every chance.

    In response to the other (guest) comment, socialization is a non-issue in my mind too. It sounds nice, but going to school doesn’t ensure that your student is going to gain “normalized” social skills. And being home-schooled doesn’t mean your child is going to be abnormal. Plus, there are other outlets like community groups as well as simple measures like supporting and interacting with your child. But if I had to choose, I think the long-term benefits of being successfully academically are a little more concrete.

  • Candice

    Thank you for furthering understanding. Now, will all the people who bash charter schools understand that 75 of the state’s 340 charter schools are for At Risk kids/dropout recovery/dropout prevention. Another 25 charter schools are for kids with special education needs. It is not surprising that when you lump these schools in with the other charters, you see very low aggregate scores. Often times, kids go to charters because they are getting bullied or don’t fit into their traditional school.

    • Aerawleigh

      Candice, I don’t understand what point you are trying to make with facts stated in your comment. You state that charter schools include students considered ‘at risk’ and those with special needs; as if that explains why performance scores are much lower than those of the public schools. However, public schools have always included students who are ‘at risk’, in addition to those who come from low socio-economic backgrounds and those with special needs. One would be naive to think that bullying behavior does not exist in charter schools. Comparisons between public schools, charter schools, alternative schools, private schools and home schooling should never throw out broad based and very incomplete information. That only serves to divide seniments and does nothing to improve the challenges of educating our youth.

  • rhonda

    Our local high school has an Alternative School housed in the basement of the building. It’s actually quite nice – bright and clean with computer stations. Each station has a students’ name and a list of the classes they must complete. Most of the students who attend have been truant or had multiple tardies, referrals or just plain lack motivation. Whatever reason they are referred to Alt School, I have yet to see a student object at the prospect of getting out of mainstream. I don’t see discouraged students. I see a look of relief that maybe there’s another way for them to get through high school. Knowing they can work at their own pace and choose which subjects to work on during different parts of the day gives them a sense of responsibility. Plus they aren’t distracted by the drama in the hallways – yes they are segregated, but for the most part, it seems they feel comfortable in their environment. They seem to respond well to the smaller community and in many cases, encourage each other to finish. One very truant young lady who was at risk of not graduating with her class started Alt school with a very bad attitude. Once she was down there and realized she was in control of her learning, she became very focused and instead of attending only the morning session, she asked to attend the afternoon session also because she “was in the learning mode”. When the students complete their required credits, I’m amazed at the pride they exhibit as they show me that they have finished their credits. They are smiling knowing that although they went to Alt school, they will be allowed to graduate with their class.
    Because we are limited on space (and funds) we only allow severe at-risk Seniors, student mothers and a few Juniors to attend Alt school. Alt school should not become mainstream, but I would like to see Alt Classes within the mainstream. Why force students to sit through every required class with a teacher if he or she can learn and test through a self-paced computer program. This would free up teachers to be able to help not only struggling students but also academically advanced students because you’re not trying to teach 30 students of various abilities at the same pace. My children sat through 4 years of Spanish in high school yet neither speak well enough to hold a simple conversation. One of them invested in a foreign language program feels he has learned more in 4 weeks through the online program than 4 years in the classroom. Another student would learn better with a teacher in the classroom. I just think we need to look at more options. Trying to teach the same way we’ve been teaching for years just doesn’t make sense anymore.

  • chelly

    Am 17 in the 9th grade am wondering if I will have to go to an alternative school if yes how do I do it?

    • M_Bloom

      Chelly: The best thing to do is to ask your guidance counselor about what your options are. He or she can help you figure out what the best route is for you to graduate.

  • James

    So Beautiful !

  • Angelas17

    I have seen alternative schools work as a Career and Technical Education (CTE)

    By empowering students with the ability to control their learning through methods such as online coursework and understand that the CTE teacher is the student’s personal resource on how to connect high school to financial independence through a career; you provide the student with purpose. Students have to find their own motivation but we can dangle the carrots.

    As a member of any district, you grow to better understand the students’ needs within the district. I have been fortunate to participate in districts that understood that they have many at risk students because resources were made available to best serve the student’s needs.Our staff was able to guide students should they need additional serves to help keep the student on track because we were made aware as a team on such issues.

    I am proud to be a CTE teacher because I provide the tools to students for successful career path. I have yet to meet a student how isn’t motivated by earning a good living that allows them to be independent.

    Angela Smith

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