The alleged shooter in last week’s school shooting in Chardon attended an “alternative” school.
T.J. Lane had a history of violence in his home, and had been accused of assault himself. That’s led many to speculate his violent past was the reason he was a student at Lake Academy Alternative School – not at Chardon High School where the shooting occurred. In fact, he was only at the high school waiting for the bus to take him to Lake Academy.
But the term “alternative” is really broad. It covers a whole range of schools and programs educating all sorts of students. So we’ve put together this list of things you should know about alternative education.
1. Alternative Schools Aren’t Just For “Bad” Kids
In yesterday’s story we introduced you to Terry Cash of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University. He says that over time, alternative schools have transformed from schools that served students experiencing academic trouble to serving students who had behavioral problems and were considered “at-risk.” In fact, Cash says 80 percent of alternative schools these days are “punitive” in nature, which means students have to go there because they misbehaved or got in trouble at their traditional school.
But there are still a whole slew of alternative schools and programs that serve students with other needs, not just behavioral problems. These are known as alternative schools of “choice.” That means students choose to be there. In fact, the alternative school in Cleveland Heights is not just a choice. Students (or someone on their behalf) have to apply to get in to the school. And in the Columbus area, the term alternative most often refers to schools for unusually gifted students, not troubled ones. In fact, according to the Ohio Department of Education, even Spanish immersion schools fall under the “alternative school” label.
The basic idea behind alternative schools is that not every child learns the same way. Alternative schools are supposed to do exactly what their name suggests – offer an alternative to the traditional way students are educated. That could mean flexible school hours, more personal tutoring, smaller class sizes, an online curriculum, a more rigid atmosphere, classes in another language, you get the picture.
2. Alternative Schools Are Not The Same As Alternative Programs
According to this report by the National Center for Education Statistics, alternative programs are “usually housed within regular schools” whereas alternative schools “are usually housed in a separate facility where students are removed from regular schools.”
But even within that distinction, there is a further breakdown of the various types of alternative options offered to students. According to the National Dropout Prevention Center, there are alternative classrooms, alternative schools-within-a-school, separate alternative schools, continuation schools and magnet schools.
Some alternative programs are residential, which means students live on campus. Others are “schools without walls,” which means services are offered from several areas in a community, not one central location.
3. Public School Districts Aren’t The Only Ones That Offer Alternative Education
Alternative schools, like the one in Cleveland Heights, often are run by the local public school district. According to Patrick Gallaway with the Ohio Department of Education, all pubic school districts make some form of accommodations for students at-risk of failure.
Many alternative programs, though, are run by outside agencies. Lake Academy Alternative School – the one alleged shooter T.J. Lane attended – is supported by the Lake County Educational Service Center.
And then there are a whole slew of private and community (aka charter) schools that are also considered alternative schools.
4. Ohio Really Supports Alternative Schools
Twelve years ago, Ohio launched a grant program to develop alternative schools. It’s known as the Alternative Education Grant Program, and in 2009-2010 it spread more than $7 million among 114 alternative programs around the state. The state funds are expected to be matched at 40 percent by local dollars. Alternative schools are also supported in large part by foundations, grants, donations and in some places tuition or fees.
Lake Academy Alternative Schools is funded in part by this program.
Gallaway says “the Alternative Education Grant Program has successfully served many students that quite honestly wouldn’t have graduated from high school otherwise.” He adds that “we are deeply saddened” by the recent shooting incident at Chardon schools allegedly by a former Lake Academy student.
It’s not just the Ohio Department of Education that supports the growth of alternative schools. The Ohio School Boards Association also seems to be a big fan of them. This is what their legislative agenda has to say about alternative schools:
Disruptive students often require targeted assistance to help them learn and grow. Alternative schools and educational programs offer supportive learning environments for disruptive students. Further, the school climate for students in regular school settings is improved when disruptive students are served in alternative settings.
In fact, OSBA supports legislation that would create at least one alternative school in every non-urban county in Ohio, and at least two in all urban counties.
5. Alternative Schools Have Been Multiplying
Alternative schools aren’t new by any means; they’ve been around since the 1900′s. Clemson’s Terry Cash says they first started to gain popularity in the 1960′s and 1970′s as a way to offer more innovative ways to serve students’ needs. It wasn’t until the 1980′s that the focus of many alternative schools became remedial.
In 1993-1994 the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported there were 2,606 public alternative schools nationwide. By the 1997-98 school year, there were 3,850 programs labeled as “alternative.” But by 2000-2001, NCES reported an estimated 10,900 public alternative schools and programs serving at-risk youth. The latest numbers from 2007-2008 show a slight dip to about 10,300 public alternative schools and programs. Still, that’s a huge increase from the early 1990′s.
The Ohio Department of Education says they don’t have an exact number of alternative programs around the state. That partly goes back to the first couple points – not everyone defines alternative programs the same way and that can make it difficult to keep track of them.