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Alternative Education

Frequently Asked Questions and Promising Practices

I. General Questions

1. What is an Alternative Education school or program?

See the definition of Alternative Education in Massachusetts.

2. What are the goals of Alternative Education?

The overarching goal of quality Alternative Education programs/schools is to provide options for students who, for a variety of reasons, are not benefiting from the traditional school structure. A more specific goal is to provide an educational environment that helps to prevent students from dropping out of school (or brings back students who previously dropped out), and to accomplish this through flexibility, intensive behavioral supports, self-regulation, social and emotional supports, and intensive instruction and remediation to help students meet state and local graduation requirements. Because students enrolled in Alternative Education programs or schools must be taught to the same academic standards established for all students, Alternative Education provides a different pathway for students to meet the same high education standards as all other students across the Commonwealth.

Alternative Education programs/schools may enroll students based on a particular theme or set of innovative instructional strategies. Alternative Education may also include programs designed to provide students a pathway to earn a diploma, which have been or otherwise might be subject to a long-term suspension or expulsion. Some Alternative Education programs/schools may place a heavy emphasis on behavior modification through positive behavioral intervention. Other Alternative Education programs and schools focus on remediation and social-emotional support for students who may be pregnant/parenting, truant, returned dropouts, transitioning from delinquency placement, and struggling students who are not meeting local promotional requirements. Schools that impose long-term exclusions may transfer students to Alternative Education programs/schools to address behavior as an educational matter and to mitigate the students' loss of education.

Depending upon the nature and purpose of the Alternative Education and the needs of the students being served, Alternative Education can serve students for varying amounts of time. The goal of the Alternative Education program/school may be to retain students until graduation or to transition students back to a traditional middle or high school.

3. Do all districts have to offer an Alternative Education program or school?

School districts are not obligated either by state law or regulations to offer Alternative Education programs in addition to the traditional school structure. The decision to establish an Alternative Education program/school is the choice of individual school districts.

Alternative Education programs/schools are a popular choice among school districts because many programs have made strides in providing positive educational experiences for at-risk students, including those students who may be most in danger of dropping out of school.

See a listing of Alternative Education programs and schools.

4. What is the relationship between Alternative Education and Special Education services?

Students with disabilities, including those in need of Special Education and with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), who enroll or are placed in Alternative Education, must be provided their full array of rights under the federal and state Special Education laws. Students with disabilities may not be discriminated against on the basis of their disability. While Alternative Education programs are not designed to serve a majority of students with disabilities, students with disabilities cannot be excluded from the program or denied comparable aids, benefits, or services because of their disabilities.

Alternative Education may be an option for students with disabilities when the program is determined appropriate to meet a student's disability related educational need(s) by the team responsible for developing the student's IEP/504 plan. However, because these students are entitled to be educated in a regular school program to the maximum extent feasible, they should not routinely be removed from the mainstream and placed in Alternative Education. A transfer of a student with a disability with an IEP to an Alternative Education program or school must occur with Team approval and parental agreement, and be consistent with procedural special education procedural safeguards.

For more information regarding this topic, contact the Department's Program Quality Assurance unit at 781-338-3700.

5. What Alternative Education models exist in Massachusetts?

There are a variety of models of Alternative Education programs/schools throughout the Commonwealth. Programs/schools vary in a number of ways, including:

  • Type of students served — Alternative Education programs/schools include those targeted to very specific populations (e.g., parenting teens, expelled students, students retained in grade nine), as well as more general enrollment that includes a broader base of students that have risk factors for dropping out of school.
  • Grade level(s) served — Alternative Education programs/schools include those that are focused on a particular grade level (or levels) such as at the middle school and high school grades.
  • Setting — Alternative Education programs/schools may be established within the traditional school during the regular school day; within the traditional school after the regular school day; or in a separate, off-site location.
  • Extent of involvement with the traditional school — Alternative Education programs include those that use all, some, or none of the traditional school's teachers and classrooms. Districts may also elect to create a separate official school (with a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education designated school code) devoted to Alternative Education.

6. What are the benefits of Alternative Education programs/schools?

Many school districts use engaging and effective teaching strategies to meet the needs of particular students whom they are serving in Alternative Education programs/schools. For at-risk students, Alternative Education has the potential to offer a smaller and more personalized environment in which to learn and form strong connections with school staff and peers. Alternative Education may present a different pathway in which to achieve educational success and to earn a high school diploma.

Alternative Education programs/schools may also enable districts to maximize their use of teachers who are skilled in and dedicated to educating at-risk students. Furthermore, school districts are able to better meet the needs of their community, to the extent that Alternative Education programs and schools assist students who need smaller, more structured environments to address challenging behavior by utilizing, for example, positive behavioral supports.

The benefits of Alternative Education are currently most clearly documented among the grantees of the state Alternative Education grant program. The following is a brief summary of outcomes from the 11 Alternative Education grant recipient programs/schools from school year 2006-2007 (Fiscal Year 2007):

  • 533 'at-risk' students were enrolled.
  • Approximately 84% of the students passed the MCAS while enrolled in the program/school.
  • The average attendance rate was 84%, while the average student attendance prior to enrolling in the grant program was approximately 67%.
  • 89 students that had previously dropped out of school were re-enrolled in the Alternative Education program/school.
  • Enrolled students report increases in the following: interest and achievement in school, connection to caring school staff, and expectations for completing high school and entering higher education.
  • Based on interviews, students often report that they would have dropped out had it not been for enrolling in the Alternative Education program/school.

7. What are the "time on learning" regulations for Alternative Education programs/schools?

There are no unique Student Learning Time regulations for students in Alternative Education programs. For all middle and high school level programs, including Alternative Education programs/schools, students must be scheduled for 990 hours of structured learning time.

According to state regulations, districts may apply for a time on learning waiver for innovative programs that meet the needs of students enrolled in the program. Parents must be informed whenever a program or school in which their child is enrolled seeks such a waiver.

State regulations also state that schools must make a full program of studies available to all students. However, there may be special circumstances where a school may agree to permit a student to attend on a part-time basis. Part-time students should be made aware that by not participating in the school's full program they may be jeopardizing their ability to meet graduation requirements.

8. What should be avoided in Alternative Education programs/schools?

Alternative Education programs and schools not observing best practices may in effect operate as "dumping grounds" for students with behavior problems or who are perceived as difficult to educate. Students are typically transferred into such schools involuntarily, perhaps as a "last chance" before expulsion. In order to avoid creating a "dumping ground," it is essential that students fit the target profile for which the Alternative Education program or school has, involvement been designed with community. Further, the implementation of the design must reflect a genuine effort to keep students in school and to educate them in ways that are consistent with statewide academic standards reflected in curriculum guidelines.

A number of Alternative Education programs and schools in the Commonwealth employ innovative practices with teachers who are committed to educating students who, for a variety of reasons, do better outside the traditional classroom. Demand for seats in these "choice" programs and schools often exceed supply.

Effective Alternative Education programs/schools realize a match between the student population that the district seeks to reach and those students actually referred and admitted. See Section #20 and Section #21 for more information on promising practices related to the enrollment and exit processes.

Success with the targeted population requires that the Alternative Education program/school does not function as a substandard educational placement. Students must not receive the message that they have been marginalized. Districts should recognize that at-risk students need intensive services in a positive environment to succeed. Facilities, transportation services, non-core courses, and extra-curricular activities must be comparable to the traditional program of studies.

The curriculum must be as challenging as that offered to students in traditional classrooms. Research demonstrates that the best approach toward students with learning deficits is to raise expectations. Challenging students academically communicates faith in their capacity to learn and inspires engagement in the process.

The "culture" of the Alternative Education program/school must be instilled with a sense that all students are valuable and can succeed. Program/school policies should be written to help students pursue their academic goals. Alternative Education programs/schools should address behavior as an educational matter and establish positive protocols short of disciplinary exclusion. Discipline must be integrated into the curriculum as part of the learning process.

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Last Updated: January 17, 2018

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Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
75 Pleasant Street, Malden, MA 02148-4906

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