Alternative schools in public-school systems have grown dramatically in recent years in both number and size, and the teachers and students at such schools generally have better attitudes about school than their peers in regular programs, a recent study has concluded.
The study, supported by the National Institute of Education, is said by its researchers to be the most comprehensive yet completed of secondary-level alternative programs in the public schools. Its sponsor is the Project on Alternatives in Education (pae), a cooperative effort of several education organizations, with headquarters at Hofstra University in New York.
In 1975, the number of K-12 alternative schools in public-school systems totaled 1,250. By 1981, there were 2,500 alternative schools in the secondary grades alone, according to pae (Magnet schools were included, the researchers said, but were “underrepresented.”)
The report, “The Current Status of Schools of Choice in Public Secondary Education,” is based on a 1981 survey of school districts with more than 50,000 students. Some 1,121 administrators responded.
The study defined alternative schools as those that “differ in some systematic or deliberate way” from other schools in a system. The definition eliminated respondents to the survey who identified their alternatives as either remedial programs to which students were assigned within a regular school or limited groups of special courses within a regular program.
Thirty-five percent of the schools identified in the survey have 50 or fewer students, according to the report. Nineteen percent of the schools have 51 to 100 students; 15 percent have 101 to 200 students; 17 percent have more than 500 students; and 13 percent have between 200 and 500 students.
Nearly 80 percent of the schools were “chosen” by their students. And 85 percent of the teachers in the schools surveyed chose assignment to alternative schools.
California, New York, and Washington together have more than 40 percent of the nation’s alternative schools, the report said. Michigan, Illinois, and Oregon all have more than 100 alternative schools, and Florida and Texas have launched several such schools in recent years, the report said.
Suburban areas appeared to operate an increasing portion of the alternative schools--27 percent in the 1981 survey. Urban schools constituted 44 percent.
The report said alternative schools “are not the fly-by-night or short-lived structures some have claimed.” One-seventh of the programs were started before 1970, the report said, and another one-third were established between 1971 and 1975.
The report predicted that families would continue to demand greater choice in schools for their children. But it added that such demands “fail somehow to attach to and benefit alternative schools.”
Mary Ann Raywid, director of the project, said that many of the people who favor giving families greater control over formal education are concerned with making changes in the curriculum, but that the special asset of alternative schools is the relationships between teachers and students.
Respondents to the pae survey indicated that changes in teacher-student relationships rather than changes in curriculum constituted the most significant improvement of alternative schools over other schools in the district.
Asked how the alternative school differed most from other schools, 63 percent said “teacher-student interaction” and 57 percent said “methods of instruction.”
New Forms of Interaction
“The commitment to new forms of interaction, reinforced by small staff and the absence of specialists and other support systems,” was central to the alternative schools, the report said.
“Conviction as well as necessity” impelled the teachers to assume many roles in alternative schools, the report said. Almost 20 percent of the schools reported that they did not have an administrator, and about half reported no counselors or custodians.
Almost all of the teachers--92 percent--reported they had extensive control over choosing the methods of instruction; 91 percent and 76 percent of the respondents said they had extensive control over program planning and course content, respectively.
Curriculum was identified as a major difference by only 40 percent of the respondents in alternative schools.
Students’ attendance rates appear to improve at alternative schools, according to the report. Among schools that were established to combat high truancy and absenteeism, 89 percent reported attendance increases, and 46 percent said they saw dramatic increases. Overall, 81 percent of the schools reported attendance increases.
About 65 percent of the time, alternative schools were established either to create programs that were not available to students or to deal with high truancy and dropout rates, the report said. Desegregation was given as a major reason for creating 12 percent of the schools responding.
Alternative schools do not bring about greater desegregation but might result in greater separation of economic classes, the study said. Three-fifths or more of the students come from lower-class homes in 37 percent of the alternative schools, and the same portion come from middle-class homes in 24 percent of the schools.
The cost of alternative schools is comparable to the cost of other schools in a district, the report said. Sixty-two percent of the alternative schools reported that their per-pupil spending was equal to or lower than those of other schools within the district. Fifty-nine percent of the smallest programs operate on a budget equal to or smaller than that of other schools in the district.
The researchers conclude that “despite the successes, alternative schools have not yet managed to convince the bulk of the American people that all schools might deliberately differ from one another--with all remaining of top quality and effectiveness.”
For a copy of the report, contact D.D. Darland, 341 O Street S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024, (202) 484-8244.
A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 1983 edition of Education Week as ‘Alternative Schools’ in Public Settings Found Growing Rapidly