School Choice & Charters

High School Alternatives

June 12, 2009 10 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Like a lot of other teenagers, Raven Ratcliff is a big fan of television’s “CSI” series. But she’s turned that interest in crime-scene investigations into something more: a real-world learning experience. As part of her just-completed junior year in high school, Ms. Ratcliff did a part-time internship at the Marian County, Ind., coroner’s office in Indianapolis.

If getting to watch autopsies firsthand sounds unusual, that’s part of the point at the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School. It brings a decidedly unconventional, student-centered approach to education, from internships that send all students out into the community and workforce to an emphasis on project-based learning and promoting tight-knit relationships between students and teachers.

The belief that many young people would benefit from a different, and more personalized, approach to learning than is typically served up in U.S. high schools has led Indianapolis officials to join an effort to help such alternatives proliferate. The Midwestern city, along with Nashville, Tenn., and Newark, N.J., is taking part in a pilot project to develop and expand its menu of educational options for students who struggle in traditional high school settings, are considered at risk of dropping out, or who have already quit school.

The effort is bringing together an array of local and national partners in the three cities—including mayors, school districts, and national school-development organizations—to provide a concentration of high-quality alternative high schools that will prepare students for college and the work world.

“What we’re testing through these three sites is the power of several [alternative high school developers] working side by side to establish new schools,” said Andrew O. Moore, a senior fellow at the Washington-based National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, which is spearheading and coordinating the work.


Indianapolis Metropolitan High School student Bianca Bouie takes questions during a presentation on her experiences as a hospital intern. Indianapolis is part of an effort to expand school options for students who struggle in traditional settings.
–A.J. Mast for Education Week

The effort has grown quickly in Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan school, an independently run charter school that is part of the Providence, R.I.-based Big Picture Learning network of schools, expanded last fall from two to four separate academies serving nearly 300 students in all.

Meanwhile, five new schools across four separate Indianapolis school districts opened last fall using the Diploma Plus model, which targets overage, undercredited students. Those schools collectively served more than 400 students this academic year, and will grow over time.

In addition, with support from a U.S. Department of Labor grant, YouthBuild Indy was launched in 2008, based on the model developed by YouthBuild USA, a nonprofit group in Somerville, Mass. The program, which targets dropouts from low-income families, blends classroom time with on-site work rehabilitating dilapidated homes to help participants gain work skills. Students work to earn a General Educational Development credential while preparing for college and the workforce.

“‘Alternative’ used to have more of a negative connotation,” said Thomas Major, an associate director at the Indianapolis Private Industry Council Inc., a local workforce-investment agency that oversees the YouthBuild Indy program. “This is about alternative learning models: different opportunities to reach kids [for whom] the traditional routes of learning have not been as fruitful.”

The new effort is “helping us build a critical mass of alternative options for young people here,” he said. “This is the type of work that needs to be replicated.”

The pilot sites in Indianapolis, Nashville, and Newark are an undertaking of the Alternative High School Initiative, a national network of youth-development organizations launched in 2003 with financial support from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The foundation also provides grant support to Education Week.)


Brandon Drake, 20, left, a student at YouthBuild Indy, learns how to use a circular saw at a construction site. YouthBuild students build affordable homes for low-income and homeless people. Mr. Drake was introduced to the program by his probation officer and hopes to make a career in the construction industry after graduation.
—A.J. Mast for Education Week

The AHSI aims to provide innovative, alternative schooling models to improve high school graduation rates. It includes 12 national, nonprofit organizations, from Big Picture Learning, YouthBuild USA, and Boston-based Diploma Plus, to Communities in Schools, in Arlington, Va., and the Denver-based Street Schools Network, a network of private, Christian second-chance schools.

The National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families has led the effort to develop what it calls “place-based partnerships” in the three cities. Beyond mayors, school districts, and national school developers, the partnerships include local postsecondary institutions, as well as community-based nonprofit groups and other local organizations and the NLC institute itself.

The Indianapolis partnership was launched first, in 2007. Mayor Bart R. Peterson, a Democrat who was defeated in his run for a third term in 2007, played a key role in getting the city involved. His Republican successor, Mayor Greg Ballard, has also shown strong support for the work.

Nashville and Newark were added last year after going through a competitive selection process.

A variety of factors were considered in selecting the pilot cities, Mr. Moore said, from strong and stable leadership by the mayor and school districts that would make the effort a high priority, to assurances that the “policy conditions were ripe, that there was nothing standing in the way of rapid development.”

He added: “There has to be an openness to doing school differently.”

Departing From Tradition

Indianapolis, Nashville, Tenn., and Newark, N.J., are bringing some national schooling models to town through their participation in the Alternative High School Initiative’s “place-based partnerships” program.

Big Picture Learning

Headquarters: Providence, R.I.

Offers a rigorous, highly personalized high school curriculum that combines demanding academic work with real-world experiential and inquiry-driven learning.

Diploma Plus

Headquarters: Boston

Offers a small, personalized learning environment and opportunities for students to make connections between school learning and the outside world. Emphasizes a “performance-based approach” in which students progress at their own pace by meeting state standards through the Diploma Plus competencies.

Gateway to College National Network*

Headquarters: Portland, Ore.

Students complete their high school diploma requirements at community and technical colleges while earning college credits toward an associate’s degree or certificate. Beginning in a small learning community on a college campus and quickly transitioning to attend classes with the general student population, students get intensive support from faculty and counselors.

YouthBuild USA*

Headquarters: Somerville, Mass.

Students engage in competency-based, personalized learning while they acquire job skills by building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people. Additionally, leadership development, college readiness, career development, and positive youth-adult relationships are emphasized.

Communities in Schools

Headquarters: Arlington, Va.

The organization’s Performance Learning Centers are small, alternative high schools that offer self-paced, student-driven courses that encourage project learning and community-based learning with practical applications through work experiences.

*Plans were still being explored for the Gateway to College and YouthBuild programs in Nashville.
Sources: Alternative High School Initiative; Education Week

Mayor Karl Dean of Nashville, a Democrat, said he saw his city’s participation as a way to attract “cutting edge” schools to keep more students from dropping out and draw others back into the education fold.

“One size does not fit all when it comes to schools,” he said. “We’ve got to break the mold and think of other ways to educate [students]. ... As a city, we can’t have any throwaway people, particularly kids.”

The three cities receive intensive technical assistance through the AHSI project, but no grant dollars to participate, though some local partners are helping to raise money, and the schools generally operate using public funds.

City officials learned about the AHSI school-development organizations and then selected the models that would best meet their cities’ needs. Although the models differ in significant ways, they share a set of core elements.

For example, according to AHSI materials, they all embrace a personalized school culture and emphasize “authentic learning, teaching, and performance assessment.” This “authentic” approach is centered on students’ personal passions, interests, learning styles, and needs, and aims to be deepened through relevant, real-world experience. At the same time, the models aim to focus on clearly defined learning goals pegged to state standards.

One requirement for the participating cities was that they already had some AHSI presence. In Indianapolis, for instance, Big Picture Learning helped open the Indianapolis Metropolitan school in 2004. Big Picture was also the anchor AHSI participant in Nashville. The 75,000-student Metropolitan Nashville school district operates one Big Picture school, which unlike its Indianapolis cousin is not a charter, and will open another this coming fall.

(Ronald A. Wolk, the chair of Big Picture Learning, was the founding editor of Education Week and is the chair emeritus of its nonprofit parent corporation.)

At the Indianapolis Metropolitan school, one distinguishing factor students and faculty emphasize is the relationships.

“It’s a warm environment,” said Ms. Ratcliff, 19, the student who has interned at the coroner’s office. “It’s more one-on-one, and you get more attention.”

Some of that attention comes from advisers the students meet with regularly all four years.

“I’m heavily involved in all of my students’ lives, as far as their home life, as far as their education, as far as their social lives,” said Jagga Rent, Ms. Ratcliff’s adviser and a teacher at the school.

The students engage in a variety of internships to bring learning to life and connect it to their interests. Ms. Ratcliff’s work in the coroner’s office may be among the most unusual positions, but other settings include hospitals, veterinary clinics, the Indianapolis Urban League, and even the city zoo.

One challenge alternative school models can face is that they don’t always fit with state and local policies. A case in point is the Diploma Plus schools in Indianapolis. Under the model, students gain credit for a course through demonstrating mastery, irrespective of how long they spend in a given class: a month, or the entire school year.

The Mind Trust, a local nonprofit organization that’s supporting the city’s AHSI work, led an effort to persuade the Indiana board of education to waive its seat-time requirement for the schools.

Amanda Payne, right, a freshman at Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, presents her exhibition on women's-rights issues on June 1. The Big Picture Learning network, of which the school is a member, has an unconventional, student-centered approach to education and an emphasis on project-based learning.

“One feature of the model is kids can progress at their own pace,” said David Harris, the president and chief executive officer of The Mind Trust, which promotes and supports entrepreneurial activities to improve education in Indianapolis. “If they are making more progress, they can move more quickly and graduate sooner, which is an incentive to get the kids to stay in school.”

Diploma Plus schools don’t use traditional grade levels. Instead, students advance through three “phases” to graduation.

The YouthBuild Indy program serves 37 students at a time over a nine-month period, targeting high school dropouts ages 18 to 24 from low-income families. Marian College in Indianapolis helped upgrade the classroom component of YouthBuild Indy for this year, designing a customized GED program that it administers.

Despite the rapid emergence of new alternatives in Indianapolis, Mr. Harris from The Mind Trust said that further growth under the AHSI place-based partnership isn’t happening at the pace he had hoped for, in large part because his organization has had difficulty attracting private donors to support expansion work.

Just one new AHSI school is scheduled to open in the city this coming fall, a sixth Diploma Plus school.

“In terms of the overall funding that we’d like to see grow the work, it’s been a little slower than we would have hoped,” he said, noting that The Mind Trust has had far more success raising money to support other education work in Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, Nashville and Newark are gearing up to expand their educational options under the AHSI partnership.

A second Big Picture school, operated by the Nashville district, is opening in the fall, along with the city’s first Diploma Plus academy. Local officials are also working to establish both a YouthBuild program and a Gateway to College program, though plans for those efforts are not yet final. Under the Gateway dropout-recovery model, students complete their high school diploma requirements at community and technical colleges while earning credits toward an associate’s degree or certificate.

One way the partners are collaborating in all three cities is to coordinate the provision of nonacademic “wraparound services” for students, such as health care, transportation, and child care. Just last month, a variety of organizations met in Nashville to flesh out such plans.

YouthBuild Indy students study for the test leading to a General Educational Development certificate. Students alternate each week between the classroom and on-site construction work.

Finally, in Newark, Mayor Cory A. Booker, a Democrat, and district Superintendent Clifford B. Janey in December rolled out plans to reinvent the city’s alternative education offerings, bringing in several of the national AHSI models.

The New Jersey district’s plans call for having a total of three Big Picture schools, three Diploma Plus schools, and three Performance Learning Centers over the next two years. Also a Gateway to College program is being housed at Essex County College. Up to 875 students will be served this coming fall under these efforts, and the number could reach 1,275 the following year, said Nadiyah Sa’id, the AHSI coordinator for the 42,000-student district.

The Newark offerings in most cases will be district schools replacing existing alternative programs, with new administrators and teachers. An independent evaluation is planned to study the initiative’s impact on student performance and other issues.

Nicole Butler, the director of education for the Nicholson Foundation in Newark, a local partner in the AHSI initiative, said the timing there is just right to transform the city’s alternative high school offerings.

“Right now, there is a lot of change occurring in the city,” she said, pointing to Mayor Booker’s election in 2006 and the appointment of Mr. Janey last year to lead the Newark district. “You have this window of opportunity.”

Related Tags:

Coverage of efforts to promote new routes to college and career success is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Education Week as High School Alternatives


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Opinion What's the State of Charter Schools Today?
Even though there's momentum behind the charter school movement, charters face many of the same challenges as traditional public schools.
10 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters As Private School Choice Grows, Critics Push for More Guardrails
Calls are growing for more scrutiny over where state funds for private school choice go and how students are faring in the classroom.
7 min read
Illustration of completed tasks, accomplishment, finished checklist, achievement or project progression concept. Person holding pencil tick all completed task checkbox.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty
School Choice & Charters How a District Hopes to Save an ESSER-Funded Program
As a one-time infusion of federal funding expires, districts are searching for creative ways to keep programs they funded with it running.
6 min read
Chicago charter school teacher Angela McByrd works on her laptop to teach remotely from her home in Chicago, Sept. 24, 2020.
Chicago charter school teacher Angela McByrd works on her laptop to teach remotely from her home in Chicago, Sept. 24, 2020. In Montana, a district hopes to save a virtual instruction program by converting it into a charter school.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
School Choice & Charters Q&A How the Charter School Movement Is Changing: A Top Charter Advocate Looks Back and Ahead
Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, plans to step down as leader of the group at the end of the year.
6 min read
Nina Rees, CEO of the National Public Charter School Association.
Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, emphasizes that she has "always thought of [charter schools] as laboratories of innovation with the hopes of replicating those innovations in district-run schools."
Courtesy of McLendon Photography