What’s the Difference Between an Alternative High School and a Traditional High School?

February 12, 2020

What’s the Difference Between an Alternative High School and a Traditional High School?

In order to discuss the differences between an alternative high school (also called alternative school) and traditional high school, we first must define what an alternative high school is. Alternative high schools come in many different forms. For the purposes of our blog though, we’re speaking of general education, alternative high schools that serve students at-risk of dropping out of high school. However, students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP’s) can attend. The programming at alternative high schools can be set-up in various ways as well. When our blog explains differences (and/or similarities), this is coming from our professional experiences and personal experiences. Therefore, please understand that individuals schools/districts decide who they serve and the best methods to meet their students’ needs which might not look like what we describe here.


The Number of Students


One of the first differences between an alternative high school and traditional high school is the number of students enrolled. For example, my school serves 100 students. In the past we’ve served more; about 175 students was our max. Student body size - i.e. small class sizes is what draws many students to alternative settings. 


Non-traditional programming


Many alternative schools have accelerated programs. Honestly, “accelerated” is a bit of a misnomer. From my experience, many students who attend accelerated programs do so because they’re behind on credits. Accelerated programs allow students to catch up on credits quickly (usually after a certain number of assignments, courses, and/or hours are completed) instead of taking a whole semester class, for example. Thus, students aren’t graduating more quickly ; they’re making up credits faster than if in a non-accelerated program.


Unlike a traditional high school, for many alternative schools, students do not have to live in the district. Students may open enroll into an alternative school, but may need to arrange their own transportation to get there.


For my school, students receive a pretty traditional education. The school day starts at 8 am and ends at 2:30 PM. It is not an accelerated alternative school. Students are not assigned homework at my school. The only way a student gets homework is if they didn't complete their classwork. There are deadlines for work. However, our program is extremely accommodating for late work, as this helps students earn credit towards graduation. Students can receive some time-off and credit for working a job. 


Students can graduate based on the state minimum number of credits. For example, a traditional high school in a particular district might require that all graduating seniors need four years of science. However, if the state minimum is three years of science, this is all that my school would require. 


Additional Supports


Several alternative schools have daycare centers on site for teen parents. If not on site, schools partner closely with childcare centers to help teen parents find childcare so that the parents can attend school. 


My school has a chemical health counselor, therapist, and outside agency case coordinators who help students navigate different areas of their school and personal life. 


Final Thoughts


In closing, the difference between an alternative school and a traditional high school comes down to philosophy. A lot of it is about our approach to education and how we value our students and support their abilities and needs.