by Stacey Rosenkrantz Aronson

Successful Program Characteristics

Such results encourage many policymakers to consider adopting alternative education legislation. Of course, all programs are not equally successful: the success of any individual program depends upon its features and goals. Therefore, when considering policies, decision makers need to understand what makes a program effective.

The most easily recognized aspects of a successful school or program include such features as its culture or climate, organizational structure, curriculum and instruction, and links to other programs and services. Successful programs vary in their specific features because program creators design each one to meet the needs of a unique student population. Developing a prescription that will guarantee the success of any program, therefore, is an impossible task. However, proponents have extracted several general features that they consider central to success (Butchart, 1986; Jacobs, 1994; Kadel, 1994; Kershaw & Blank, 1993; Morley, 1991; Raywid, 1994a; Rogers, 1991). Table 1 describes the most frequently named features.

School Culture
Choice in Involvement: Students, teachers and staff choose to be at the school: they are not placed there as a "final option." Choosing to attend the school fosters feelings of ownership and commitment to the school, facilitating a sense of community.
Focus on the Whole Student: Alternative schools focus on personal, social, emotional, and academic development. Many programs also provide, or make available, services students may need to stay in school, such as counseling or day care.
Warm, Caring Relationships: Warm, caring relationships with teachers are a central part of the alternative school culture. Similar relationships are also fostered among students in order to create a supportive peer culture.
Expanded Teacher Roles: Teachers act not only as teachers, but also as advisors, mentors, and counselors.
Sense of Community: Alternative education programs strive to create a sense of community among teachers, staff, and students that fosters the relationships described above as well as student affiliation with the school.
High Student Expectations: Teachers have high expectations for students, but these expectations are flexible, allowing for change according to student needs.
Organizational Structure
Small Size: To facilitate the personal attention necessary to foster a sense of community in the alternative school, both schools and classes are small. Ideally, student/teacher ratios should be 10:1 or smaller, and not more than 15:1 (Jacobs, 1994).
Relative Autonomy: Most successful alternative education programs have some degree of freedom from standard district operating procedures. Teachers, and often students, participate in management and decision making, both in establishing the school's goals and direction and in its ongoing functioning.
Comprehensive Programs: Alternative education programs include experiential learning and vocational components to link what the students learn in school with their future life and work.
Counseling: Counseling programs are an integral part of the curriculum. They are not limited to academic issues, but help students deal with problems and events both in school and in their daily lives.
Safe Environment: Alternative schools have a structured school environment and strict behavioral expectations that are clear to students and staff. Discipline is administered in a fair and consistent manner.
Separation from Traditional School: Programs achieve separation either by establishing themselves in a distinct area of the traditional school (such as a particular wing) or by moving to a different location entirely.
Curriculum and Instruction
Academic Innovation: Programs give teachers flexibility in designing strategies and methods that will work for their students. Specific strategies include individual learning, cooperative learning, competency based learning, team teaching, peer tutoring, teaching to multiple intelligences, and an absence of tracking. Curriculum varies, ranging from programs that emphasize basic skills, to those that focus more on personal development and behavior.
System-wide Features
School Linked Services: Parental involvement, community involvement, and access to basic health and social services are important features in many programs.

The alternative program's underlying mission or philosophy also has an impact on its effectiveness. Raywid (1990) identified three categories of alternative programs, based on their underlying assumptions or goals:

True educational alternatives.
Based on the theory that all students can learn if provided with the right educational environment, these programs strive to meet students' needs in order to help them succeed. Exemplary programs of this type usually incorporate many of the features listed in Table 1.
Alternative discipline programs.
These "last chance" programs for disruptive students focus on behavior modification. They attempt to change students and return them to their traditional schools or classrooms.
Therapeutic programs.
Like the second type, these programs assume that students need to change to succeed in traditional schools. They elicit change through counseling, rather than behavior modification.

Raywid's review of the literature suggests that programs of the first type, true educational alternatives, achieve the most success. In contrast, alternative discipline programs rarely lead to substantial gains for students. Therapeutic programs have mixed results: students often make progress while in the alternative program, but regress upon return to the traditional one.

Recent research in Oklahoma yielded similar results. Although students participating in an alternative education program academically outperformed students not enrolled in a program (suggesting that some intervention is better than none), the results depended on the type of program and its goals. Students in long-term, alternative education programs improved more and performed better than students in short-term alternative discipline programs. Thus, programs designed to be true educational alternatives were most successful in reducing the "at-risk" status of these students (Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center, 1995).

This research from Oklahoma highlights a structural feature missing from most lists describing successful alternative programs: the length of the program. Program goals affect program length, often inextricably linking the two. Programs that assume the problem resides within the student attempt to change students to enable them to succeed in traditional settings. These programs work with students on a short-term basis and then return them to their base school. Conversely, programs designed as true educational alternatives work with students on a longer-term basis, some permitting students to remain through graduation. As mentioned in the previous discussion, the research suggests greater effectiveness with programs of longer duration.

Several potentially difficult issues associated with short-term programs may contribute to their relative lack of success. Problems often arise when students must transition back to their base school. The combination of loss of support, a return to the environment that failed the student initially (including negative peer influences), and potential labeling and stigmatization by both peers and teachers, at best may prevent the student from continuing to progress and, at worst, may cause a regression to prior behavior and performance. This regression, or "fade-out," is associated with many short-term interventions and is clearly detrimental to the student. It also poses a potential threat to the alternative school: if student gains do not survive the transition, base-school faculty and administration may perceive the alternative school as ineffective and withdraw support. Evidence does in fact suggest a discrepancy in base- and alternative-school faculties' perceptions of alternative-school effectiveness based on student performance upon return to the base school (Kershaw & Blank, 1993).

A short length does not necessarily doom a program to failure, however. Short-term programs may avoid many such problems if the district devotes sufficient time and resources to providing supports for students at transition periods and encouraging communication between the base and alternative schools. In fact, some students may gain benefits from returning to the base school, including a feeling of achievement based on their ability to function in the traditional educational environment. Whether students should remain in an alternative program for a long period of time or will benefit from a short intervention and early return to the base school is likely to depend upon the type and severity of the problems they face.

These issues regarding program design suggest a need to re-examine the goals of alternative education. If programs that focus on changing students are less successful than those that intend to provide a supportive, productive educational environment, the latter goal should be emphasized in program design. This research review suggests that programs that do not require students either to remain in the alternative school or to return to the base school, but rather are flexible and based on student need, are likely to be most successful. Policymakers, therefore, should consider both encouraging flexible programs that can meet the needs of different students and providing districts the freedom and support needed to create student-centered programs.

Next Page: Implications of Mandates

Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 6, December 1995, Alternative Learning Environments (Summary of Alternative Education Legislation)