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Briefing Papers

What research or promising practices should an individual district or a cooperative among several districts consider with regard to the establishment of an alternative high school in a rural area?


Rigorous research on alternative high schools for at-risk students is extremely limited, especially for rural areas. There are case studies and descriptive reports of successful programs for rural students whose needs are not met in traditional schools. In general, these programs share the same characteristics as those found in urban areas. Some programs and schools are profiled in two appendices included in this report.

Key Points

Successful alternative high schools, whether rural or urban, have many characteristics in common, including

  • small class size, with strong individual supports, both academic and social;
  • self-paced curriculum, with flexible scheduling;
  • parental involvement; and
  • more autonomous management.

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Appendix A

Appendix B

Alternative High Schools in
Rural Areas


"Alternative schools and programs are designed to address the needs of students that typically cannot be met in regular schools." (Carver, Lewis, & Tice, 2010, p. 1). Many of these students are at risk of dropping out or being "pushed out" of school for a variety of reasons (Cable, Plucker, & Spradlin, 2009). For those who have already dropped out, the alternative educational programs (AEPs) can be a means of reconnecting and completing their education (Aron, 2006).

In their survey for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Carver et al. (2010) reported that during the 2007–2008 school year, 64% of U.S. school districts had at least one AEP in operation, administered either by the district or another entity. This is up from 39% reported by NCES for the 2000–2001 school year (Gilson, 2006). The 2010 report indicated that 10,300 district-administered schools or programs enrolled approximately 86% of the 646,500 students served by AEPs during 2007–2008. The remaining 14% attended programs administered by another public entity (such as a regional program or cooperative), a postsecondary institution, or a private entity.

The same report revealed that 56% of rural districts had at least one AEP in operation, with 2,900 district-administered programs serving 81% of the 101,400 students enrolled in AEPs. Between 57% and 74% of the placements in AEPs were influenced by recommendations from a district-level administrator; regular school staff; or a committee or teachers, counselors, and administrators. Other placements were requested by a student or parent, were referred by the criminal justice system, or resulted from a functional behavioral assessment.

Over half of the rural districts with AEPs cited the following as reasons for which they could refer students to district-administered programs:

  • Disruptive verbal behavior (65% of districts)
  • Physical attacks or fights (64%)
  • Possession, distribution, or use of alcohol or drugs (57%)
  • Continual academic failure (56%)
  • Possession or use of a weapon other than a firearm (52%)
  • Chronic truancy (52%)

Fewer than half of the districts listed the following reasons:

  • Arrest or involvement with the criminal justice system (44%)
  • Possession or use of a firearm (42%)
  • Pregnancy/teen parenthood (30%)
  • Mental health needs (26%)

Carver et al. (2010) reported that virtually all of the rural district policies allow some or all of the students to return to regular school, based on improved grades or behavior, approval of the regular school, or other factors. However, only a third of the districts have databases to track students after they leave the AEP. Overall, while actual statistics may vary, the findings reported by Carver et al. for rural districts reflect trends similar to those observed in town, suburban, and urban districts.

Research on Alternative Education Programs

Although AEPs have been in operation for several decades and continue to expand in scope and numbers, limited empirical research is available on developing or implementing effective intervention approaches for at-risk students (Aron, 2006; Carswell, Hanlon, O'Grady, Watts, & Pothong, 2009; Gilson, 2006). Research on alternative education in rural areas is even more limited. However, based on her case study, Bates (1993) stated that "the four characteristics of successful urban schools for at-risk students can also be found in rural communities as well." The factors she listed were size, a caring staff, school as a community, and flexibility.

The similarity between urban and rural programs can also be seen in Hosley, Hosley, and Thein's (2009) survey of school administrators and teachers from alternative education programs. As part of a project sponsored by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the researchers asked whether participants agreed or disagreed with 16 statements related to differences between alternative and regular education classrooms; they presented their findings in a chart disaggregated by rural versus urban respondents. The responses are graphed in the chart below, which is followed by a list of the 16 factors. While the values are higher for rural on several factors, the percentages shown are not so important as is the overall shape of the two lines—they show the similarities between rural and urban responses.

Percent responding affirmatively on the 16 factors

Percent Responding affirmatively on the 16 factors.



  1. Minimal differences between regular education and alternative education curriculum.
    (rural 30, urban 27)
  2. Curriculum is adapted individually in alternative education
    (rural 60, urban 55)
  3. Age and grade differences in alternative education make it necessary to implement varied curriculum within the same classroom
    (rural 70, urban 58)
  4. There is more latitude in the alternative education classroom to change, adapt, or create curriculum
    (rural 75, urban 64)
  5. Alternative education has the same or more curriculum resources available as the regular education classroom
    (rural 33, urban 30)
  6. Alternative education has fewer curriculum resources available than the regular education classroom
    (rural 40, urban 43)
  7. There is more emphasis on social skills training in the alternative education classroom
    (rural 68, urban 57)
  8. There is more emphasis on discussion or working on personal issues in the alternative education classroom
    (rural 61, urban 53)
  9. There is more emphasis on discipline in the alternative education classroom
    (rural 60, urban 51)
  10. Students in alternative education have curriculum options available that are not ordinarily available in regular education
    (rural 26, urban 20)
  11. Students in alternative education are excluded from participation in some parts of the curriculum that are ordinarily available to regular education students
    (rural 40, urban 37)
  12. Every alternative education student participates in transition programming
    (rural 25, urban 22)
  13. The teacher-to-student ratio is smaller in the alternative education classroom
    (rural 89, urban 78)
  14. In general, students seem to maintain current academic levels or make academic gains after participation in alternative education
    (rural 76, urban 66)
  15. In general students seem to lose ground academically after participation in alternative education
    (rural 10, urban 5)
  16. Entry and exit academic levels are assessed in the alternative education program
    (rural 25, urban 21)

(Hosley, Hosley, & Thein, 2009, p. 14)

Characteristics of Alternative Education Programs in General

Raywid (1994) identified three categories of programs that have been widely cited in the literature on AEPs:

Type I—schools of choice, such as magnet schools, schools-within-a-school, experiential schools, and other models that offer flexibility, autonomy, small classes, and personalized instruction

Type II—programs for students who have been disruptive in traditional schools, with a focus on discipline and segregation from general classrooms

Type III—programs with rehabilitation or remediation emphasis for students with social and emotional problems that impede learning

(Aron, 2006; Foley & Pang, 2006)

Aron's overview of alternative education, however, reported that the distinctions between Raywid's types are beginning to blur as Types II and III have blended into a category focused on "changing the student" and Type I is characterized as "changing the school"; a new third group is focused on "changing the system."

Aron (2006) also referenced a typology that focuses on the educational problems or challenges presented rather than demographic or risk factors. In this paradigm, students sort into four groups: 1) those who have fallen "off track" because they have gotten into trouble and need short-term intervention to get them back into regular schools; 2) those who have "prematurely transitioned into adulthood" because of existing or imminent parenthood or personal situations that prevent regular school attendance; 3) those who are older but need only a few credits to graduate; and 4) those who are substantially behind educationally because of low-reading levels or other learning challenges. Aron reasons that because of the wide range of issues to be addressed, alternative programs are often characterized by flexible schedules, smaller student-teacher ratios, and modified curricula.

The research that does exist on AEPs shows some additional characteristics of successful programs:

  • Academic instruction based on high standards and engaging, creative instruction
  • High expectations for all students, in terms of performance, attendance, and behavior
  • Personalized, self-paced academic programs
  • Instructors who choose to be part of the program, are committed, receive ongoing professional development, and have a role in governance
  • Site-based, autonomous management
  • Student voice in school operations
  • Safe learning environment and a sense of community
  • Meaningful, caring relationships between students and teachers
  • Student supports to meet social and emotional needs, as well as academic needs
  • Clear rules of behavior that are fairly and consistently enforced
  • Links to community organizations
  • Work readiness
  • Parent involvement

(Aron, 2006; Bates, 1993; Cable et al., 2009; Foley & Pang, 2006; Gilson, 2006; Johnston, Cooch, & Pollard, 2004; Pollard & Thorne, 2003)

For additional characterization of alternative programs, Aron (2006) provides an appendix charting AEP attributes mentioned in nine published studies. A second appendix describes 10 promising models of AEPs: Career Academies, Job Corps, YouthBuild USA, Gateway to College, ISUS (Improved Solutions for Urban Systems), Open Meadow Alternative School, Center for Employment and Training, Youth Service and Conservation Corps, Early and Middle College High Schools, and Twilight Academies. The majority of these programs are targeted to students who have already dropped out of school. None are specifically targeted to rural areas.

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Rural Alternative Education Programs

For some time, rural areas were not faced with the same challenges as urban and suburban districts, but the problems causing students to be at risk of dropping out are now becoming increasingly common among rural communities (Hernandez, 2002; Linton, 2000). Eugene Linton, superintendent of Mercer County Educational Service Center in Ohio, expressed his opinion on a program implemented in Mercer County. He indicated that the program has brought the dropout rate at the alternative school down from nearly 100% to less than 30%. Focal points of the program include individualized instruction, a safe school environment, parent and agency support, mandatory drug testing, and flexibility.

Hernandez (2002) cited the erosion of tribal culture and growing exposure to urban environments as factors in increased gang activity on Native American reservations. His case study of "Lorenzo," a member of the Pima-Maricopa tribe, reveals successful strategies by the tribe to deal with at-risk youth. The tribe built a high school, an alternative school for students with a history of delinquency, and a juvenile detention facility with a special education program. The tribal school principal, school counselor, and directors of the alternative and detention programs met with "Lorenzo" and his parents to establish a plan for his academic and personal development after two expulsions and probation from off-reservation schools by the ninth grade. After an incident caused Lorenzo to be sent to the detention facility for a period of time, administrators and his parents planned for him to enroll in the alternative school upon his release. Because of his gang involvement, opposing gang members were present at his entry meeting at the school. "(They) were invited in order to get written and verbal understandings that there would be no conflict when Lorenzo returned to campus. Because several gangs are represented and study together in the alternative school, transitional meetings address this issue openly and firmly" (Hernandez, p. 5). The case study ended at this point, but while in the school, Lorenzo's parents were to be called every day to check on his progress and discuss any problems, and he was to receive regular counseling and attention to learning and emotional disabilities.

The chart in Appendix A provides information gleaned from case studies of rural AEPs. The name of the school/program (if available), source of information, program's reported evidence of effectiveness, and characteristics of the program are listed for each.

The National Dropout Prevention Center maintains a database of model programs at Profiles of the programs include name, address, and contact information; description; emphasis (dropout prevention, intervention, or recovery/retrieval); rating (based on number of years in existence, evaluation design, and empirical evidence demonstrating success); number of students served; cost for one year; staff, materials used, and partners; risk factors addressed; and protective factors the program promotes (in the categories of relationships, independence, competence, creativity, and optimism). Appendix B is a chart with descriptions of the programs targeted to rural populations; also included is a list of names of the programs targeting both rural and at least one other population.

Additional Studies

A search for literature on the topic of alternative high schools in rural areas produced some additional articles that address rural at-risk students, though not in alternative schools. Brief descriptions of these studies are provided here for the reader to pursue if so desired. Pauline Hodges (1994) described her strategy for teaching writing to at-risk students in a rural high school—she focused on reading and writing topics that were relevant to the students' lives and communities. Bursuck, Robbins, and Lazaroff (2010) used focus groups and a statewide survey to explore what schools in an unnamed southeastern state were doing to help students struggling with reading in rural high schools. While over 60% of the rural schools had no reading program designed to assist these students, the schools that did reported that their programs included separate reading classes or a combination of reading classes plus reading instruction embedded within content-area instruction.

Linda Thurston (2002) described a study of a life-skills management program, Survival Skills for Youth, that was implemented with groups of youths in rural Tennessee and Missouri. The program in each setting was carried out with the assistance of at least two organizations, such as universities, school districts, juvenile justice programs, and state human services or workforce agencies. The study indicated that interagency partnerships could provide an effective means for changing attitudes and behaviors of rural at-risk students.

Laible and Harrington (1998) reported on values and beliefs of leaders serving two rural schools with extremely poor student populations. The students in these schools, one in Texas and one in Alabama, performed better and had lower dropout rates than many more affluent, suburban students. The researchers concluded that leadership skills played an important role in student achievement at the two schools. Maintaining high expectations for all students; having courage to do the right thing, regardless of political consequences; developing a collaborative, responsible school community focused on student learning; and showing a personal interest in students, including family background and problems they may be facing, were major components of leadership at both schools.

Finally, a study by Marrs, Hemmert, and Jansen (2007) examined the concept of school engagement in a rural school in the Midwest. The researchers interviewed students identified for an intervention plan to determine the level of behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement of each student. They concluded, "Effective interventions are likely holistic, offering not only academic support to increase cognitive engagement, but also assistance in developing positive relationships and encouragement to become involved in positive activities" (Marrs et al., p. 34).

References and Additional Resources

Listed below are references used in preparing this report and additional resources that can consulted for more information on this topic.

Aron, L. Y. (2006). An overview of alternative education. Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy. Retrieved from

Bates, J. T. (1993). Portrait of a successful rural alternative school. Rural Educator, 14(3), 20–24.

Bland, P., Church, E., Neill, S., & Terry, P. (2008). Lessons from successful alternative education: A guide for secondary school reform. Eastern Education Journal, 37(1), 29–42.

Bursuck, W. D., Robbins, S., & Lazaroff, K. (2010). Meeting the needs of struggling readers in high school: What are rural schools doing? The Rural Educator, 31(2), 27–32. Retrieved from

Cable, K. E., Plucker, J. A., & Spradlin, T. E. (2009). Alternative schools: What's in a name? Education Policy Brief, 7(4). Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation & Education Policy.

Carswell, S. B., Hanlon, T. E., O'Grady, K. E., Watts, A. M., & Pothong, P. (2009). A preventive intervention program for urban African American youth attending an alternative education program: Background, implementation, and feasibility. Education and Treatment of Children, 32(3), 445–469.

Carver, P. R., Lewis, L., & Tice, P. (2010). Alternative schools and programs for public school students at risk of educational failure: 2007–08. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

Cortez, A., & Montecel, M. R. (1999). Disciplinary alternative education programs in Texas: What is known, what is needed. San Antonio, TX: Intercultural Development Research Association.

Foley, R. M., & Pang, L. S. (2006). Alternative education programs: Program and student characteristics. High School Journal, 89(3), 10–21.

Forbes, R. (2008). Additional learning opportunities in rural areas. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
Gilson, T. (2006). Alternative high schools: What types of programs lead to the greatest level of effectiveness? Journal of Educational Research & Policy Studies, 6(1), 48–66.

Harris, A. (2008). Accelerating the agenda: Actions to improve America's high schools. Washington, DC: National Governors Association.

Helge, D. (1989). Rural at-risk students: Directions for policy and intervention. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 10(1), 1–17.

Hernandez, A. (2002). Can education play a role in the prevention of youth gangs in Indian country? One tribe's approach (ERIC digest; ED471717). Washington, DC: Education Resources Information Center.

Hodges, V. P. (1994). Teaching writing to at-risk students in a rural high school. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the National Rural Education Association, Salt Lake City, UT.

Hosley, N. S., Hosley, J., & Thein, M. (2009). Survey and analysis of alternative education programs II. Harrisburg, PA: Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

Johnston, C., Cooch, G., & Pollard, C. (2004). A rural alternative school and its effectiveness for preventing dropouts. Rural Educator, 25(3), 25–29.

Liable, J., & Harrington, S. (1998). The power and the possibility of leading with alternative values. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 1(2), 111–135.

Linton, E. P. (2000). Alternative schooling for troubled youth in rural communities. School Administrator, 57(2), 47.

Marrs, H., Hemmert, E., & Jansen, J. (2007). Trouble in a small school: Perceptions of at-risk students in a rural high school. Journal of At-Risk Issues, 13(2), 29–35.

Paglin, C., & Fager, J. (1997). Alternative schools: Approaches for students at risk. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Lab. Retrieved from

Pollard, C. J., & Thorne, T. (2003). Student centered policies and practices help students "at risk" earn high school diploma. Rural Educator, 24(3), 27–33.

Raywid, M. A. (1994). Alternative schools: The state of the art. Educational Leadership, 52(1), 26–31.

Rossi, R. J., Vergun, P. B., & Weise, L. J. (1997). Serving rural youth at risk: A portrait of collaboration and community. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 2(3), 213–227.

Schomburg, G., & Rippeth, M. (2009). Rethinking virtual school. Principal Leadership, 10(4), 32–36.

Smith, B. (2010). The Texas virtual school network. Principal Leadership, 10(8), 72–74.

Thorbahn, K. R. (1995). Saturday school and ALEC: Alternative discipline programs (ERIC Document ED385929).

Thurston, L. P. (2002). Practical partnerships: Analysis and results of a cooperative life skills program for at-risk rural youth. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 7(3), 313–326.


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