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Public Alternative Schools and Programs for Students At Risk of Education Failure: 2000-01
NCES: 2002004
August 2002

Executive Summary

Background

Concern among the public, educators, and policymakers about violence, weapons, and drugs on elementary and secondary school campuses, balanced with concern about sending disruptive and potentially dangerous students "out on the streets," has spawned an increased interest in alternative schools and programs (U.S. Department of Education 1996). Many students who, for one reason or another, are not succeeding in regular public schools are being sent to alternative placements. In general, students are referred to alternative schools and programs if they are at risk of education failure, as indicated by poor grades, truancy, disruptive behavior, suspension, pregnancy, or similar factors associated with early withdrawal from school (Paglin and Fager 1997). The 2001 "District Survey of Alternative Schools and Programs," conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) through its Fast Response Survey System (FRSS), is the first national study of public alternative schools and programs for students at risk of education failure to provide data on topics related to the availability of public alternative schools and programs, enrollment, staffing, and services for these students. The results presented in this report are based on questionnaire data from a nationally representative sample of 1,534 public school districts. Although there is no single commonly accepted definition of what constitutes alternative schools and programs (Lange and Sletten 2002), this survey included only public alternative schools and programs that were geared towards students at risk of education failure, that were administered by regular districts1, and where students spent at least 50 percent of their instructional time.

Key Findings

Availability of and Enrollment in Public Alternative Schools and Programs for At-Risk Students

Few national-level measures are available with respect to features of availability and enrollment in public alternative schools and programs for students at risk of education failure. The FRSS District Survey of Alternative Schools and Programs asked districts for information regarding overall availability and locations of alternative schools and programs; grades at which instruction was offered; and a variety of questions related to enrollment, including overall numbers of students enrolled in alternative schools and programs as well as the existence of capacity limitations and how districts treat such problems. Results include the following:

  • Overall, 39 percent of public school districts administered at least one alternative school or program for at-risk students during the 2000- 01 school year (Table 1).

  • Urban districts, large districts (those with 10,000 or more students), districts in the Southeast, districts with high minority student enrollments, and districts with high poverty concentrations were more likely than other districts to have alternative schools and programs for at-risk students during the 2000- 01 school year (Table 1).

  • Overall, there were 10,900 public alternative schools and programs for at-risk students in the nation during the 2000-01 school year (Table 2).

  • Fifty-nine percent (6,400) of all public alternative schools and programs for at-risk 2 If elementary districts (i.e., districts with grades no higher than grade 8) are excluded from consideration, 48 percent of (unified and secondary) districts had at least one alternative school or program during the 2000-01 school year. iv students were housed in a separate facility (i.e., not within a regular school) during the 2000-01 school year (Table 3). Results also indicate that districts administered few alternative schools and programs that were in juvenile detention centers (4 percent of all public alternative schools and programs), that were in community centers (3 percent), or that were charter schools (1 percent).

  • Overall, districts with one or more alternative school or program for at-risk students were most likely to have just one such school or program (65 percent) (Table 3). Large districts were more likely than moderate-size districts, which in turn were more likely than small districts, to have three or more alternative schools or programs (56 percent vs. 16 percent vs. 7 percent, respectively).

  • Of those districts offering alternative education for at-risk students during the 2000- 01 school year, alternative schools and programs were offered at the secondary level (grades 9 through 12) by 88 to 92 percent of districts, at the middle school level (grades 6 through 8) by 46 to 67 percent of districts, and at the elementary school level (grades 1 through 5) by 10 to 21 percent of districts (Figure 1).

  • As of October 1, 2000, 612,900 students, or 1.3 percent of all public school students, were enrolled in public alternative schools or programs for at-risk students (Table 2)).3 Fortythree percent of districts with alternative schools and programs for at-risk students had less than 1 percent of their student population enrolled in such schools and programs (Table 4).

  • Overall, 12 percent of all students in alternative schools and programs for at-risk students were special education students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) 3 Percentages are based on total district enrollment figures according to the 2000-01 NCES CCD. In 2000-01, there were about 47 million students in the nation's public schools. (not shown in tables). This percentage is not significantly different than the overall percentage of special education students with IEPs enrolled in all public schools during the 2000-01 school year (13 percent) (not shown in tables). While 29 percent of districts with alternative schools and programs had less than 3 percent of alternative education students who were special education students with IEPs, roughly as many districts (34 percent) had 20 percent or more (Table 5)).

  • About one-third (33 percent) of districts with alternative schools and programs for at-risk students had at least one such school or program that did not have the capacity to enroll new students during the 1999-2000 school year (Table 6). This was more likely to be the case for large and moderate-size districts than for small ones (43 and 39 percent vs. 25 percent).

  • Fifty-four percent of districts with alternative schools and programs for at-risk students reported that within the last 3 years there were cases where demand for enrollment exceeded capacity (not shown in tables). These districts reported employing a variety of procedures in such cases. Putting students on a waiting list was the most common procedure of districts where demand exceeded capacity (83 percent) (Table 7).

Alternative Schools and Programs: Entrance and Exit Criteria

Student enrollment in the nation's public alternative schools and programs is highly fluid. Students are removed from and returned to regular schools on an individual and daily basis, for a variety of reasons. Many public alternative schools and programs aim to return at-risk students to regular schools as soon as students are prepared to do so. Some students do return to regular schools less "at risk," but many are sent back to or simply 4 An IEP is a special education program that is tailored to each student's needs according to his/her learning disability(s).  Percentage derived from the 2000-01 NCES CCD. v remain in (by choice or decree) an alternative school or program for the duration of their education (Quinn and Rutherford 1998). Results of the FRSS District Survey of Alternative Schools and Programs include the following findings on criteria for transferring students into and out of alternative schools and programs during the 2000-01 school year:

  • Roughly half of all districts with alternative schools and programs reported that each of the following was a sufficient reason for transferring at-risk students from a regular school: possession, distribution, or use of alcohol or drugs (52 percent); physical attacks or fights (52 percent); chronic truancy (51 percent); continual academic failure (50 percent); possession or use of a weapon other than a firearm (50 percent); disruptive verbal behavior (45 percent); and possession or use of a firearm (44 percent) (Table 8)). Teen pregnancy/parenthood and mental health needs were least likely to be sole reasons for transfer (28 and 22 percent).

  • With respect to the manner in which at-risk special education students with IEPs arrive at alternative schools and programs (e.g., through the support of a director of special education, or the recommendation of regular school staff), an IEP team decision was the means most commonly employed to a "large extent" in these students" placement (66 percent) (Table 9)).

  • While 74 percent of districts with alternative schools and programs for at-risk students reported a policy that allowed all alternative education students to return to a regular school, 25 percent of districts allowed some, but not all, students to return, and 1 percent allowed none to return (Table 10)). 6 The counterintuitive result that a smaller percentage of districts transferred students solely for possession of a firearm compared with other reasons may be due to the fact that districts may have policies requiring expulsion in case of firearm possession, and transfer to an alternative school or program is not an option. 7 The finding for teen pregnancy/parenthood does not include the 27 elementary districts that were asked this question.

  • The reasons most likely to be rated as "very important" in determining whether a student was able to return to a regular school were improved attitude or behavior (82 percent) and student motivation to return (81 percent) (Table 11).


Staffing, Curriculum and Services, and Collaboration

Whether students at risk of education failure are able to transfer back to regular schools or successfully graduate from alternative schools and programs may depend in part on the quality of the education and services they receive. Various factors have been identified as beneficial to at-risk students in alternative education environments, including dedicated and well-trained staff, effective curriculum, and a variety of support services provided in collaboration with an array of agencies (Quinn and Rutherford 1998). Results of the FRSS District Survey of Alternative Schools and Programs include the following on such factors:

  • Eighty-six percent of districts with alternative schools and programs for at-risk students hired teachers specifically to teach in such schools and programs (Table 12)). A smaller percentage of districts transferred teachers by choice from a regular school (49 percent), and an even smaller percentage assigned teachers involuntarily to positions in alternative schools and programs (10 percent).

  • Overall, many districts with alternative schools and programs for at-risk students had policies requiring a wide variety of services and practices for alternative education students (Table 13)).8 Over three-quarters of the districts had curricula leading toward a regular high school diploma (91 percent), academic counseling (87 percent), policies requiring a 8 Since some of the services were not relevant at the elementary level (e.g., career counseling, preparation for the GED exam, etc.), to ensure comparability across services, the 27 elementary districts that were asked questions about services were excluded from the findings presented in (Table 13)). vi smaller class size than in regular schools (85 percent), remedial instruction (84 percent), opportunity for self-paced instruction (83 percent), crisis/behavioral intervention (79 percent), and career counseling (79 percent). Least commonly required were extended school day or school year (29 percent), security personnel on site (26 percent), and evening or weekend classes (25 percent). On average, districts required 9.5 of the 16 services asked about in the survey (not shown in tables).

  • The type of collaboration most widely reported by districts with alternative schools and programs for at-risk students was with the juvenile justice system (84 percent). Seventy five percent of districts collaborated with community mental health agencies, 70 percent collaborated with police or sheriff's departments, and 69 percent collaborated with child protective services (Table 14)). Collaboration with parks and recreation departments was least commonly cited by districts (23 percent).

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