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

Alternative Schools and Programs for Student at Risk Education Failure

Student enrollment in the nation's public alternative schools and programs is highly fluid. Students are removed from regular schools on an individual and daily basis, for a variety of reasons. Some are removed for disruptive behavior, such as possession of weapons, fighting, disruptive verbal behavior, criminal activity, or the use or distribution of alcohol or drugs (Paglin and Fager 1997). Others are removed for other reasons that put them at risk of education failure, such as chronic truancy, continual academic failure, teen pregnancy/parenthood, or mental health problems.

Similarly, students are returned to regular schools largely on an individual basis, for a variety of reasons. Many public alternative schools and programs aim to return at-risk students to regular schools as soon as they are prepared to do so. Some students do return to regular schools less "at risk," but many are sent back to or simply remain in (by choice or decree) an alternative school or program for the duration of their education (Quinn and Rutherford 1998). This chapter addresses questions relating to how students arrive at and exit from the nation's public alternative schools and programs for at-risk students.


Entrance Criteria

Reasons for transfer.

The survey questionnaire asked districts whether at-risk students could be transferred to alternative schools and programs solely on the basis of various reasons, including types of disruptive behavior and for other reasons that put students at risk. Roughly half of all districts with alternative schools and programs reported that each of the following was sufficient reason for transferring 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); possession or use of a weapon other than a firearm (50 percent); continual academic failure (50 percent); disruptive verbal behavior (45 percent); and possession or use of a firearm (44 percent) (Table 8).25 Teen pregnancy/parenthood and mental health needs were least likely to be sole reasons for transfer (28 and 22 percent). Thirty-eight percent of districts reported arrest or involvement with the juvenile justice system as a sufficient reason for transfer to an alternative school.

Overall, 20 percent of districts indicated that none of these reasons were sufficient in themselves to transfer students to alternative schools and programs for at-risk students (not shown in tables). What is more, the reasons for transfer may be mitigated by the fact that in more serious cases, such as weapon possession or violence, districts may have policies that require suspension or expulsion, and transfer to an alternative school or program is not an option available to suspended or expelled students. Districts reported a mean of 4.3 sole reasons (out of 10 possible) for transfer to alternative schools and programs (not shown in tables).

Many differences across district characteristics were revealed with respect to sole reasons for transfer to alternative schools and programs for students at risk of education failure, especially for the five reasons involving disruptive behavior:

  • possession or use of a firearm,
  • possession or use of a weapon other than a firearm,
  • possession, distribution, or use of alcohol or drugs (excluding tobacco),
  • physical attacks or fights, and
  • disruptive verbal behavior.

First, large districts were more likely than small and moderate-size districts to transfer students solely on the basis of each of the five kinds of disruptive behavior.26 In general, districts in the Southeast region were more likely than those in the Northeast, Central, and Western regions to do so. For example, districts in the Southeast were more likely than districts in the Central region to transfer students solely on the basis of possession or use of a firearm (54 percent vs. 31 percent) and were more likely than districts in the Northeast and Central regions to transfer for possession or use of a weapon other than a firearm (65 percent vs. 42 and 35 percent) (Table 8). Further, districts in the Southeast were more likely than those in the Northeast, Central, and Western regions to transfer solely for alcohol or drugs (70 percent vs. 41, 39, and 56 percent, respectively), for physical attacks or fights (71 percent vs. 40, 42, and 52 percent, respectively), and for disruptive verbal behavior (62 percent vs. 33, 39, and 45 percent, respectively).

Districts with 50 percent or more minority student populations were generally more likely than those with 5 percent or less and 6 to 20 percent minority enrollments to transfer students solely for disruptive behaviors, as in possession or use of a weapon other than a firearm (62 percent vs. 44 and 43 percent), alcohol or drugs (65 percent vs. 45 and 46 percent), physical attacks or fights (63 percent vs. 45 and 46 percent), and disruptive verbal behavior (56 percent vs. 41 and 41 percent). Finally, districts with high poverty concentrations were more likely than those with low and moderate concentrations to transfer solely for possession or use of a weapon other than a firearm (62 percent vs. 41 and 45 percent), alcohol or drugs (65 percent vs. 44 and 47 percent), physical attacks or fights (62 percent vs. 40 and 49 percent), and disruptive verbal behavior (54 percent vs. 36 and 43 percent).

There were few differences across district characteristics with respect to sole reasons for transfer that are less disruptive to other students, such as chronic truancy, continual academic failure, teen pregnancy/parenthood, and mental health needs. One exception was that transfer to alternative schools and programs solely because of teen pregnancy/parenthood differed by region; districts in the Northeast and Southeast were less likely than those in the Central region and the West to do so (10 and 15 percent vs. 40 and 35 percent, respectively).

Placement of special education students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

Data from the survey help to shed some light on the issue of how at-risk special education students with IEPs may arrive at alternative schools and programs. Districts with alternative schools and programs for at-risk students were asked the extent to which special education students with IEPs were placed in alternative schools and programs through each of a variety of means (thus, response categories were not mutually exclusive). An IEP team decision was most commonly employed to a "large extent" in placing special education students with IEPs in alternative schools and programs (66 percent) (Table 9). Eighteen percent of districts did so to a "moderate extent." Following an IEP team decision, districts were more likely to rely on support of a director of special education (37 percent) and a regular school staff recommendation (31 percent) to a large extent, compared to other means (12 to 15 percent) when placing special education students in alternative schools and programs.27

 

Exit Criteria

Although many public alternative schools and programs for at-risk students aim to return students to regular schools as soon as they are prepared for it, not all districts allow all alternative education students to do so. Districts were asked whether it was their policy to allow all, some, or no students enrolled in alternative schools and programs for at-risk students to return to regular schools. (Table 10) shows that while 74 percent of districts 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. These findings were consistent across district characteristics, with the exception of differences by minority student population; districts with more than 50 percent minority enrollment were more likely than those with 21 to 50 percent minority enrollment to allow all alternative education students to return to a regular school (81 percent vs. 68 percent).

Although most alternative education students attending alternative schools and programs for at risk students are allowed to return to regular schools, some schools are reluctant to bring students back into the regular classroom (Harrington-Lueker 1995). Moreover, even if provided the opportunity, some students elect to remain in alternative schools and programs, and some are never adequately prepared to return to a regular school (Quinn and Rutherford 1998). Whether a student returns to a regular public school depends on a variety of factors, including district policies regarding criteria for return. District respondents were asked to rate the importance of a variety of reasons in determining whether a student is able to return to a regular school, including those involving student behavior, performance, and attitude, as well as the approval of regular school and/or alternative school or program staff.

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). Following that, approval of alternative school or program staff was next most commonly cited as "very important" (67 percent), followed by improved grades (52 percent), then approval of the regular school administrator or counselor (40 percent). Least commonly cited as a "very important" reason was student readiness as measured by a standardized assessment (12 percent), followed by availability of space in regular schools (3 percent).

Some variation existed by enrollment size. Small districts were more likely than large ones to view student motivation to return as very important (85 percent vs. 75 percent). Small districts were also more likely than moderate-size ones, which were in turn more likely than large districts to regard approval of the regular school administrator or counselor as a very important reason in determining whether a student is able to return to a regular school (48 percent vs. 35 vs. 25 percent). By region, districts in the Southeast were more likely than those in the West to view improved attitude and behavior as very important (89 percent vs. 75 percent). Districts in the Southeast were less likely than those in the Central region to regard student motivation to return as very important (73 percent vs. 88 percent) and were more likely than districts in the Northeast and West to rate the approval of alternative school or program staff as very important reasons (78 percent vs. 57 and 63 percent). Districts with a high poverty concentration were more likely than districts with a low poverty concentration to rate approval of the regular school administrator or counselor as a very important reason for returning students to regular schools (43 percent vs. 31 percent).

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