Alternative education settings are designed to better reflect and support students not served well by the traditional school setting. Often these schools are striving to meet the academic as well as social, emotional, and personal needs of students who experience significant barriers such as poverty, teen pregnancy and parenting, homelessness, high-mobility, and involvement in the foster care and/or juvenile justice systems. AYPF recently conducted a professional field trip or study tour to Indianapolis, Indiana for state and district education leaders to explore how to leverage opportunities in policy and practice to create high-quality alternative education settings that better serve traditionally underserved students. Below are five key takeaways drawn from the schools we visited for better serving traditionally underserved youth.
1. Remove Barriers
Operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives Inc., the Indianapolis Metropolitan High School (Indy Met) is a free public high school designed as a “best fit” for students experiencing significant barriers. At Indy Met, Empowerment Coaches work directly with students on academic and postsecondary planning, but also work with family members on goal-setting and barrier removal. Empowerment Coaches are able to help remove barriers by connecting students and families to employment and other services through Goodwill, including TalentSource, New Beginnings, and more. Goodwill also manages the Excel Center, a free public high school that provides adults who have dropped out of school the opportunity and support to earn a high school diploma and postsecondary education (certification or dual credit) while developing career paths that offer greater employment as well as college, and career growth opportunities. In Indiana, there is no age cap for earning a high school diploma, removing a significant barrier for older students who might otherwise only have access to a GED. This allows the Excel Center to exclusively serve adult learners, offering multiple services to remove barriers for students such as providing free transportation and childcare while students are in class.
2. Individualize and Personalize Learning
Options Charter School is free public charter school with two campuses located in the Northern suburbs of Indianapolis. Every student at Options receives a personal advisor who serves to motivate, monitor, and communicate with the student and their family. Students also create an Individualized Service Plan that assists them with accomplishing academic, behavioral, emotional, and social goals with their advisor.
Instruction goes beyond the classroom with project-based learning, laboratory assignments, technology portfolios, and practical demonstrations. Options also offers flexible learning options and scheduling, small class sizes, as well as virtual learning through an online platform. Students at Options are given a sense of control over their learning environment as they are regularly involved in the development of school rules, policies, events, and small group meetings for open discussion.
3. Use Time and Place Differently
The Excel Center helps students earn a diploma and prepare for postsecondary education and work through an accelerated curriculum in the core areas of language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies, allowing students to earn credits at a faster pace. At no extra cost, students can enroll in dual credit or postsecondary courses to begin their pathway to college or career. Five eight-week terms are offered throughout the year, and flexible schedules consist of both day and night classes Monday through Thursday, with Fridays available for extra tutoring or support. Marion Academy is a charter school network with three campuses located within an alternative school, juvenile detention center, and residential treatment facility. Serving students who were expelled from other schools or are residing in a juvenile facility, Marion Academy also uses accelerated curriculum to allow students who are behind academically to obtain a high school diploma in order to continue their education or enter the workforce.
4. Provide Trauma-Informed Practices
Indy Met uses a trauma-informed lens to conduct student discipline and help connect students to mental health or social-emotional supports and services. All staff are trained in Crisis Prevention and Intervention de-escalation and role-specific trauma-informed trainings to understand the neuroscience behind student behaviors (this includes training around the film Paper Tigers which is focused on better understanding adverse childhood experiences). Biweekly Student Support Meetings allow staff to nominate students for discussion to collectively determine personalized interventions. Radio carriers respond to office referrals or other immediate student needs to support students in de-escalation. The Indy Met Redirection Center provides opportunity for cool down, reflection, and coaching with a Behavior Specialist and restorative conversations teach communication and conflict resolution. Marion Academy also has a De-escalation Room, managed by the Academy’s Behavior Specialist, which allows students to take a moment and reflect on their behavior in a way that does not disrupt classroom learning.
5. Build Empathy
At all the schools we visited, student, teachers, and administrators stressed the importance of building caring relationships between students and adults. Students expressed love and appreciation for their teachers, principals, and support staff. Students know they are cared for and that the adults around them empathize with their experiences and are rooting for them to succeed. At Indy Met, high school seniors are able to choose who hands them their high school diploma at graduation, whether it be a teacher, coach, or even the school nurse. For this important milestone, students are able to select the caring adult who helped them most in their high school journey to send them off into the world and into the next phase of life.
While alternative schools and programs are designed to better serve students not served well by the traditional school setting, it is important to note that traditional schools can learn a lot from alternative settings to better support all students. Whether the focus is on removing barriers and meeting students where they are, personalizing and individualizing learning, thinking differently about learning time and place, practicing trauma-informed care, or building empathy and relationships with students, traditionally underserved students, and honestly all students, can be better served by these practices.