When “alternative” schools first came into being in Philadelphia in the late 1960s, they were smaller, more personalized, and more educationally experimental versions of the traditional, large high schools. For instance, the Parkway Program, “the high school without walls,” used the business, cultural, and civic institutions of Center City as classrooms and their staff as teachers.
But over time, the use of the term “alternative” in Philadelphia has morphed. It came to refer to disciplinary schools or schools for students the “regular” high schools had failed. These schools generally were not schools that students chose, but schools they were sent to. They often provided extra supports to help the students “get better” so they can go back to the “regular schools” that had failed them in the first place.
More recently, the School District has created another set of schools designed to give kids at risk of failure, dropping out, or showing disruptive behavior a second chance. These new “alternative” and “accelerated” schools are organized to provide extra family support, social services, or short-term mental health treatment for kids who need “time out.” These are intervention-based models, closer to a last-chance model than a first- choice model.
But as the small high school movement has burgeoned in Philadelphia, and as school reformers have sought to create a variety of high school options to address students’ widely varying social needs, career interests and academic goals, it’s probably time for the term “alternative” schools to be reinvented again. In this new age of alternatives, we have an automotive academy, a science leadership school, several military academies, and a peace school.We have a school that focuses on the Constitution, one that emphasizes foreign affairs, several that focus on the arts, special academic schools, and schools that focus on culinary arts, technology, business, and other career-related themes. Many of these were created from within existing comprehensive high schools.
So far, most of these alternative schools look different mainly because they are small and theme-based. But we may soon see small schools in Philadelphia that organize the day very differently, such as the Big Picture Company’s model of sending students out to learn from mentors in the real world. There is also interest in new models for high schools providing career and technical education.
The Philadelphia School District is addressing a real need by creating so many more and varied small high schools, as witnessed by the fact that 75 percent of all eighth graders apply to schools other than their neighborhood high schools. Still, only half the applicants get into a school they choose.
So the new challenge of supply and demand is to create many small, “alternative” high schools that are accessible not just to students with exemplary academic performance, behavior, or attendance.
If we fail that challenge, our comprehensive neighborhood high schools will continue to produce high dropout rates and flat test scores. The danger with the proliferation of alternatives for high school students is that “alternative” will next come to be a euphemism for “selective” – yet another example of inequity in a system already replete with glaring gaps based on income, race/ethnicity, and language.
Instead, today’s alternatives must become tomorrow’s mainstream—a portfolio of schools, all dedicated to high academic achievement and preparation for college, careers, and citizenship, but shaped in varied ways to engage and teach, to excite and support the next generation, including struggling students.
If this vision comes to fruition, perhaps there will be less need for the schools now described as alternative – the discipline schools and those for dropouts – because more students will want to stay in school.