Understanding Alternative Education: A Mixed Methods Examination of Student Experiences
Alternative schools operate today as a hidden, parallel educational system, providing a separate and often unequal education to many at-risk students, with little to no accountability. The number of alternative schools, and enrollment in alternative schools, is increasing, due in part to excessive use of zero tolerance policies. Students of color, those with low socioeconomic status, or those with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined and disenfranchised, many ending up in alternative schools. Some of these schools further alienate students and, unconsciously, encourage deviant behavior. Many others are supportive places where students and adults develop positive relationships. However, even at these schools, teachers and administrators label students "at-risk", and view them as deficient and incapable of rigorous academic studies. Students are eased along to graduation with generous credits and easy grades, making success after high school difficult at best.
Scaffolded by a theoretical framework constructed from critical theory, self-determination theory, and student voice, this research examined student experiences in alternative school, in an attempt to determine if their educational needs were being met, and identify any opportunities for improvement. A participant-selection variant of an explanatory mixed methodology case study was employed. The study documents, describes, and analyzes students enrolled in an alternative program and their educational experience before, during, and after attending alternative school. The first phase used self-determination theory and extant data to describe students attending an alternative school. Cluster analysis was used to establish distinct groups of students. These groups provided a vehicle for maximal variation sampling of participants in the second phase, a narrative inquiry into lived student educational experiences. Narrative analysis produced student stories told in their own words, and heard in their own voice. An analysis of narratives produced four themes, with implications for educational practitioners, leaders, and researchers.
Alternative education students have stories that need to be told and, more importantly, need to be heard. This research captured and presented these stories, in an effort to make sense of how alternative schools affect the lived experiences of their students. These stories should compel more research and catalyze changes in policy, procedures, and instruction for alternative education.