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Alternative education programs – “shopping mall schools” and more

February 21, 2012

Much has been discussed in the past decade about alternative routes to certification for teachers; alternative routes to graduation for students, not so much.  Alternative education has long been considered the only way for students who have constantly failed at school, or who have been expelled, to receive a diploma.  In many cases, even those diplomas have been stigmatized by their classification by districts or states.  The GED is the most recognizable alternative graduation program, but districts have recently been much more interested in these programs as a way to increase graduation rates in districts.  Moreover, due to the emphasis on students graduating with their cohorts (read: on-time), students are transitioning to alternative education programs earlier in their educational careers.

On February 13th, NPR broadcast a story on “shopping mall schools”, alternative education programs housed in shopping malls and other retail centers intended to help students who have, for whatever reason, not been successful in the traditional school environment.  These programs often rely on e-learning curricula and flexible schedules to meet the life needs of students.  The story notes that many critics of these programs have more concerns about the location rather than the implementation and outcomes.

A 1999 report by Tobin and Sprauge of the Oregon School Study Council provides an overview of alternative education programs, including research-based strategies and suggestions for implementing new alternative programs.  In 2006, the Urban Institute published a similarly-focused report.  In a 2008 article in the Journal of Educational Research, Kim and Taylor used a critical theory approach to explore the effectiveness of a particular alternative program and found that, though it re-engaged previously underserved students, it did not provide an equivalent educational alternative to traditional schooling.

Key Questions:

  1. How does your school, district, and state identify and classify students who are at-risk of graduating late or not at all?  What interventions are available for those students?  At what point do they become candidates for alternative education programs?
  2. What alternative programs are available in your community?  On what conceptual framework are they based?  What curricula and pedagogy do they use?  Do they differ significantly from traditional education programs?
  3. How are the outcomes of alternative programs evaluated?  Are they equal in rigor and effect to traditional programs?  Are they significantly different from traditional programs?
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