Steven M. Baule, Ed.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Educational Leadership Department at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
As the differentiation of education is becoming a more mainstream concept since being proposed in the 1930s by progressive educators of the time, it is important for educators to consider several factors in order to ensure the success of the alternative programs established to assist students by providing a broader continuum of educational options.
The most important consideration is to determine the specific goals of the anticipated program. A strong alternative program should address a specific need within a school and not try to be a safety net to address all of the school's problems at once. For instance, if discipline issues and their impact on school climate is the issue to address, focus on a program that concentrates on the needs of students who have significant discipline issues. A single alternative program can rarely be successful in addressing more than one, possibly two, specific needs. That being said, in the best cases, modifications of an original alternative program can often be used to allow for further transitions. An onsite, self-contained program may eventually become a blended or virtual program as members of the staff learn how to address specific student needs.
Following that student discipline example, many students with discipline issues need more structure within their school day in order to be successful. Creating a simple and easy-to-follow routine with few opportunities for students to make poor choices can go a long way to creating a successful situation for these students.
Enlisting parental assistance to support the goals of an alternative program is essential. Students who know that parents will support the school's discipline and behavior plans for struggling students will be more successful. Parent/student/school contracts addressing expectations for each are often important to ensure the success of alternative programs.
Utilize additional recourses beyond those used in traditional instruction. Partnering with social service and mental health providers may allow an alternative program to provide a longer school-day or school-year experience. Additionally, such partners can often provide additional resources to assist in creating student success. For example, local law enforcement officers with experience working with school-age children can be excellent resources in helping develop student discipline programming.
Determine how instruction will be provided . Will students receive face-to-face instruction, online instruction, or some blend of the two? How will credit be earned in such a way to ensure students are able to move back into a traditional environment, if they wish?
Set clear goals for students who wish to exit the alternative program and return to traditional options. At the same time, ensure students who are successful, but don't wish to return to the traditional classroom environment are allowed to remain as long as is reasonable and they continue to advance. Sometimes, students act out in order to avoid returning to an environment in which they were not successful. Allow students the option to remain.
Consider modifying not only the structure of the student day, but potentially making the day longer, shorter, or otherwise shifted in order to best meet the needs of the student population targeted for the program. Some students struggle to arrive at school on time, especially given the early secondary school start times many schools have. Shifting alternative program start times back or limiting the length of day may increase the program's appeal to some students and their families.
Ensure that teachers and other staff who are assigned to alternative programs are the right fit for the program . Putting teachers into alternative programs who are not invested in the program or willing to go the extra mile to build solid relationships with the students in alternative programs can set such a program up for failure.
Consider developing alternatives at all levels of the PreK-12 continuum . Historically, alternative programs have been developed at the secondary level. However, primary-level programming that addresses behavior and the soft skills necessary for success in school may prove beneficial across the continuum. This would allow educators to address issues before children have experienced significant struggles or failure, and allow schools to intervene before students decide that school isn't for them.
The last piece is to ensure that both the board of education and the program leadership have a clear understanding of the program's goals and how success will be determined. If student discipline rates will be used, determine how that information will be documented and compared to students in traditional environments. Make sure that alternative programs are regularly reviewed and revised to try to improve the success of the students in those programs.