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Although some alternative schools, like East Harlem's famous Central Park East Secondary School, are explicit in saying, "It is our school and its way of teaching that is alternative, not our students," alternative education means different things to different people. The definitions can range from a different approach to education that meets the needs of youth at-risk and increases their chance for success in learning and school, to the last ditch opportunity for students who have been suspended or expelled or a re-entry to school after a release from the juvenile justice system. In Iowa, alternative education is a perspective not a procedure or a program. It is based upon a belief that there are many ways to become educated, as well as many types of environments and structures within which this may occur. Further, it recognizes that all people can be educated and that it is in society's interest to ensure that all are educated (Morley, 1991). Since alternative education is a way of thinking and a way to support students with supplemental and intensive services, it is important to keep in mind that youth do not disconnect from traditional developmental pathways (or high schools for that matter) because of the failure of any one system. Likewise, reconnecting youth requires collaboration and coordination among multiple youth serving systems these certainly include school and youth employment and training programs, but also child protective service systems, the juvenile justice system, and a variety of health and human services agencies, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment agencies, crisis intervention centers, runaway and homeless youth shelters, local businesses and others. Alternative pathways to educational success are needed at every step of the way, ranging from essential early intervention and prevention strategies to a multiplicity of high-quality alternative options (Iowa Code section 280.19A) within the mainstream K–12 system (Aron, 2006). In addition, districts need alternative programs and schools to meet the needs of those who have been unable to learn and thrive at a comprehensive middle or high school.


Iowa Code and Iowa Administrative Code define alternative education language in the following ways:

281--Iowa Administrative Code 12.2(256)
"Alternative program" means a class or environment established within the regular educational program and designed to accommodate specific student educational needs such as, but not limited to, work-related training; reading, mathematics or science skills; communication skills; social skills; physical skills; employability skills; study skills; or life skills.

"Alternative school" means an environment established apart from the regular educational program and that includes policies and rules, staff, and resources designed to accommodate student needs and to provide a comprehensive education consistent with the student learning goals and content standards established by the school district or by the school districts participating in a consortium. Students attend by choice.

Iowa Code section 280.19A – Alternative Options Education Programs – Disclosure of Records.
By January 15, 1995, each school district shall adopt a plan to provide alternative options education programs to students who are either at-risk of dropping out or have dropped out. An alternative options education program may be provided in a district, through a sharing agreement with a school in a contiguous district, or through an area-wide program available at the community college serving the merged area where the school district is located. Each area education agency shall provide assistance in establishing a plan to provide alternative education options to students attending a public school in a district served by the agency. Each area education agency shall provide assistance in establishing a plan to provide alternative education options to students attending a public school in a district served by the agency.

Iowa Code section 282.19 – Child Living in Foster Care Facility
A child who is living in a licensed child foster care facility as defined in section 237.1, or in a facility that provides residential treatment as "facility" is defined in section 125.2, which is located in a school district other than the school district in which the child resided before receiving foster care may enroll in and attend an accredited school in the school district in which the child is living. The instructional costs for students who do not require special education shall be paid as provided in section 282.31, subsection 1, paragraph "b" or for students who require special education shall be paid as provided in section 282.31, subsections 2 or 3.


High quality alternative education programs are generally known for their adherence to youth development principles (Smith and Thomases 2001, NGA Center for Best Practices 2001) such as:

  • Physical and psychological safety (e.g., safe facilities, safe ways to handle conflicts between youth, etc.)
  • Appropriate structure (limit setting, clear rules, predictable structure to how program functions, etc.)
  • Supportive relationships (with adults and peers)
  • Opportunities to belong (meaningful inclusion)
  • Positive social norms (expectations of behaviors, etc.)
  • Support for efficacy and making a difference (empowering youth, challenging environment, chances for leadership, etc.)
  • Opportunities for skill building (e.g., learning about social, communication skills, etc., as well as media literacy, good habits of the mind, etc.)
  • Integration of family, school, and especially community efforts (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine 2001)

The best programs also address the specific needs of children from various racial and ethnic groups and those with special needs (including students with learning or other disabilities that have not yet been identified). Programs can be on campus, a school-within-a-school, or in a separate building or facility. Students may attend by choice, be referred, or placed by authorities/staffing team in an alternative program.


In Iowa, alternative high schools must meet all of the requirements of 281--Iowa Administrative Code 12 General Accreditation Standards. An alternative school is an environment separate from the comprehensive school and each school has its own policies, rules, staff and resources to provide programming for student learning goals and content standards. Students attend alternative high schools by choice.

Effective alternative high schools incorporate the following 10 principles for effective schools:

10 Principles for 10 Effective Schools

Multiple Pathways to the Future
Pathways are programs of academic and technical study that integrate classroom and real-world learning organized around multiple sectors of industry (Hoachlander).

Multiple Pathways to Graduation


An Overview of Alternative Education (2006) – This is a study that reviews some preliminary efforts to develop a typology and define 'alternative education,' as well as several promising programs, models, and initiatives that provide out-of-school youth with real second chance opportunities. (34 pages)

Center for Mental Health in Schools Online Clearinghouse (Topic: Alternative Schools and Alternative Education) – Howard Edelman and Linda Taylor from the School Mental Health Project Center at UCLA have put together a collection of documents, resources and tools for districts in the area of alternative education. This clearinghouse has a wealth of resources for alternative education.

21st Century Skills, Education and Competitiveness (2008) – We must prepare our students for an economy driven by innovation and knowledge. This like will take the viewer to a resource policy guide for these skills. (Also refer to Iowa Core, 21st Century Essential Skills and Concepts in financial, employability, technology, civic and health literacy).

At-Risk or Alternative Education and Special Education – Eligible individuals may participate in At-Risk or alternative education schools, programs, or services.

Guidance for Evaluating Alternative Education Programs and Schools

Work has advanced on what types of outcome measures should be targeted and monitored. Alternative educational programs are first and foremost educational programs, so they need to focus on preparing students academically while also meeting the additional needs of their students. Evaluations should include a variety of educational and other outcomes for students (Aron, 2006). Aron and Zweig (2003) note the importance of developing accountability systems as well as investing in better data collection and analysis that would feed into these systems. Part of the challenge is figuring out "how to introduce high academic standards in alternative education systems without sacrificing the elements that make alternative programs successful, and without compromising the integrity of the high standards" (NGA Center for Best Practices, 2001). There are several domains of positive youth development (Hair et al, 2003) outcomes within the educational attainment and cognitive development domain which link directly to the 21st Century Skills of the Iowa Core Curriculum.

NDPC-SD Intervention Framework

Also see: At-Risk and Dropout Prevention

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on October 28, 2021 at 12:20am.