Alternative High Schools: Pros and Cons

Many students say their lives improved instantly after getting into a different school situation. Alternative schools are one way to do that. These are high schools designed for students whose educations were interrupted for one reason or another. They usually offer evening, weekend, or distance learning options. Most cities have at least one; in smaller communities you might need to find one in a nearby town.

The obvious advantage to enrolling in an alternative school is that you will be able to earn a regular high school diploma. Even if a diploma isn’t required for college entrance, it might be required for some jobs and scholarships, to play sports in college, or to join some branches of the military. Alternative schools will tell you exactly what requirements you need to graduate, and provide you with the books and support you need. This can be simpler than designing your own curriculum as a homeschooler.

Be careful, though. There are several things to consider before you enroll.

> In the eyes of college admissions, not all high schools are equal.

If you are leaving a tough, academically rigorous high school in order to attend a less competitive alternative school, the admissions office will want to know why. If your only answer is “I thought it would be easier, and I’m the sort of person who likes to slide by doing the bare minimum,” your application probably won’t be very impressive. But if you see your diploma as a means to a different, more impressive end (graduating early, starting college, spending more time on your music or a sport, traveling, working full-time, caring for family members, etc.), your choice will be understood in that spirit.

> Not all alternative schools are the same.

There are many different kinds of alternative high schools. Some cater to working adults and recent immigrants. This is good. It means they will treat you with the respect they give to other adults, and will understand that you are there to meet a specific goal: getting your diploma. But if the school caters to teens who have been repeatedly expelled from other schools, they might have a strict discipline code. If you are leaving high school to gain more independence, this is the very opposite of what you want!

Most alternative schools operate in the wide middle ground between these two extremes. They are open to anyone who wants to get a diploma, and they have a very small staff-to-student ratio, so you’ll get a lot of individual attention and will be able to finish your courses in a shorter amount of time. Often you can work at your own pace, and get credit as you complete the work. The other students will come from all sorts of backgrounds: young working moms, older students who needed time to learn English, ambitious high schoolers who want to graduate early, kids who left high school to work, kids who took time off from school due to health problems.

Once you find a school you like, call and ask what it takes to register and to get a diploma. Some schools will enroll you class-by-class; others will enroll you as an official student but won’t make you attend full-time. Some schools operate like public schools; others are affiliated with public or private colleges and might charge a small fee per class or for books. You also might be able to find a distance learning program online.

> Alternative schools don’t always offer all the classes and extracurriculars you’ll need to go to college.

Most colleges want to see:

4 years of English
3 years of science (including 2 years of lab science)
Algebra I and II and Geometry
3 years of social studies
at least 2 years of a single foreign language

Very selective schools will want more: at least 4 years of a foreign language, math through Calculus, several AP courses with scores of 4 or 5, and challenging electives.

Some alternative schools are great with guidance and will make sure you have this background if they know you’re college bound, but other schools don’t even offer all the classes you would need, much less insist that you take them. The requirements to earn a high school diploma are lower than the requirements to get into college. And a diploma is just one part of your college admissions packet — colleges are also interested in your extracurricular activities, and an alternative school might not offer any.

This isn’t a problem, if you’re prepared. You can take what you need at school to get your diploma, and meet the other college prep requirements in different ways. These might include:

-a portfolio of work you’ve done independently
-skills you’ve learned through work, internships, or on study abroad programs
-extracurricular activities like clubs, lessons, and camps (outside school)
-college classes
-online or correspondence classes
-standardized tests in core subject areas

Most four-year colleges allow you a lot of flexibility in demonstrating your learning, if you’ve had a non-traditional education. A high school diploma alone, though, won’t be enough.

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If you are in the Boston area, see the Massachusetts Resources section for information about local alternative schools.

Photography credit: Laura Fokkena