What Are Alternative Schools and How Do They Impact College Admissions?

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What Are Alternative Schools and How Do They Impact College Admissions?
All students deserve to have an equal chance at academic success but not every student learns in the same way. Alternative schools provide students with unique challenges or abilities an opportunity to succeed in a different educational setting. Keep reading to learn more about alternative schools and their impact on college admissions.

The American public-school system is always a hot topic for debate. While there are two sides to every issue, there is one point that cannot be debated – some public schools are better than others.

Public schools in wealthy and suburban areas tend to perform much higher in testing than urban schools and there is a significant difference in funding as well. Parents can’t always choose their school district, but if the public schools in an area are sub-par, there are other options to consider. Alternative schools like boarding schools, magnet schools, and even homeschools may provide better educational opportunities for students, but there are some challenges to consider as well.

When it comes to college applications, alternative school curriculums and transcripts are less straightforward for admissions officers to understand. In this article, we’ll explore the subject of alternative schools and their impact on the college admissions process for graduating seniors.

What is an Alternative School?

Every student is unique in terms of educational background, learning ability, and interest in school. Two students from the same class, when given the same test, can achieve very different scores because academic achievement is determined by more than just curriculum. A child’s performance is school is affected by in-school factors such as the teacher’s education level, availability of resources, and curriculum. But it is also affected by other factors such as the student’s socioeconomic status, home life, and personal or learning challenges.

An alternative school is a school that doesn’t provide the typical educational experience. Another way to think of an alternative school is that it is designed to educate students who haven’t been successful in regular schools, often due to behavioral issues or learning disabilities.

Alternative education has been an option for students since the 1830s when leaders of the Transcendentalist movement like Bronson Alcott founded The Temple School. The trend continued with Montessori schools opening in the early 1900s and with the development of magnet schools in the 1960s. Today, the definition of alternative education is very broad. In fact, 43 different states and the District of Columbia have their own formal definition of alternative education.

Exploring the Different Types of Alternative School

Alternative schools can be part of the public school system or they can be privately run. Some examples of private alternative schools include charter schools and parochial schools. Public alternative schools are sometimes located in the same building as a traditional school and are sometimes located within institutional settings such as hospitals or juvenile justice facilities.

Other examples of alternative schools include the following:

  • Boarding schools (residential educational facilities)
  • Vocational centers, often with job training opportunities
  • Magnet schools, typically designed to attract students for certain subjects
  • Independent study programs where students study online or remotely

Though they were originally created to help troubled students who were ill-equipped to excel in a traditional public school setting, today’s alternative schools appeal to a wide variety of students. Many alternative schools have special education programs, for example, or have on-staff psychologists, social workers, and/or psychiatrists.

Alternative schools are designed to address a variety of different needs, so they have very diverse student bodies. Some of the students most likely to attend alternative schools include:

  • Students who have behavioral or emotional challenges
  • Students with specialized talents or academic interests
  • Students who have certain disabilities or learning disorders
  • Students with medical needs that require more comprehensive care
  • Students who are at-risk for or have dropped out of school
  • Students who have ben suspended, expelled, or incarcerated

Another alternative to these alternative schools for high-school students is the General Education Development (GED) program. Earning a GED certificate is considered equivalent to earning a high school diploma, but students can do more of the learning and studying on their own.

How Does Grading Work in Alternative Schools?

Curriculum in alternative schools varies greatly from one school to another, largely based on the student population. In private schools, curriculum can be determined by the school, though public schools may have some requirements depending where they get the majority of their funding. It is fairly common, however, for alternative schools to follow alternative grading policies.

Many alternative schools have departed from the traditional grading system, replacing grades with a narrative assessment provided of each student by their teachers. These assessments provide a synopsis of the work completed in each class as well as a description of the skills learned. The focus in these schools is not on earning a letter grade but on mastering the class content. Students work with teachers to achieve competency in that particular subject, and competency is not always measurable with a traditional grading system.

Schools that cater to students with emotional or behavioral issues often look very different. Whether public, private, or part of a stand-alone institution, these alternative schools may offer a wide variety of programming options, depending on the student population.

What Do Alternative School Transcripts Look Like?

Because grading and assessment varies so greatly from one alternative school to another, transcripts may look very different. Though it may not matter as much while the child is in school, it plays a role in college admissions during the student’s junior and senior year.

As you might expect, transcripts from gradeless institutions look very different than they do from traditional public schools. In place of a letter grade, the school might be given an assessment of mastery on a sliding scale from deficient to masterful. Another option is to have a short narrative written by teachers on the student’s skills in subjects like writing, research, presentation skills, and study habits. Though this format is harder to judge at a glance, it is actually more informative and provides a deeper, more in-depth glimpse of the individual student.  

Think about it this way: Two students from two different schools both receive a B+ in their junior-year English class. If you were to give them a test on the typical eleventh-grade English curriculum, you might expect them to perform at a similar level. You might be surprised, then, to find that the results can be extremely varied. A letter grade is not enough to gain an understanding of the student’s actual ability because every school and every teacher is different – this means that every student’s educational experience is different. A written narrative describing the student’s mastery and academic proficiency is much more telling.

The drawback to this kind of system is that some college admissions officers are less familiar with this method than others. It may take them longer to verify the transcript and they may not have a context in which to understand the information when they are used to quantitative measurements like GPA.

College Admissions Tips for Alternative School Students

As a student preparing for college, you have a number of challenges to face. Not only do you need to think about which schools you are interested in, but you have to complete the application process for each one. If you are coming from an alternative school, that process could be more difficult.

If you’ve attended a school that uses a gradeless system, you may want to get ahead on the potential for some college admissions officers overlooking your application because they do not understand the context. Ask your school if they are willing to convert your narrative assessments into letter grades. Some schools offer this as an option when admissions counsellors ask, so it doesn’t hurt to ask yourself ahead of time to see if it’s a possibility.

Though your alternative school education might be confusing for some admissions officers, you can also use it to your advantage. Consider writing about your experience in your application essay and talk about how it shaped you as a student and as a person. Admissions officers like to see students who have a strong sense of self and a drive to succeed – use your alternative school experience as something positive that sets you apart instead of a challenge. It’s all about framing and spinning your own story in the most positive way you can.

Every student deserves to have an equal chance to learn and succeed in their education. When traditional public school systems fail, it is up to the community and the parents to find an alternative. Alternative schools can help students who fail to succeed in traditional settings complete their education and go one to college.


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