Why Alternative Schools?

In a perfect world, we would not need alternative schools because each student's unique learning situation and needs would be addressed. However, this is not a perfect world, in particular when it comes to students who can't be  generalized into a single stream. Alternative schools are needed because the mainstream has limitations. However, alt schools don't work for everyone. They're a place for alternative thinkers and learners to get the help, support and understanding they need while learning.

Alternative schools are generally smaller. This is not only better for those who are socially anxious but also for those who require more intervention. The lower student-to-teacher ratio at alternative schools often affords students increased one-on-one time with teachers. It also can allow the teacher to develop a deeper connection to the class, which means they can shape lessons and assignments to suit students' learning styles. The school being smaller also means less social grouping, which leads to less bullying and more positive student interactions. In fact, bullying is rare at City School.

Alternative schools do a good job of accommodating anxiety and fostering creativity in all subjects. In the past, the alternative schools that students on this committee have attended (elementary and secondary) have emphasized critical engagement over assignment completion, which allows anxiety about past due projects to fade away. In addition, students often are able to complete their work at school. As well, alternative schools generally are a closer knit community in which people care about the success of others. Lastly, students feel they benefit from alternative schools because the teachers encourage them to think for themselves and develop their own ideas.

Looking forward 

Unlike mainstream public schools, alternative schools generally differ significantly from one another.  This is so every child gets a chance to learn in a way that uniquely suits them. However, many alternative schools are only for grades 7, 8, 11, and 12. This means some children won't get the help they need or feel connected to their school environment for some or all of their childhood. Increasing the number of alternative schools, especially in elementary is something we'd like to see; however, we know that funding may prevent this. In increasing the number of alternative schools, there would be cost issues because of the need for significantly more space, resources and teachers - all for schools that traditionally have smaller populations. It therefore might seem hard to justify the expenditure, but we believe it would be worth the investment.


Staffing Challenges

Alternative schools are supposed to provide learning for students who need alternative programming, although they often have mainstream teachers. Also, a lack of social workers and similar staff generally means they only are available to come once or twice a week. This type of support should be constantly available, not just to alternative schools, but to all schools, especially in the context of the increase in mental health issues among adolescents.

An obvious area of professional development and learning for staff and adminstrators to benefit students in alternative schools would be how to deal with mental illness. Often times, a student ends up in an alternative school because they experienced anxiety, eating disorders or depression that interfered with their academic success in the mainstream. If teachers in alternative schools were all trained to deal with mental illness challenges, those students could find success in their new alternative school.

Nonetheless, we think alt schools are already doing a pretty good job, probably because the staff care about  students and therefore have learned how to better support them. But it's not an easy job and teachers need ongoing professional development if they are to be successful in an ever-changing school environment.

- City School Program Advisory Council (PAC), May 2017

( PAC is made up of students from all grades. It is open to any member of the City School community and coordinated by the CL )