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“You teach in alternative education, huh? What exactly is that?”
I feel like every conversation I’ve had with a new acquaintance for the better part of a decade has started this way. Many people are familiar with private schools and homeschooling, and some even know what a charter school is. But “alternative education” just leaves many people scratching their heads.
Simply put, alternative education is a style of educating students that differs from the traditional American style. Some alternative schools or programs look WILDLY different, like students learning outdoors, doing apprenticeships, or being tutored one-on-one. Other schools or programs take a scaled back approach, and only differ from the traditional style in one or two substantial ways, for instance removing all testing from the curriculum.
Before we look at all the different styles though, let’s talk about why someone might want an alternative form of education.
Why Choose an Alternative Education?
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but the idea of educating every child in America using the exact same method doesn’t work. Traditional, public schools have tried to adapt by using special education services, and that covers a fair number of kids. However, there are thousands of kids across the country who don’t classify as having special needs, but just don’t learn as well with traditional methods. These kids might benefit from an educational style that favors physical activity, the outdoors, or a special interest.
There are also many children who are laser-focused on one particular skill or area of study. They might want a school that will help them perfect that skill and cover ‘just the basics’ in other areas. Many alternative schools and programs of study exist for children interested in music, science & math, and specific trades. There are also many foreign-language immersion schools for kids to perfect their first language or develop skills in additional ones.
Philosophical or religious differences motivate other parents to choose an alternative education for their family. Family who worry about new forms of technology and media might choose a tech-free education. It’s also a common path for families who want their children to study scriptures or be guided by a particular set of morals.
Finally, there are a lot of special life circumstances that hinder kids from learning best in traditional education. Kids with cancer, for example, frequently choose an alternative education to accommodate treatments and hospital visits. Children experiencing homelessness, juvenile detention, or migrant work also frequently need alternatives to traditional schooling.
If you’ve been thinking that an alternative education at home might be right for your children, check out our secular homeschool curriculum guide. (Now updated!)
Different types of Alternative Education
Now that we’ve covered why families might choose something other than the traditional, public school route, let’s look at what some of those alternatives actually are.
Alternative Education Schools and Programs
Alternative education (or “Alt Ed”) programs or schools like the one I taught at tend to serve high risk populations. They often teach kids who’ve experienced poverty, trauma, violence, abuse, and/or other challenging situations. These schools and programs can be part of the public school system (since families often can’t afford private school fees) or separate programs funded by a non-profit.
Alt Ed schools generally focus heavily on building relationships, academic growth instead of hitting standards, and social/emotional learning. They also emphasize “real world” skills and serving their communities.
Private schools are commonplace in America. We tend to think of them as only serving religious organizations or elite clientele, but that’s not completely true. Many private schools exist because the founders had a different educational philosophy (like Waldorf or Montessori schools). There are also military schools, boarding schools, and schools for children with special needs. Private schools don’t have to follow state educational guidelines because they don’t get state funding. This makes them ideal for a family who doesn’t feel learning through state standards is right for their children.
Charter schools provide an alternative to the public school system while still remaining part of it. These semi-autonomous schools also don’t need to follow state education standards either. They’re run based on a charter (hence the name) and serve to meet certain achievement benchmarks. They usually have a somewhat different philosophical bent than public schools, and they choose different curriculums.
Charter schools are part of the public school system, which means they’re open and free to all students. Some have lottery or test-in requirements for entry, due to demand. Many charter schools are now online-only to provide a public school/homeschool hybrid feel.
Like charter schools, magnet schools are publicly funded, which means they’re free and open to the public. Unlike charter schools, however, they are held to state standards and guidelines.
What makes a magnet school special is its emphasis on special interests. Most magnet schools focus heavily on fine arts, STEM, trades, international studies, or world languages.
You did figure I’d cover this on a website called The Homeschool Resource Room, right? Of course, homeschooling is pretty much the ultimate in alternatives because there are so many paths to choose from. You can have a parent teaching or use a tutor. You can use one of about a bazillion options for curriculum. If you feel like it, you can do “gameschooling,” “world schooling,” “unschooling” and whatever else you can come up with!
Through homeschooling, children can learn at their own pace. They can learn in the comfort of their home or in the community at large. They can enjoy increased family time, socialize with students who have similar interests or backgrounds, and study what interests them. I could go on and on about the benefits of homeschooling. (In fact, I have. We unsurprisingly have TONS of resources on homeschooling here.)
Admittedly, homeschooling isn’t the easiest path. The number of options can be overwhelming. Homeschooling also costs money for curriculum, supplies, materials, and possibly tutors (see below info for more on this). Parents must also keep academic and attendance records when homeschooling. If you’re worried about this, check out our homeschool portfolio in digital or print out versions to stay compliant in your state.
Alternatives for Special Education and Homeschooling
One of the questions we get most frequently is, “Can I homeschool my child with special needs?” The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, there may be resources available to you if your child is already on an IEP or will qualify for one. Check out the video below about a game-changing resource for special needs homeschoolers.
Understandably, one of the major reasons families choose to homeschool is because their child doesn’t fit well in a traditional public school setting. Throw on top the need for services, therapy, and help functioning in a school environment day-to-day – your nearest public school just may not have the resources.
If you are searching for alternative education options for your special needs child, know that homeschooling is indeed a do-able alternative. Reach out to your Department of Developmental Disabilities or doctor’s office to find out what types of resources are available for your child.
For further reading on this topic:
- Understanding the different types of learning disabilities
- Online Schools Pros and Cons: How to tell if online school is right for your child with special needs
- Reading Programs for Dyslexia: 3 Keys for Homeschool Success
- 25+ Learning Accommodations for ADHD
Or browse posts in our special needs category.
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.