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Today's alternative schools seem a far cry from those of the '60s, when the genre first surfaced in public education. Yet, the early alternatives, like today's, represented innovation; small-scale, informal ambiance; and departure from bureaucratic rules and procedures.
Amid all the current talk of school restructuring, alternatives are the cleares example we have of what a restructured school might look like. They represent our most definitive departure from the programmatic, organizational, and behavioral regularities that inhibit school reform. Moreover, many of the reforms currently pursued in traditional schools--downsizing the high school, pursuing a focus or theme, student and teacher choice, making the school a community, empowering staff, active learner engagement, authentic assessment-ar practices that alternative schools pioneered. Given such assets and advantages, why have alternative schools not been more widely adopted?
Alternatives for Schools or Students?
History has lent considerable ambiguity to the purpose of alternative schools. Is it an idea for schools, or for school systems? For all students,or only for special-needs populations? To be available by enrollee choice or by assignment? Despite these ambiguities and the emergence of multiple alternatives, two enduring consistencies have characterized alternative schools from the start: they have been designed to respond to a group that appears not to be optimally served by the regular program, and consequently they have represented varying degrees of departure from standard school organization, programs, and environments.
The first of these traits has often linked alternative schools with unsuccessfu students--with those who by virtue of being "disadvantaged," "marginal," or "at risk" cannot or will not succeed in a regular program. The second trait has often linked alternatives to innovation and creativity in both practice and organization. And alter native schools have varied according to which of these two traits has loomed the largest for them.
Although some alternatives, 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" (Schwarz 1993), for many people alternatives are schools for some students, not all. Yet today, particularly in cities, a fine line divides at-risk or special-needs students from the rest. Such terms can now be applied to substantial majorities in all the nation's urban school districts. This may be why cities have taken away the lead in innovation from suburban districts. A changing population makes new sorts of schools imperative. It need not, however, call for an education different from what would benefit more traditional school populations as well. More challengin students are just more dependent on a good education. One of the most extensive studies of alternative schools to date concluded that its recommendations pertained equally to schools for youngsters who are and are not at risk. The recommendations would improve most schools (Wehlage et al. 1989).
Types of Alternatives
Some educators scoff at the thought that much of value can be learned from alternative schools. A primary reason is that several fairly distinct types of alternatives exist, and not all are models for emulation. I have identified three pure types, which individual alternative programs approximate to varying degrees.
Popular Innovations. Type I alternatives seek to make school challenging and fulfilling for all involved. Their efforts have yielded many innovations, a number of which are now widely recommended as improvement measures for all …