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Should You Attend an Alternative High School?

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The default for most families is traditional schooling: a standardized curriculum taught by one teacher per subject, with classroom sizes ranging from 15-40 students. This approach to education is familiar, widely available, and through the public school system, it’s free. However, it’s far from the only way to learn. In the past generation, a growing trend of alternative schooling has created many new education models for students who don’t want to pursue the traditional model, or aren’t thriving in their current environment.


In this article, we unpack what alternative high schools offer and point out some pros and cons to choosing this path. Keep reading if you want to know whether alternative schooling may be the right fit for you.


What Is an Alternative High School? How Is It Different?


When we say alternative high school, we are referring to any institution that offers education that differs from the traditional schooling model outlined above. Unlike homeschooling, alternative schooling is organized and overseen by the school’s administration, not the student’s parents. Beyond those broad parameters, there are no strict guidelines for how alternative schools operate.


As a rule of thumb, most alternative schooling models offer the following:


Flexible scheduling. Students have more control over how their days are structured. Some schools offer later start times. Others give students the freedom to leave campus for weeks at a time. Still others follow a year-round model that allows students to keep learning without disruptive breaks.


Smaller class sizes. Fifteen students is probably the upper limit on how many students would be in each classroom for an alternative school. Some schools even offer 1-1 courses, with one teacher per student at a time.


Personalized instruction. Many complain that traditional schools offer a one-size-fits-all approach. By contrast, alternative schooling tailors each lesson plan to the student.


Diverse assessment styles. Rather than offering tests and papers, many alternative schools give each student the option to prove mastery over the content in a format better-suited to the student’s interest, aptitude, and personality. Projects, presentations, and works of art are common substitutes for tests and papers.


Less emphasized grading. Alternative schools rarely put a heavy emphasis on this measure of academic success. Certain alternative schools do not assign grades at all, while others keep them as part of the conversation but feature them less prominently in the student experience.


Acknowledgement of the whole child. High school is a time of vast intellectual, social, and emotional growth. Alternative schools tend to devote resources to all  three of these factors, providing a more holistic experience.


Examples of Alternative Schools


To give you an idea of how different one alternative school might be from another, we have featured three programs that each show the strengths of alternative schools in their own way.


School Feature #1: Stanford Online High School


Stanford Online High School is a private school that students may attend entirely online. Class sizes tend to be smaller, with about twelve students per class. Stanford OHS also follows a flipped classroom model, so students complete preparatory assignments before each lesson and arrive prepared to discuss the content rather than passively listen to a lecture. The online platform allows students to participate from anywhere with an Internet connection. This flexibility allows Stanford OHS students to pursue their passions wherever they lead, or to work from home if their health prevents them from pursuing a traditional classroom experience. Students also can socialize at local student meet-ups if they live near their Stanford OHS peers. Applications are processed annually and work similarly to traditional private school applications.


School Feature #2: Linworth Experiential Program


Linworth Experiential Program is a public school option offered through the Worthington City School District of Ohio. It is an alternative for students who want a supportive school environment that eases high school students into independence. The schedule and class offerings mirror a liberal arts college, with course lotteries and electives such as “Utopian Literature” instead of traditional topics like “English II.” Students in grades 9-11 have a week off from school each year to explore a potential career path, and seniors plan two 9-week “walkabouts” to discover fields that interest them outside of the classroom. In contrast to traditional public schooling, Linworth puts a focus on empathy and self-advocacy. This program and others like it are offered in several public school districts throughout the U.S.


School Feature #3: Fusion Academy


Another private school option, Fusion Academy exists to provide 1-1 instruction that meets students where they are and with a schedule that works for them. It began with a special education teacher, Michelle Rose Gilman, teaching students out of her home after her private school closed down. Using a model of one hour of individual instruction, followed by one hour of independent study in the relaxing Homework Cafe, Gilman created an education model that could be inherently customized to each student’s learning style and interests. Teaching and assessment is built around the student’s needs, and every day the student gets to go home without homework. While Fusion began as a model for students with learning differences, it has grown to serve all kinds of students. Musicians and child actors often appreciate the flexible, year-round scheduling that allows them to pick up their academics, or put them on hold according to their demanding extracurricular schedules. Since Fusion operates year-round, students may enroll at any time.


Already, you may be thinking of students who would thrive in each of these diverse settings.


Pros and Cons of Attending an Alternative School


The flexibility and whole-child approach of most alternative schools has a lot of benefits. At the same time, we do not recommend it for every student. Here are the main advantages and disadvantages we see for families considering a different kind of high school experience.




You have more control over the direction of your education. Unlike with traditional school, which classes you take is a topic open for discussion. Students are invited to take ownership of their learning experience.


You get to move at the right pace for you. Most alternative schools are flexible with pacing. There are options for very fast learners as well as kids typically left behind by the hustle of a standardized curriculum.


You get a support team highly invested in your success. Educators who choose to work at an alternative high school get that each child is unique. Rather than get lost in the crowd, you will have the chance to connect with caring adults dedicated to helping you thrive.




You get out of sync with your peers in traditional school. High school friendships matter. Through them, students process their adolescence and learn how to make healthy choices. One painful downside of leaving the traditional schooling environment is the potential social isolation that comes from taking a path that is different from that of your friends. Of course, there are opportunities to make new friends at the alternative school, and it’s still possible to stay in touch with your old friends. You will be having a very different experience from them, however, and it might be harder to relate to one another.


Your academics may not be as rigorous. Because the whole child is taken into consideration in alternative schools, educators are willing to let traditional metrics of success take a backseat. For students looking to maintain that perfect GPA and get all 5s on their APs, this change in focus sometimes comes as an unwelcome surprise.


You have to explain your decision on college applications. Your admissions committee will notice if you attend an alternative high school, and some committee members have biases against them. Typically, you can turn this decision into a selling point of your application if you explain how your school choice improved your health, academics, or extracurricular success. That said, it requires additional work to craft a compelling application from an alternative school.


It is a bold and very personal decision to choose an alternative school. Make sure you weigh the pros and cons carefully before making the switch.


Also remember that no decision is final. Lots of students try alternative schooling for a little while, only to realize that the traditional classroom is a better fit. Other students start out in traditional school, but ultimately find their perfect fit at an alternative program.

What Kind of Students Do Best in Alternative High Schools?


The alternative approach is not for everyone. But, for some students, it is exactly what is needed to make education engaging again. There are any number of reasons why alternative schooling could be right for you, including…


  • You want to pursue an academic, extracurricular, or professional interest that is not supported in traditional schools.
  • You’re not motivated to attend school because you don’t see the point in your assignments.
  • The pace of your traditional school’s curriculum is too slow for you.
  • Your extracurricular or work commitments make it difficult to attend during normal hours.
  • You feel lost in your large classes.
  • Your special education needs are not being met in your current program.


Here are a few example profiles of students who thrive at alternative schools:


Student Feature #1: Maryanne had leukemia for most of last year and missed almost all of ninth grade due to treatment. She is a bright student, but she had large knowledge gaps across all subjects. Maryanne attended Fusion Academy for a semester before jumping back into her traditional public high school. Because Fusion let Maryanne meet with her teachers one-on-one, she was able to make up the material a lot faster than she would have in a larger classroom. When she went back to school, she was ahead of her peers in Math and English. Because she had such a positive experience with her invested, caring Math teacher, she’s considering majoring in Math in college, even though she never liked the subject previously.


Student Feature #2: Brandon was having behavioral issues in his traditional high school classroom due to a combination of stress at home and his bipolar disorder. Additionally for years, Brandon went to school with undiagnosed dyslexia, so when he commented that he could not read the board, teachers thought he was just acting up. When he transferred to Linworth Experiential Program, the caring community transformed his education experience. Brandon developed his own plan for how to deal with powerful emotions. During his Interim week in his junior year, Brandon realized that architecture was a field he found fascinating. In his senior walkabout, Brandon spent eight weeks working on a construction site to gain better knowledge of the industry. The site manager was so impressed with his professional demeanor that he offered him a job after high school graduation. Brandon may go to college for architecture eventually, but in the meantime, he is getting invaluable hands-on experience.


Student Feature #3: Leigh loves programming. He travels the world to attend conferences and hackathons. Early in high school, he applied to Stanford OHS so he could earn his high school diploma while attending classes exclusively online. Leigh shared that it takes a lot of time and effort to get ready for each class, but he loves how fast the curriculum moves. He also likes having lively discussions with peers instead of listening to the teacher talk the whole time. Leigh keeps a calendar of all the Stanford OHS meet-ups around the world and tries to plan his travel schedule around them. So far, Leigh has met classmates in 13 different countries. Leigh has yet to apply to college, but the flexibility of Stanford OHS has given him the time he needs to develop an international reputation as a programmer, which will serve him well when he does decide to apply.


How Does Attending an Alternative School Impact College Admissions?


Alternative schooling is what you make of it, and that applies to college applications as well. All the same general principles apply for getting into a great college, but the responsibility is on you to make sure you build a competitive application profile.


Academically, make sure you challenge yourself with honors and AP courses. This may be harder to do at an alternative school, since there are typically fewer classes offered each year. If you are worried that your school does not offer enough advanced classes, you can supplement by attending community college part-time, or registering for extra AP classes for which you self-study. You may also be able to take certain classes at a local traditional high school. Typically, if you express interest in taking a challenging course, alternative schools have the resources to set you up with a path to pursue the subject at a higher level. 


At an alternative school, you can set yourself apart by taking unconventional classes. The flexible scheduling may make it possible for you to study subjects like Japanese, Linguistics, or Linear Algebra, which are not often available at traditional schools.


Standardized testing offers an opportunity for you to prove that your alternative education has been rigorous. Devote time and careful preparation to your SAT, ACT, and any subject-area standardized tests.


As far as extracurricular activities are concerned, alternative schools have one major disadvantage and one huge advantage. The big downside is that on-campus clubs are much smaller and typically do not offer as extensive programming. Whereas another student may build their entire extracurricular profile based on school-based activities, a student at an alternative school may have to be more proactive in seeking out extracurricular opportunities.


The huge advantage to alternative schooling is that your schedule makes it possible to explore extracurricular paths that are not available to peers in traditional schooling. For example, a student could realistically take six months off of alternative schooling to pursue a full-time position in a career that interests them. Or, they could hold classes late in the day, leaving them the mornings to write the next bestselling novel.


If you choose alternative schooling, be sure to take advantage of the resources and flexibility available to you. Your on-site school counselor can help you think through ways to build a stand-out application based on your unique situation.


Have more questions about alternative schools, high school academics, or college admissions? CollegeVine’s Q&A forum is a great place to get advice from peers and experts alike. Check out our Q&A forum today to get your questions answered, and to help other students along their high school journeys.

Short Bio
Veronica is an alumna of Harvard College, where she earned her A.B. in History and Classics. After graduating, she joined CollegeVine serving as the Curriculum Development Manager. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is writing her debut novel.