Creating the Best Possible Alternative School Experience

 In Administrator Resources, Advocacy, Climate, Districts, Leadership Development, Principal Programs, School Leader Paradigm

by Lindsey Wright, MA, LCSW and Rebecca Humphrey, MA, LMHC

In our combined 40 years of experience we have worked in partnership with alternative schools and have seen firsthand how they can divert kids from or pull them directly into the Juvenile Justice System. We welcome an outside lens into our residential facility and continuum of care to ensure that we are all doing all that we can with regard to shaping the future of our youth. We hope you will welcome that lens from two adolescent clinicians with one previously serving as a designated alternative school principal and one currently supporting work in a middle school alternative setting.

Alternative schools play such an important role in helping kids work through tough times. While each student has unique needs and reasons for alternative schooling, we have found that universal needs include strong grasps of adolescent brain development and trauma informed care, and a focus on skill building while building academic skill and school connection. For example, there are many strong curriculums for teaching anger management, coping skills, stress management, problem solving and basic understanding of brain development available to school personnel.  One such curriculum is Understanding My Teen Brain, a free web-based skill building curriculum created by Dr. Brandie Oliver from Butler University. Understanding My Teen Brain is an excellent tool to supplement alternative school academic skills with a softer skill focus. It can be accessed for free at  Other resources that may be available through your Juvenile Justice System or Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative may include Teaching the Teen Brain, Why  Try, Resilience Training, Trust Based Relational Interventions and/or Juvenile Justice Jeopardy. 

Lafayette Area Schools as well as Tippecanoe County Schools have built amazing relationships with the Juvenile Justice System and it is through this partnership that we have been able to explore evidenced based programming and implement it in a manner that is showing strong results. It is important to be reflective and remember that skill building is not just the responsibility of the youth in the alternative school, but a large part of the teachers and assistants providing the programming. Within Tippecanoe County and the Greater Lafayette Area we have placed a spotlight on Teaching the Teen Brain as an educational component for all teachers, but initially targeting teachers that provided services for higher risk teens. Because of specialized training about understanding the teen brain, the impact of trauma and development of classroom management strategies there has been a reduction from 26% of all juvenile arrests in Tippecanoe County occurring on school grounds (data from 2014-2015 academic year) to 13.4% occurring currently on school grounds (data from 2019-2020 academic year).

According to the National Dropout Prevention Center ( there are several key elements of successful alternative schools;

“There does appear to be a consistent profile of the most successful schools. The profile includes the following characteristics:

  1. a maximum teacher/student ratio of 1:10;
  2. a small student base not exceeding 250 students;
  3. a clearly stated mission and discipline code;
  4. a caring faculty with continual staff development;
  5. a school staff having high expectations for student achievement;
  6. a learning program specific to the student’s expectations and learning style;
  7. a flexible school schedule with community involvement and support; and
  8. a total commitment to have each student be a success.”

With regard to number 6, we realize that schools cannot build all possible alternative settings for all kids’s needs, however, we also must recognize the opportunities that virtual learning and self-paced education give us. Although this isn’t the answer for every student, it is important to determine which students are best served by what method. And, to remember that check-ins throughout the process will be important to reinforce accountability and growth within the participant. It would be remiss to believe that a student that needed the added support of an alternative setting would immediately be prepared to monitor their educational progress alone back in a more normalized setting.

In addition to the above characteristics, we suggest the following:

  • Create a focus on skill building. Identify the goal that the youth, family and school want to achieve (noting that sometimes there may be three different and distinct goals) and skill build to assist with long-term behavioral change.
  • Recognize opportunities that exist in your community – either through partnering with community mental health centers, the Juvenile Justice System, Department of Child Services prevention programming, your youth service bureau, School Court or Teen Court or Big Brothers Big Sisters programming to support academic work through mentoring, volunteer or case management services and community building services.
  • Re-engage – this is important to ensure that youth are reaccepted and reintegrated well back into their home school when they return. Don’t be surprised if you see more stumbles as kids get ready to go back to their home school. If you’ve done your job well, they will feel comfortable conveying to you their concerns and worries.
  • Continued support – recognize that students that have been through an alternative program, will need continued follow up and a person “in their corner” perhaps throughout their academic life. It is important for the student to know their resources and work to create an advocate that they can go to at any time when they are finding it difficult to navigate their situation.

Overall, the most important takeaway we have experienced and witnessed while working with youth in alternative programming is that relationship building is far and away the most valuable component of the process. It is important for programs to take the time to find the right people for the roles within the alternative setting. It is important to remember that the wrong people can cause more harm than good and the right people can help a youth heal and move forward in their educational journey toward achievement and positive development. 

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