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Students with Disabilities Attending Alternative Schools:
What Do We Know?

By Camilla A. Lehr

Students with disabilities are among those most at risk of dropping out of school. Many observers contend that traditional schools are failing to engage a significant number of such students and meet their multiple needs. Alternative schools and programs have emerged as one educational option for students with and without disabilities who do not succeed in traditional public schools.

Alternative schools fall under the auspices of educational alternatives that also include charter schools, magnet programs, distance learning programs, and private schools. Although these options have much in common, each has distinct features, as well. Findings from research conducted by the Alternative Schools Research Project at the University of Minnesota ( provide current information describing alternative schools across the United States. In brief, alternative schools:

Alternative schools are increasingly defined in state legislation by the population of students that they serve. A review of legislation on alternative schools in 48 states indicated they were most frequently defined as non-traditional settings that serve students at risk of school failure.

Increased Numbers of Alternative Schools and Programs

Interest in alternative schools has increased dramatically during recent years and the numbers of alternative schools and programs are rising in many states. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) reported 3,850 public alternative schools in the United States during the 1997-1998 academic year; current estimates suggest that number has grown to over 10,000 public alternative schools and programs for at-risk students (Kleiner, Porch, & Farris, 2002). National statistics indicated that about 12% of all students in alternative schools and programs for at-risk students were special education students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and the percentage of special education students varied widely between districts – ranging from 3% to 20% (typically students with learning or emotional/behavioral disabilities) (Kleiner, Porch, & Farris, 2002).

Students with Disabilities Attending Alternative Schools and Programs

Although literature on students with disabilities and alternative schools is limited, some state-level data have been collected. One study of Minnesota alternative programs found that 19% of enrolled students were identified as having a disability and over 50% of those students were identified as having an emotional/behavioral disorder (Gorney & Ysseldyke, 1993). In Vermont, results from a study indicated 60% of the students attending alternative programs were students with disabilities, and the majority were served in settings that provided therapeutic and clinical interventions, as well as academic support (Hasazi, et al., 2001). In North Carolina, an alternative learning program is defined as "a school or program that serves students at any level, serves suspended or expelled students, serves students whose learning styles are better served in an alternative program, or provides individualized programs outside of a standard classroom setting in a caring atmosphere in which students learn the skills necessary to redirect their lives" (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2002, p. 1). A 2000-2001 evaluation report indicated a higher percentage of students received special education services in alternative schools as compared to the overall student population in North Carolina (26% vs. 14% for middle school and 19% vs. 9% for high school) (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2002). Additionally, a larger percentage of students were served under the learning and emotional/behavioral disability categories.

Reasons for Enrolling

Students with and without disabilities enroll in alternative schools in a variety of ways ranging from voluntary to involuntary. Some alternative schools appear to be a desirable option for students at risk of school failure, whereas others are mandatory placements for students as a last resort. For example, in Minnesota, students can choose to attend an alternative program if they meet one or more criteria for at-risk status described in the High School Graduation Incentive Law established in 1987 (e.g. pregnant or parent, chemically dependent, behind in credits, suspended). These schools foster a long-term commitment and students' given reasons for continued attendance focus on the support, attention, and respect they received at the alternative schools. Interviews with students attending alternative schools in Minnesota indicated they continued attending alternative programs because responsibility was placed on students, they received help for personal problems, and there was flexibility in programming (Lehr, 1999). Comments included:

The numbers of students with disabilities attending alternative schools by choice in Minnesota suggests that these settings may offer a desirable option for many who are trying to successfully complete school. The characteristics of some alternative schools that facilitate successful school completion for those at risk of dropout such as extra support/counseling for students, smaller and more personal settings, positive relationships with adults, meaningful educational and transition goals, flexibility in structure and scheduling, and emphasis on living and vocational skills may also help to engage students with disabilities.

At the other extreme, many students with and without disabilities are placed in alternative schools. For example, some states have alternative programs that are designed for disruptive students. These programs provide academic remediation and counseling to address behavior and oftentimes the goal of these programs is to return the students to a regular school curriculum as soon as possible. Students typically attend these kinds of alternative programs for a short period of time and periodic reviews may be used to determine whether or not the student is ready to return to their original school.

The enrollment of students with disabilities in alternative schools may also be affected by protections specified in amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997. For example, students with disabilities who are expelled or suspended for more than 10 days must continue to receive services in an Interim Alternative Education Setting (IAES), which could be an alternative school. These settings must allow students to continue to progress in the general curriculum, receive service and modifications as described in the Individualized Education Program (IEP), and address the behavior that led to the IAES placement in order to prevent the behavior from reoccurring. Results from a national survey suggest alternative schools are sometimes or often used as IAES in a small number of states, but more information is needed about the extent to which they are being used as IAESs across the nation (Lehr, 2003).

Outcomes for Students in Alternative Schools

While there is a need for more research related to the effectiveness of alternative schools, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests some promising trends in outcomes for students attending these schools. Research has shown that alternative education programs (typically schools of choice) can have positive effects on school performance, attitudes toward school, and self-esteem. Anecdotal reports of the effectiveness of alternative schools for individual students are abundant. Alternative school staff and written reports describe students who have had poor school experiences or dropped out, enroll in an alternative school, attend regularly, complete school, and gain the self-confidence and skills necessary to obtain employment or attend postsecondary schools.

As the number of public alternative schools and programs continues to grow, there are increased calls for accountability. Many individuals and organizations believe alternative schools are desirable and effective, yet in many cases, the data documenting their effectiveness are not readily available or have not been collected. To complicate matters, measuring academic progress alone may not capture the settings' impacts on youth who attend these schools and programs. Educators in alternative schools must identify characteristics that foster effectiveness and relevant indicators of success in order to document the extent to which outcomes are achieved for the students they serve. Alternative schools are one educational option that holds promise for engaging some of our most disenfranchised youth in school and facilitating positive student outcomes.



Gorney, D.J.& Ysseldyke, J.E. (1993). Students with disabilities use of various options to access alternative schools and area learning centers. Special Services in the Schools, 7(1), 135-143.

Hasazi, S.B., Proulx, R., Hess, K., Needham, B., MacKinnon, C., Morgan, P., & O'Regan, B. (2001). Report on alternative education schools/programs in Vermont. Burlington VT: University of Vermont.

Kleiner, B., Porch, R., & Farris, E. (2002). Public alternative schools and programs for students at risk of education failure: 2000-01 (NCES 2002-2004). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Lehr, C.A. (2003). [Alternative Schools Research Project survey results]. Unpublished raw data.

Lehr, C.A. (1999). Students attending alternative programs: Reasons for dropping out of and returning to school. (Research Report 30). Enrollment Options Project. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (2002). Alternative learning programs evaluation: 2000-2001. Raleigh: Author.

Camilla A. Lehr is Research Associate with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at 612/624-0722 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


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