• IDRA Newsletter • August 1996 • 

Since 1990, the number of alternative schools in North Carolina has more than quadrupled, and state and local school systems have invested millions of dollars in such programs. Now, the governor and the State Board of Education are asking the legislature to appropriate millions more toward alternative schools in 1996-97.

Increasingly, the target population for alternative schools is students who present behavior or discipline problems. It is easy to understand the appeal of removing these students from the classroom. But in isolating “problem” students rather than trying to improve the culture and climate of our regular schools, are we giving up too easily on the promise of equal educational opportunity for all? Given the expense and risks of establishing alternative schools, policy-makers and educators need to consider whether these schools really offer the best hope for reducing discipline problems and keeping at-risk students in school.

The report, Alternative Schools: Short-Term Solution with Long-Term Consequences, summarizes the qualities alternative schools need in order to succeed, the features that make them fail and the unintended consequences they can have. It also recommends other actions we can take to reduce violent and disruptive behavior in our schools before resorting to the use of alternative schools for “problem” students.

How is North Carolina Using Alternative Schools?

The term “alternative school” has been applied to various types of programs. The most successful alternative schools are voluntary programs that stress innovative approaches to education and serve students of all types. In contrast, many of the alternative schools in North Carolina are intended for students who present discipline problems, especially those at risk of suspension or expulsion. Their approach is punitive, and placement often is compulsory – or the only alternative to being put out of school.

Unfortunately, no comprehensive statistics are being kept on the state’s alternative schools. We do know that their number is increasing dramatically, having reached 200 in 1996. At least three-quarters of our school systems have alternative schools. Furthermore, according to a 1995 survey of some North Carolina alternative schools, a substantial number of placements result from suspension, expulsion or court order.

North Carolina law allows wide latitude to local school systems that wish to develop alternative schools. Few (if any) guidelines control which students are placed in the school, who the teachers are, what is taught or what the class size is. In short, North Carolina’s alternative schools are virtually unregulated. The absence of statewide minimum standards for alternative schools raises serious concern about fair and uniform treatment of students across the state.

We can use statistics on out-of-school suspensions as an indicator of the student population targeted for placement in alternative schools. In 1993-94, more than 80,000 North Carolina students received out-of-school suspensions – about one of every 13 students. African American students are more than twice as likely to be put out of school than are White students in North Carolina, so there is every reason to believe they are at greater risk of being sent to alternative schools.

What Makes an Alternative School Effective?

To plan effective alternative school programs, policy-makers and educators need to draw on lessons learned through research and the experience of other school systems. The most important quality of an effective alternative school is that placement is voluntary. Individualized learning is stressed with small classes, highly skilled and motivated teachers and additional staff to provide developmental support. The school is in or near a regular school facility, has a well-defined mission and provides a program that is both therapeutic and academically challenging. The school climate is characterized by a well-defined discipline system, mutual respect, high expectations and a sense of a community. When students are placed for disciplinary reasons, the goal is to return them to their regular school.

What Harmful Effects Can Alternative Schools Have?

Alternative schools cost considerably more per student than do regular schools. Moreover, if alternative schools fail to incorporate the qualities described above, they may have serious adverse consequences, unanticipated by local educators and their communities. Regular schools reduce their efforts to address discipline and behavior problems by changing the school culture, finding it easier simply to exclude “problem” students. Alternative schools become a dumping ground for unwanted students. A disproportionate number of African American students are placed in alternative schools, resulting in racial resegregation of public schools. Few students sent to alternative schools ever return to their regular schools, and their likelihood of dropping out may even increase. Ineffective alternative schools consume resources that would have been better spent to improve regular schools.

Alternative Schools Should Be a Last Resort

The perceived need for alternative schools to deal with “problem” students is as much about the failure of our schools as it is about the failure of parents and students. Before we create separate schools for these students, we need to ask whether we are doing all we can to prevent violence and discipline problems in our regular schools. A variety of school actions, programs and practices can prevent behavioral and discipline problems before they develop. Our 1993 report, Time for Action, recommends steps that should be taken in our regular schools to create a climate and culture conducive to order and learning. School systems should not resort to creating separate schools for “problem” students until they have implemented other, less-drastic approaches to promoting discipline and order.

The Need for State Minimum Standards and Due Process

Existing state guidelines for development of alternative schools apply only to programs established with state grant funds, and they do not carry the force of standards. Local school systems remain free to invest state funding in alternative schools that will serve only as warehouses for unwanted students. Strong state-wide minimum standards for alternative schools are essential to protect both our investment and our children.

Furthermore, if students are to be placed in alternative schools involuntarily, the state should require the same minimum due process as is now required for students who are to receive long-term suspensions. Placement in an alternative school is a drastic move that can profoundly affect the student’s education. Students are entitled to basic due process to ensure that their placement is appropriate and justified.

This article is reprinted from the Executive Summary of “Alternative Schools: Short-Term Solution with Long-Term Consequences” by the North Carolina Education and Law Project (May 1996) with permission.

For information on the full report, contact the project at 919/856-2121.


  1. Exercise caution in committing resources to development of additional alternative schools until we better understand their impact and effectiveness.
  2. Adopt statewide minimum standards for alternative schools.
  3. Adopt uniform due process procedures to be followed by school systems that involuntarily place students in alternative schools.
  4. Ensure that statistics are kept on placement of students in alternative schools.
  5. Reduce class size in regular schools to allow teachers a better opportunity to control student behavior and discipline.
  6. Fund and conduct training for teachers in effective discipline and behavior modification techniques.
  7. Promote recruitment of minority teachers into the work force.
  8. Encourage regular schools to create plans to reduce the likelihood of discipline problems, through such means as mediation and conflict resolution programs, social and behavior support services and training in cross-cultural relationships.

Source: North Carolina Education and Law Project

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[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]