Addressing Trends and Developments in Secondary Education and Transition
October 2004 • Vol. 3, Issue 6
Alternative Schools and Students With Disabilities:
Identifying and Understanding the Issues
By Camilla Lehr
Understanding the role of alternative schools in providing educational opportunities
for youth with disabilities has become increasingly important over the past
few years. Significant numbers of youth with disabilities are not completing
school and the extent to which alternative education may offer an option that
engages students, provides a more successful school experience, and improves
the likelihood of graduation has been largely unexamined. In 2001, the University
of Minnesota received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s
Office of Special Education Programs to conduct research on alternative schools
across the country. Special emphasis was given to studying how and the extent
to which students with disabilities are being served within these settings.
The purpose of this information brief is to share responses of state directors
of special education to a telephone interview about major issues regarding students
with disabilities and alternative schools in their state. State directors of
special education are in a unique position to provide their perspective in light
of expertise and experience with state policy, responsibility for oversight,
and knowledge of broader issues for students with disabilities. In all, responses
were obtained from state directors of special education or their designees in
48 states and the District of Columbia yielding a 96% response rate.
Background on Alternative Schools
Interest in alternative schools and the students they serve has increased
dramatically during recent years. In many states, new legislation focused on
alternative schools has been enacted and the numbers of alternative schools
and programs are rising. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES)
reported 3,850 public alternative schools in the United States during the 1997-1998
academic year. Findings from a recent national survey estimate that there were
10,900 public alternative schools and programs for at-risk students in the United
States in 2000-2001 (Kleiner, Porch, & Farris, 2002). Results also indicated
that about 12% of all students in alternative schools and programs for at-risk
students were special education students with Individualized Education Programs
(IEP), and the percentage of special education students varied widely between
districts—ranging from 3% to 20% (typically students with learning or
emotional/behavioral disabilities). It is clear students with disabilities are
attending alternative schools; yet, questions remain about the extent to which
and how students with disabilities are being served in these settings.
Defining Alternative Schools
Alternative schools are generally described as having small enrollments (e.g.,
25-75 students), and most educators, researchers, and policy makers agree that
alternative schools are designed for students at risk of school failure (Raywid,
1994). Select findings from research conducted by the Alternative
Schools Research Project at the University of Minnesota (http://ici.umn.edu/alternativeschools)
provide current information describing alternative schools across the United
States. In brief, alternative schools:
- Are designed to meet a variety of needs including preventing students from
dropping out of school, providing another educational option, serving as a
disciplinary consequence, or providing academic/behavioral remediation.
- Are primarily designed for high school age students, although many states
have schools that are serving younger students.
- Are accessed by students in a variety of ways ranging from student choice
(usually with some specified parameters) to mandatory placement.
- Often have criteria for enrollment (e.g., students may be admitted as a
result of suspension or expulsion or they must meet some form of at-risk criteria).
- Serve students for varying amounts of time (e.g., short- term placement
and transition back to traditional school; long-term commitment through graduation).
- Offer educational programs that typically include one or more of the following;
an emphasis on individual instruction, a focus on basic academic skills, social
services (e.g., counseling or social skills instruction), and/or community
or work-based learning.
What Do We Know About Alternative Schools and Students with Disabilities?
Although the amount of literature on students with disabilities attending
alternative schools is limited, some state-level data have been collected as
part of federally funded research conducted by the Enrollment Options Project
(1990-1998). In Minnesota, for example, 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, or expelled). One
study of Minnesota’s alternative programs found that 19% of enrolled students
were reported as having a disability and more than 50% of those students were
reported as having an emotional/behavioral disorder by their previous school
or their alternative school (Gorney & Ysseldyke, 1993).
The number of students with disabilities attending alternative schools in Minnesota
suggest that these settings may offer a desirable option for many who are trying
to successfully complete school. Improving the rate of school completion for
students with disabilities is a significant national concern. Statistics show
that the rate of dropout for students with disabilities is nearly twice that
of general education students (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996). The characteristics
of some alternative schools that facilitate successful school completion for
those at risk of dropping out such as extra support/counseling for students,
smaller and more personal settings, positive relationships with adults, meaningful
educational and transition goals, and emphasis on living and vocational skills
(Lange & Sletten, 2002) may also be the elements necessary to keep students
with disabilities in school. However, because data may not be routinely collected
and/or because some students do not inform staff of their disability status
upon entrance into the alternative school, the number of students with disabilities
attending as well as the number of students who complete school as a result
of attending these settings is uncertain.
The enrollment of students with disabilities in alternative schools may be
due in part to the protections provided for students with disabilities who have
been expelled or suspended for disciplinary reasons set forth in the 1997 Amendments
to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the IDEA, school
personnel have the authority to change the placement of a child with a disability
to an appropriate interim alternative educational setting (IAES) for not more
than 10 school days to the extent such an alternative placement would be applied
to children without disabilities and for the same amount of time that a child
without a disability would be subject to discipline, but not more than 45 days,
if the child carries a weapon to school or to a school function or the child
knowingly possesses or uses illegal drugs or sells or solicits the sale of a
controlled substance while at school or a school function (20 U.S.C. §1415(k)(1)(A);
34CFR §300.520). A hearing officer may also order a change in the placement
of a child with a disability to an appropriate IAES for not more than 45 days
if the hearing officer determines that the current placement of such child is
substantially likely to result in injury to the child or to others. This determination
may be made only after the hearing officer considers the appropriateness of
the child’s current placement, including the use of supplementary aids
and services, and the appropriateness of the IAES, pursuant to the requirements
under the IDEA (20 U.S.C. §1415(k)(a)(2); 34 CFR §300.521). The IEP
team makes the determination of the IAES, which must enable the child to appropriately
progress in the general curriculum and to continue to receive those services
and modifications, including those described in the child’s current IEP,
that will enable the child to achieve the goals set out in the student’s
IEP and include services and modifications designed to address the behavior
that led to the change in placement in order to prevent that behavior from reoccuring
(20 U.S.C. §1415(k)(3); 34 C.F.R. §300.519-529). The extent to which
alternative schools are being used as an IAES for students with disabilities
across the nation is not clear.
State directors of special education are a valuable source of information
from which to gather more information about students with disabilities and alternative
schools. Responses to the interview questions are summarized in the next section.
Interviews with State Directors of Special Education
Q: What Are Major Issues for Students with Disabilities in Relation to Alternative
Three major issues emerged in response to this question and are described
below. A summary of emergent themes is presented in Table 1.
Table 1. Major Issues Regarding Students with Disabilities
Number of Students Served and Disability Category
- Limited or no data available on the number of students with disabilities
being served in alternative schools.
- Perception that primary disability category of students with disabilities
attending alternative schools is emotional/behavioral disability.
- Alternative schools generally viewed as another option available
to students with disabilities.*
- Students may be pushed out of traditional school in a subtle or overt
- IEP may be continued, modified, or may not systematically follow the
student from their previous school.
Note. Responses are perceptions
of 49 state directors of special education or their designees.
- Questions regarding provision or quality of services in place for
students with disabilities.
- Questions about quality and availability of staff licensed in special
- Questions about degree to which alternative schools are appropriate
settings for students with disabilities (resources available to meet
student needs, least restrictive environment).
* Themes were mentioned by at least 20% of respondents; those statements
with asterisks were mentioned by more than half of the respondents.
Number of students served and disability category. Many
of the state directors of special education indicated they had very little or
no data on the number of students with disabilities being served in alternative
schools. Despite this lack of data, the perceived primary disability category
for students attending alternative schools was in the area of severe emotional
disturbance (emotional/behavioral disability). Several (< 20%) of the directors
also noted anecdotal reports of an increase in the severity and variety of students
with disabilities being served within alternative schools. For example, the
number of students with Tourette’s syndrome, autism, mental health problems,
and conduct disorders attending alternative schools appears to be increasing,
according to the respondents.
Enrollment issues. Respondents expressed concern
that students with disabilities may be pushed out of traditional schools and
into alternative schools in a subtle or overt manner. One special education
director suggested that rather than placing students in a more restrictive setting
or costly placement, alternative schools are suggested as another option. Secondary
level administrators or staff may urge students to try the alternative school
According to interview results, once a student with a disability enrolls in
an alternative school, several scenarios may occur. In some alternative schools,
procedures may be in place ensuring a review of the IEP and implementation of
services at a level similar to what the student received in the past. In other
alternative schools, the IEP may be rewritten to reflect more limited special
education and related services—oftentimes services are delivered on an
indirect basis. If the IEP is rewritten, it may or may not be closely followed.
In other cases, parents or students (once they reach the age of majority) may
no longer request special education upon entrance into the alternative school.
State directors suggested that many factors influence the degree to which the
IEP is implemented. Some indicated that educators felt student needs could be
met through the existing alternative program (rather than through special education)
given the smaller student-teacher ratio and more individualized programming.
Barriers to appropriate implementation include the availability of certified
special education teachers and paraprofessionals and the school’s small
size, which can limit flexibility and resources. In less than 20% of the cases,
state directors mentioned the existence of an adversarial relationship between
alternative school educators and special educators. According to respondents,
some alternative school educators believe students who receive special education
should not be served in alternative schools because they already have funding
and a set of supports in place in the regular school setting—whereas students
without disabilities who are at risk of school failure depend on the enrollment
slots available at the alternative school.
Service delivery. The third major issue that surfaced
in relation to students with disabilities and alternative schools focused on
the delivery of services. Nearly half of the state directors of special education
raised questions and concerns about the provision and quality of services for
students with disabilities within alternative school settings. Concerns were
also raised about the qualifications and availability of staff licensed in special
education and whether students had access to the breadth of content curriculum
and subject areas available in larger, traditional public schools. About one
quarter of the state directors of special education perceived that alternative
schools could be beneficial settings for students with disabilities. Many pointed
to characteristics of alternative schools that could facilitate a successful
school experience including smaller class size, more individual attention, individualized
work pace, focus on career planning or vocational education, provision of work-study
experiences, provision of counseling, flexible schedule, etc. However, respondents
also voiced concern about whether alternative schools met the requirement to
educate students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment pursuant
to the IDEA.
Summary and Future Directions
There is very little national research documenting the extent to which and
how students with disabilities are being served in alternative schools. It is
difficult to draw conclusions about the specific challenges faced by these programs
and the appropriateness of this educational option for students with disabilities.
The responses from interviews with state directors of special education help
to identify important issues for further consideration.
Future directions. Based on comments from several
state directors, the interviews raised awareness of the need for easily accessible
and accurate data on the extent to which students with disabilities are being
served in alternative schools. The extent to which states have the capacity
to disaggregate enrollment and accountability data for alternative schools by
disability status is unclear, thus there are more questions than answers about
how students with disabilities fare in alternative schools and programs. State
directors of special education voiced many concerns about the special education
processes and procedures in place for students with disabilities in alternative
school settings. Although essential elements and strategies of effective alternative
programs have been recommended (Quinn, Rutherford, & Osher, 1999; Tobin
& Sprague, 2000), the extent to which these practices are implemented in
accordance with the requirements of the IDEA is uncertain and documentation
of outcomes for students with disabilities is necessary. General recommendations
to address some of the issues raised by state directors of special education
in relation to alternative schools and students with disabilities are offered
- Carefully document and track the number and disability category of students
attending alternative schools.
- Determine whether students have received special education and related services
in the past before enrollment (by contacting previous school, record review,
student or parent report during intake interview, etc.)
- Develop clear procedures and criteria for enrollment to ensure that students
are being referred or placed in the alternative school/program for appropriate
- Meet with staff from the student’s previous school to develop a program
of services that will best meet the student’s needs. Include the parents,
guardian or a family member, and the student in this meeting. Establish procedures
for obtaining student records and facilitating successful transition between
- Implement a procedure to determine whether the services that are documented
on a student’s most recent IEP are appropriate and modify as required.
Address transition service needs for students who are age 14 (or younger,
if determined appropriate by the IEP team) and older.
- Meet periodically to determine whether services are being provided as documented
on the student’s IEP. Measure and document student outcomes.
- Ensure qualified special education staff are available to provide services
as specified on the IEPs for students with disabilities.
- As a team, meet at least annually to determine whether the alternative
school is the most appropriate educational setting (and least restrictive)
for the student.
- If an alternative school is being used as an Interim Alternative Educational
Setting, make certain continued provision of service occurs and other requirements
under the IDEA are met.
Many state directors of special education indicated that they believed alternative
schools were desirable and effective in their state. The extent to which these
perceptions are similar to those of others, including state-level alternative
school specialists, alternative school educators, general and special education
teachers, parents, and students requires further study. Additional data-based
information about alternative schools and their impact on students with disabilities
is critical. Quality alternative schools may be one option that can help to
provide educational opportunities and foster successful outcomes for students
with and without disabilities who are at risk of school failure.
Blackorby, J., & Wagner, M. (1996). Longitudinal postschool outcomes of
youth with disabilities: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition
Study. Exceptional Children, 62(5), 399-413.
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), 125-143.
Individuals With Disabilities Education Act Amendments. 1997. PL105-17.
Kleiner, B., Porch, R., & Farris, E. (2002). Public alternative schools
and programs for students at risk of education failure: 2000-01 (NCES 2002-004).
U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education
Lange, C. M., & Sletten, S. J. (2002). Alternative
education: A brief history and research synthesis. Alexandria, VA: Project Forum
at National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Retrieved October
29, 2003, from http://www.nasdse.org/forum.htm
Raywid, M. A. (1994). Alternative schools: The state of the art. Educational
Quinn, M. M., Rutherford, R. B., & Osher, D. M. (1999). Special education
in alternative education programs. (ED436054). ERIC Digest. Reston,
VA: Eric Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education.
Tobin, T. & Sprague, J. (2000). Alternative education strategies: Reducing
violence in school and community. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders,
- Alternative Schools Research
- Bear, G., Quinn, M. M., & Burkholder, S. (2001). Interim alternative
education settings for children with disabilities. Bethesda, MD: National
Association of School Psychologists.
Author Note. We would like to thank those who participated
in these interviews for their time and the valuable information they provided.
Material for this brief is adapted from the complete report by Lehr, C. A.,
& Lange, C. M. (2003). Alternative
schools and students they serve: Perceptions of state directors of special education.
Policy Research Brief, 14(1). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota,
Research and Training Center on Community Living. Available online at http://ici.umn.edu/products/prb/141/default.html.
Author Camilla Lehr is with the University of Minnesota.
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This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.
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