Alternative High School Programs


Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I only recently discovered “unschooling.” Apparently unschooling has been around since 1977 when it was coined by educator John Holt, who believed homeschooling didn’t allow enough learning freedom. According to the website,, unschooling is “a method of homeschooling that puts the desire, drive, motive and responsibility for life—this thing we call learning, or education—in the hands of the learner.”

Reading between the lines, and from blogs and articles on the subject, this means that the student, no matter what the age, is in charge of what he learns, when he learns it, and how he learns it. If he doesn’t want to learn long division, no need. If he wants to design and build things out of hardwoods, so be it. If she doesn’t want to research the Civil War and write up a correctly cited report, no problem. If she wants to plant a vegetable garden and raise chickens, all the power to her. And vise versa on all of the above.

The idea of unschooling is intriguing. Students should be encouraged and allowed to pursue their interests, to go deep into those subjects, and to benefit from hands-on experience. And reading the many blogs and comments on various websites about unschooling, those who have experienced it and parents who have “taught” it, have nothing but high praises for this unusual approach to education.

Here comes my however: I read Huffington Post article from 2013 by Lorraine Devon Wilke that took a close look at one unschooling family, the Martins. Wilke wrote that the Martins allow their children, ages 13, 11, 7, and 4, “to make all their own decisions regarding what they do and when.” Wilke quoted Mother Martin as saying: “We live life like every day is a weekend. The kids have never been to school and we don’t force them to study at home. We treat them with the same respect as adults—there’s no punishments or chores. They can have ice cream for breakfast and go to bed at 4 a.m. if they want. They’re smarter and better behaved as a result.”

The mother goes on to say: “I’m not worried in the slightest that if any of the kids want to go to college they will be behind, as they are as bright as any other child their age. If the kids want to go to college, then they will just have to sit the equivalent of a high school exam, but more and more colleges are actually embracing unschoolers, as they are recognizing how self-motivated most of the children are. For now, we’re not going to obsess about what profession the kids will have and what they are going to do when they’re older—we just enjoy every minute.”

I think it is fair to say that most people would find the Martin’s approach extreme, as Wilke does. Wilke points out that the opposite—parents who dictate everything a child does—is just as extreme. I agree.

I do see the mother’s comments on college as a bit naïve. It takes much more to be successful in college than just passing a high school equivalency exam. Maybe her kids would be self-motivated, but what if they decided they didn’t want to write the papers required for a course? For a student used to being in charge of everything he or she learns, it could be a tough transition to suddenly be expected to adhere to strict guidelines, deadlines, and required tasks. On the other hand, not all students are successful in a one-size-fits-all education system. Unschooling may work for some; for others it could be a disaster. Educational options and diverse learning situations would benefit all students. We’ve got a ways to go.

To learn more about unschooling go to the website mentioned above, or read Wilke’s article at And be sure to comment: What do you think about the idea of unschooling?

July 2, 21014

In a recent Education Today article by Donald E. Heller, the author wrote: “The decision to allow our daughter to become a high school dropout when she approached us with the idea was one that our family debated intensely during the last six months. In the end, we agreed with our daughter that this was the best path for her.”

Finding the best path toward success for your teenager is the primary mantra of Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? Yet, choosing to drop out of high school as the best path is tough even for me to follow. Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University, said he and his wife, a public school teacher, did have a difficult time coming to agreement with their daughter. He described his daughter as quite articulate at explaining her reasons for wanting to find a different path to the future.

The Heller’s two daughters had attended a private school in London in their younger years, then an alternative public school in another state before moving to Michigan. The older daughter graduated from the alternative high school, but the younger was enrolled in a local public high school, which had a good reputation. The daughter scored well on state tests and on the SAT, but her school grades were not reflecting the depth of knowledge Heller knew she had. He and his wife noticed the daughter was “not engaged in learning in ways that she had been in other schools she had attended.”

The well-regarded Michigan high school was, like so many of our public schools, “highly traditional in its structure and curriculum,” focused on improving the “performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning.” Heller’s daughter realized, and he and his wife came to see, that the daughter was not being challenged or allowed to explore her curiosity, develop her interests, or learn for the sake of learning—something she had thrived upon at her previous schools. An intelligent student, she was not challenged and was slipping through the cracks.

After reviewing the options, the family decided to let the daughter apply to an early college program, 600 miles from home. Heller acknowledges that public schools are under extreme pressure to prove their students’ ability to meet state and federal standards. That focus, however, results in a one-size-fits-all approach to education that simply doesn’t work for many students. Although she will not experience the traditions of a high school graduation, Heller’s daughter will have a college education. Many other students who don’t respond to standard curriculums are not so lucky.

I encouraged one of my sons to finish high school early because he already had all the requirements he needed, and I knew he was bored and headed for trouble. It was a good plan for him. I have a friend who let her daughter drop out, get a GED, and proceed straight to community college—the young women also recognized the “standard” wasn’t working for her.

The Toward College Success mantra, “help your teenager find the path to success,” still stands. It can be scary figuring out the way, but until there are enough alternatives to the standard curriculum, parents need to remain alert and open to helping their teenager find that path.

To read Heller’s article:

June 5, 2014

It appears that a couple or so years ago, a new concept in teaching high school students about finances took hold. Now in several high schools across the country, students, their parents, and their teachers can walk down the school’s hall to a student-staffed bank branch to make a deposit, a withdraw, or even to get a small low-interest loan. What an idea—teach students about finances by opening a real bank in their school. Understanding finances and how to manage them is a must for success in college or anything beyond high school.

There is a whole chapter in Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? that touts the importance of teaching teenagers how to manage money. Unfortunately, it is a skill that students often lack when they graduate from high school. When those students find themselves on their own, whether at college, traveling, working, or whatever, they discover quickly how little they know about finances and how easily money problems can derail their situation.

The concept of a student-run bank branch sounds like an innovative, engaging way to instruct teenagers in finances. Students apply to staff the school banks, are trained by the bank, and earn a salary. They, in turn, help to teach their fellow students about savings, budgeting, interest, and other aspects of financial management.

For example, Capitol One Bank, which has school branches in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, says each of its student bankers works a summer in a Capitol One Bank as tellers and customer service representatives, spend two weeks in formal teller training, take a financial education class, and participates in a week-long college development program to plan their college application process. One of the goals of Capitol One Bank’s school banking program is to steer students toward a successful college experience.

Union Bank, which operates school banks primarily in low-income neighborhoods in California, offers a similar program, including college scholarship monies. One complaint about the programs is that students have no choice of banks if they want to use the school site. Individual banks work with school districts to gain access, and use bank funds to build the banking space and pay for student training and salaries. That seems a minor complaint when it offers so much opportunity to the student bankers as well as their peers.

It would seem that the school bank program is an appealing way to engage students in learning about real-life finances. If they can graduate with reasonable financial literacy, then those teenagers have a better chance of being successful in college and beyond.

To read articles about school banking programs:, and

April 15, 2014

Not too long ago I visited with a retired English teacher who took on a semester-long substitute teaching gig for a middle school English Language Learners class. The school assured that it would be easy for her—only half a day teaching, all lesson plans available, and small classes. In what she calls “a weak moment,” she agreed. To her dismay, she found herself with students who not only have no foundation in English, but little foundation in learning how to learn, and no idea or incentive on how to be successful students.  

Most of this teacher’s students are from Mexico, have low elementary-level reading and writing skills, and know little about appropriate classroom behavior, such as raising your hand to ask a question. Out went the lesson plans; this teacher created lessons to fit the situation at hand instead of trying to stick to a prescribed program that simply wasn’t working.

What was really needed, she said, was an opportunity to give these students hands-on life skills that will serve them well in both school and the workplace. We discussed what that might look like: going to school for half a day, then having some type of vocational training in the community. Such an opportunity would give these students a chance to learn teamwork, learn appropriate behavior in a workplace, build confidence in spoken language skills, and introduce them to various occupations.

What they didn’t need, this teacher said, was to sit in classrooms all day being fed curriculum for which they did not have adequate background. Such situations enforce the fact that they are behind, overwhelm them to the point of giving up, or create an atmosphere in which they act up to overpower their confusion and feeling of inadequacies. Why try when you are so far behind? Why try when you believe you are doomed to fail? Why try when you don’t see the point?

I do think offering outside vocational work is a great idea for students as young as middle school as well as for high schoolers. I also realize it takes a school district with the manpower and funding to create such a program—not obstacles easy to overcome—plus it takes community businesses and industry willing to step up and offer such opportunities. As overwhelming as those tasks may seem, I do believe it would be highly beneficial to all involved: the school district, the community, and the students. It doesn’t do anyone any good for students to do little besides occupy a seat in a classroom.

To really “educate” students, we need a school situation that offers more than a one-size fits all curriculum. Yes, there are some academic skills that all students need to learn, but wouldn’t it be better to give those who prefer “getting on with life,” to learn a marketable skill at the same time they are learning how to write a paper or compute an algebraic equation? Or better yet, turn that paper into a report for the business in which they are training and that math lesson into figuring the accounts receivable.

And as for college—well it will always be there if they decide later to pursue that route. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? states: college is not for everyone, and it certainly isn’t necessary to go straight to college after high school. Our education system needs to help all students find their path toward success.

March 5, 2014

Last night, after I gave a presentation at a local school, a father asked if there was a book or website or something that listed all of the alternatives to going straight to college after high school. I had just finished describing some, but he proceeded to tell me about an apprenticeship program that I did not know. The Registered Apprenticeship program, structured and monitored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA), brings together people seeking work with businesses seeking workers through a paid apprenticeship. When I took a closer look, I couldn’t help but think what a great option this is for those who do not want to go to college straight out of high school or even at all.

According to the Labor Department’s website, the Registered Apprenticeship program “is a unique, flexible training system that combines job related technical instruction with structured on-the-job learning experiences…It provides the opportunity for workers seeking high-skilled, high- paying jobs and for employers seeking to build a qualified workforce.”

The way I understand it is that businesses seeking people to train in their industry post open apprenticeship opportunities on the ETA website. The website explains who is eligible to apply and how to apply, and what the applicant can expect. Those accepted into apprenticeships immediately start earning a salary as they work and learn along the way. Salaries increase as skill level increases. The apprenticeships range from one to six years, with four years being the most common. And while construction and manufacturing industries are the most common businesses that use the Registered Apprenticeship program, applicants also can find openings in health care, energy, law enforcement, auto mechanics, telecommunications, food service, and more.

According to the website, the benefits to applicants include: improved skills and competencies, incremental wage increases as skills improve, on-the-job training, career advancement, industry issued and nationally recognized credentials, and articulation agreements “between certain apprenticeship training programs and 2- and 4-year colleges that create opportunities for college credit and future degrees.”


That last benefit is particularly appealing. Not only do these apprentices start right off earning a salary while learning a trade, there is opportunity to go to college at a later date if the apprentice so desires. And some of the employers will partially or fully fund that education.


I think this is a great program—one that is appealing to wide a range of high school graduates: from those who want to earn money right away and gain valuable training along the way, to those for whom college is simply too expensive.


If you have a student who could benefit from this program, definitely check it out. As Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? says: college right after high school is not the right path for every student. And the role of parents is to help their child find the path to success—no matter what path he or she chooses.


To see what apprenticeships are available in your area, go to: Scroll down to Registered Apprenticeship Program Sponsor Database, then put in your state and county.

Dec. 19, 2013

Those of you who are regular National Public Radio listeners probably already know about American Public Media’s RadioWorks program. The program offers in-depth stories on many subjects, including education. I’ve been impressed with how the education stories focus on what is working and what is not—particularly when it comes to what it takes to be successful in college or career.

I just read an American RadioWorks story about another education alternative. The Tennessee Technology Centers are non-profit public technical schools that offer training and certification in a long list of occupations in which graduates are employable and can earn a good wage. The centers began several decades ago as part of the state’s secondary school system, but today it is an affordable alternative to community college. Many of the programs offer certification in a year.

RadioWorks Reporter Emily Hanford wrote: “The Tennessee Technology Centers offer an educational model that contrasts sharply with the way conventional college education is organized. The focus is hands-on learning and applied skills. School is every day from 7:45 to 2:30; a consistent, daily schedule helps students arrange work and childcare. All of the programs are designed to be quick.”

Hanford continued: “When students sign up, the only thing they need to decide is what program they want to pursue…They decide what occupation they want, and the school tells them exactly what they need to do to complete a certificate to work in that occupation.”

And it is quite affordable: The cost for most programs is around $5,000.

Programs such as these are to be commended. The people that complete this certification graduate with skills that earn them a decent wage and allow them to make their way in the world. If the graduate decides sometime later that he or she wants to go to college, that option will always be there. But having a certification in an employable field offers security and independence that many young people need right out of high school. As I’ve said before, we need options—we need to help our children find success in whatever path they take out of high school.

To read the RadioWorks article:

Dec. 4, 2013

Although Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able? is about preparing your teenager for a successful college experience, one of the significant points in the book is that going to college right after high school is not the right path for every student.  That point becomes clearer to me every time I read or hear a story like the one that was aired on NPR last week. The story, by Rob Manning, told about an internship program in Oregon that recruits and trains teenagers straight out of high school to be machinists, welders, and painters.

Oregon students find out about the industrial internship program in shop class—a class that is not offered in all high schools due to budget cuts. But Centennial High School in Gresham, Oregon—just east of Portland—does offer shop classes through its “Metals Manufacturing Program of Study.”  And according to teacher Mark Watt, “students line up to get in.”

Watts went on to say: “I’ve never heard a kid ever say to me, I love coming to school because I can’t wait to come to English. Now, that’s not a slam on English or math because it’s important, but this is the carrot.”

And the carrot has a great reward for students who simply don’t want more studying right after high school, but a job with real earning potential. The internship gives them the training while they are in high school, with the likelihood of a good paying job right after graduation. The NPR story highlighted a few students who were working in the shipyards of North Portland—jobs they secured after completing industrial internships that they heard about in shop class at Centennial. One 18-year-old Centennial graduate came back to promote the internship program to current shop class students. He told them he was making $800 a week in the shipyards.

The story did point out that the industrial internship program needs more manufacturers to participate, but the fact that such a program exists is a great boon to Oregon teens. Students need options because one size does not fit all. College isn’t the right step for some students, and those students need and deserve opportunities for jobs that offer living wages and productive lifestyles. I highly commend Centennial High School for offering such an option to its students. Most schools are so focused on college readiness and are so hindered by budget cuts that they eliminate programs and classes that can lead to worthy vocations.

In fact, I think that while our country is striving for national academic standards through Common Core, it also needs to emphasize and offer skills that give a student immediate opportunity for vocational work. I believe a system that allowed students to choose between a college or vocational track would be valuable. Choosing the vocational track would still include basics in English, math, and science—not necessarily to what is needed for college-level work, but enough that if the vocational student decided years later that he or she wanted to go to college, they could pick up what they needed in a community college and go from there.

Another significant point made in Toward College Success is that parents should help their student toward success in whatever path the student chooses. It may be your dream that your teenager go straight to college, but if that isn’t what he wants, it truly is a waste of time and money. If a vocational path is more attractive to your teen, help her find ways to achieve that.

To listen to or read the transcript of the NPR story, go to:

May 6, 2013

The topic of high school alternatives just won’t quit popping up—and I think that is a good thing. It is heartening to read about Wheeling High School’s (Illinois) Career Pathways program that allows high school students to earn a certified nursing assistant credential among other choices or to read about schools that involve their students in “citizen science,” in which the students collect real data for groups such as the National Geographic Society. Giving high school students options and opportunities helps them find “relevance” in learning and find their place in society. That is success not only for the students, but for everyone.

 I recently read the 2011 report, “Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century,” prepared by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The report makes a strong argument for providing career training as part of school reform. Students who do not want to go to college, or for those who want to wait a while, need to finish high school with skills that allow them to make a living. This report challenges educators to reshape our high schools to do just that.

 The report points out that post high school education is necessary for the 21st century—but of what should that education be comprised? The report states that while many students drop out of high school and college for many reasons, “a major reason is that many can’t see a clear, transparent between their program of study and tangible opportunities in the labor mark. If high school career-focused pathways were firmly linked to community college and four-year career majors, for example, we believe more students would be likely to stay the course. Indeed, we are convinced that this is an exceptionally promising strategy or increasing post-secondary attainment.”

 To achieve more tangible opportunities, the report turns to the standard practices in other developed countries. “If you look at the U.S. secondary education system through a comparative lens, one big difference becomes immediately apparent: most advanced nations place far more emphasis on vocational education than we do. Throughout northern and central Europe especially, vocational education and training is a mainstream system, the pathway helping most young people make the transition from adolescence to productive adulthood.”

 Instead of copying another nation’s approach, however, the report spells out a multiple pathway for an American solution, and praises the Common Core standards approach to ensure a “uniform national academic currency.” The pathway includes elevating “ relevant work experience,” including making “a far more concerted effort to link the jobs most students hold to their programs of study, so that work and learning will be mutually reinforcing” in college. The report also stresses the need for more efficient, effective academic/career counseling at middle and high school levels, and at the community college level.

 Read this report, find out what alternatives your school districts offer, then work to make changes that will help all teenagers find the path to success—in college or otherwise.

 Read the report at:

March 26, 2013

Last week I wrote about various alternative high school programs that allowed students opportunities to gain college credit, work experience, or internships all while working toward high school graduation. It seems that educators post daily articles and blogs about the need to move toward a “redesign” of high schools to increase students’ college and career readiness. And data seems to be backing them up. For example, an October 2012 report from Jobs for the Future did a study in Texas that found high school students who had taken at least one college course while enrolled in high school “were nearly 50 percent more likely to earn a college degree from a Texas college within six years than students who had not participated in dual enrollment.”

 Another study, “Opportunity by Design: New High School Model for Student Success” by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, contends that in order to be prepared to meet the Common Core Standards, many high schools will need to “redesign.” The Carnegie study points to schools that have increased student engagement and graduation rates through smaller schools, real-world experiences with community businesses, more personal attention to individual student academic progress, and a comprehensive academic curriculum as well as dual programs.

 I found, however, part of the statement written by Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation, to be particularly telling: “….while it is important to graduate from high school, high school is not an end into itself, but rather preparation for college as well as life-long learning. It is one part of the path that leads students toward their ultimate potential in any field of endeavor as well as in finding personal satisfaction in their lives.”

 It is, in fact, during those high school years that a student should be learning the skills she needs to be successful in college and career. Redesigning high schools to more fully engage students and offering dual programs are part of moving them toward success, but there is another important component here. I believe parents need to see their role in this whole discussion; parents need to be as involved as the school in moving their teenager toward success. At home, parents need to be teaching time, conflict, and financial management. They need to give their teenagers graduated responsibilities. They need to model an interest in learning, keep communication open, and learn to listen to their teenager. Without these non-academic but important life skills, redesigned high schools will still struggle to prepare students for college and career success. It take parents, schools, and communities working together to move teenagers toward college and career success.

 To read the Jobs for the Future report:

To read the Carnegie report:

March 19, 2013

A few times before, I have written about alternative high school programs that I have heard or read about that offer students opportunities not usually associated with a “standard” high school curriculum. I recently took a look at what my local school district offered, and thought it was worth naming various alternative high school programs that parents can look for when they are trying to help their students find the path for success.

 When a student becomes disillusioned with school, sees no relevance in it, and/or starts failing, it is time to look for alternatives. In an effort to find ways to get and keep students engaged in school, many school districts offer programs that lead to college credit, certification, work experience, and internships. The place to begin the search is in the high school counselor’s office.

 Dual programs offer high school students the opportunity to take college courses, gain college credit or certification, and get insight into what college is like all while the student is working toward her high school graduation. Under dual programs, the student usually does not have to pay any fees or tuition to participate—another huge plus when you consider the cost of any post-secondary education.

 School districts that offer dual programs collaborate with local or nearby colleges to offer certain courses at either the college or high school campus. Depending on the program, students can earn college credit or they can work toward certification in an array of fields. Examples include auto mechanics, nursing, technology, law enforcement, culinary arts, and more. Some of dual programs even allow a student to earn a two-year associates degree by the time he finishes high school. School districts that offer dual programs also engage community businesses and industry to provide both paid and unpaid internships to participating students. It is easy to see why such a program would appeal to many students. At the end of their high school days, they have a high school diploma, college credits or certification, and job experience.

 Another type program that may be available in your school district is a jobs program that collaborates with local businesses to hire high school students during the school year. The work schedule always fits around the student’s school schedule, and included in that schedule is a class to support the students in their work. During that class, business leaders may come in to speak or students may go on field trips to visit local businesses. During such presentations, students not only learn about how businesses work, but they hear about available internships for those who go on to college or they may gain access to employment following high school graduation. 

 There are, of course, other curricula that emphasize certain interests such as hands-on learning, the arts, and science and technology, and those programs should be considered also. The point is to help your student become engaged and find the path to success. The successful high school student is more likely to become a successful college student and a successful employee.