Alternative High School Options for At-Risk Teens

Three high school students writing at classroom desks

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Sometimes, teens who struggle socially or academically in a traditional setting can thrive in an alternative school. There are many choices that may be available for you and your teen to explore to continue his high school education.

History of Alternative High Schools

Alternative high schools were initially developed to serve the needs of teens with mental health or behavioral problems. At that time, alternative meant, "get'em out of our school," due to defiant and disruptive behaviors the public schools were ill-equipped to handle.

Teens who were suspended often for fighting or those who disrupted classes may have been sent to an alternative school so they didn't disrupt the other student's educations. Some alternative programs were also reserved for pregnant mothers who may need a more flexible school day or who may require childcare after their babies were born.

Alternative high schools have evolved, there are more of them and what they have to offer has broadened.

Troubled teens struggle in traditional school environments for many reasons, and there are now numerous academic programs designed to address these varied needs. A teen with a chronic illness, for example, may do better with an online school. Or, a teen who struggles with traditional teaching styles may thrive when given more hands-on learning opportunities. 

Types of Alternative High Schools

An alternative high school offers unique learning opportunities in a more individualized environment for teenagers who aren't succeeding in traditional high school. Most communities offer the following:

  • Alternative Education Programs: Most high schools offer some type of alternative program. These alternative programs use the same curriculum followed in the public school system, but the information is taught in a different manner. Programs include independent study, continuation programs, online, and teen parent schools.
  • Charter Schools: Each state sets its own standards for charter schools and they vary greatly across the country. Charter schools operate independently from the public school system, are usually more innovative, and are publicly funded based on enrollment. Public charter schools must meet the same academic standards as traditional public schools. 
  • Magnet Schools: Magnet schools were originally opened in many communities to offer specialized classes. Some provide programs in advanced science, engineering, performing arts, vocational education, or agricultural education. They often attract students who feel "stuck" in bad public schools.
  • Virtual or Online Schools: Online high schools allow teens to work from home. Educational programs range from being completely independent and self-paced to teacher taught programs that follow traditional semester scheduling. Most public school districts offer this option, and for a fee, there are many private virtual schools available.

A Word From Verywell 

If you're considering an alternative school for your teen, it's important to know what opportunities exist. Talk to your child's guidance counselor to learn more about the specific schools available in your area. Be willing to explore your teen's options to find the setting that will best support your teen's academic needs.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Foley R, Pang LS. Alternative Education Programs: Program and Student Characteristics. High Sch J. 2006;89:10-21. doi:10.1353/hsj.2006.0003

  2. Rubens SL, Miller MA, Zeringue MM, Laird RD. Associations of bullying, victimization, and daytime sleepiness with academic problems in adolescents attending an alternative high schoolAm J Orthopsychiatry. 2019;89(4):508‐517. doi:10.1037/ort0000305

  3. Prieto LM, Aguero-Valverde J, Zarrate-Cardenas G, Van Maarseveen M. Parental preferences in the choice for a specialty schoolJ Sch Choice. 2019;13(2):198-227. doi:10.1080/15582159.2018.1442087

  4. National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Do charter schools have to take state tests?

  5. Magnet Schools of America. What are Magnet Schools?

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.