Alternate Education: Key Themes in Research A Collaborative Literature Review


The Spiral of Inquiry (Halbert & Kaser), offers a six-stage inquiry process that cultivates conditions where “curiosity is encouraged, developed and sustained” and this curiosity provides momentum for transformation. As part of the Learning Phase, our metro-region alternative sub-committee posed the question, “What do we need to know in order to engage and improve the learning of students in alternative programs?” Shauna Ross (Surrey) and Joanna Angelidis (Delta) co-authored this literature review to explore the possibilities and used this evidence to anchor the inquiry work at Surrey Learning Centres and the Delta alternative education programs this year.

The intent of this summary is to provide a brief thematic analysis of the current research in the area of Alternate Education and to look at key themes presented in the research for working successfully with complex youth.

This review included consideration of research from scholarly articles, action research studies, dissertations, and reviews completed by two other Canadian school districts as well as the McCreary Society in B.C. This report was a collaborative effort written and prepared by Directors of Instruction within both the Surrey and Delta school districts.


Alternate Education (as defined by the Ministry of Education in BC): Alternate education programs focus on educational, social and emotional issues for students whose needs are not being met in a traditional school program. Alternate education programs that satisfy certain requirements are deemed a “Type 3” facility and students qualify for 1.0FTE (full time equivalent) funding to the district.

Alternative Education (as defined by the Ministry of Education in BC): Alternative education programs also focus on educational, social and emotional issues for students whose needs are not being met in a traditional school program. Alternative education programs do not satisfy the requirements to be deemed a type 3 facility and students are offered an ‘alternative’ to the traditional model and are funded on a per-block basis.

For the purposes of this paper, the term Alternative education is used to describe the needs of all learners needing an environment outside of the traditional secondary school, regardless of funding.


On November 5, 2019, the Surrey School District convened an informal facilitated conversation to explore potential areas of coordination and cooperation on Alternative Education and related initiatives in school districts in BC. Representatives from twelve BC school districts were present.

Participants agreed that each school district was unique in its needs for alternative education and that no single program or structure would suit all contexts. Several actions were initiated as part of an investigative scan of what was happening in our current contexts as well as within the field of alternative education. One of those action items was to complete a literature review of the current research.

General Context

Within BC School districts, alternative education schools strive to provide a safe, caring environment for our learners. Over the past several years in education, what we know about learning has changed significantly. The focus of education is no longer about completing work in return for a grade, but rather is driven by creating an engaging, meaningful learning experience for students. This is significant because we have a responsibility to provide all of our learners with an educational experience that will prepare them for the future. Every learner should come away from our schools with the competencies, skills, attitude, and enthusiasm for learning that will enable them to be successful.

Secondly, given our unique geographical location within the province of British Columbia, we want to recognize, honour and support Aboriginal learner success. It is our shared responsibility to foster positive personal and cultural identity highlighting the strengths of Aboriginal peoples, to maintain high expectations while providing relevant support, to celebrate Aboriginal learners’ success, and to include the First Peoples’ Principles of Learning into all of our buildings and classrooms. While all of our alternative education sites serve and appreciate students from around the world, the purposeful inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives and knowledge within alternative education settings provides a foundation of equity, understanding and inclusion that will undoubtedly lead to greater learner success. When looking at the overarching themes, key ideas and considerations presented in this review it is imperative that we challenge ourselves to consider, wherever possible, an Indigenous Learning lens and perspective.

Finally, we must also give consideration to the changing world context in which our learners now live. Our youth are experiencing a world where there are increasingly new social pressures, global issues and other stressors. The 2018 BC Adolescent Health Survey (BC AHS) involving 38,000 youth aged 12-19, provided key findings about our youth today. Results of this survey were reported in a 2019 report titled, “Balance and Connection in BC: The Health and Well-Being of Our Youth.” This report indicated an increase in mental health conditions, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, depression, PTSD, and ADHD. It also showed an increase over previous years in the number of students with self-injurious behaviour or suicidal ideation. It is important when reviewing the themes discussed in this paper to keep our own unique BC context in mind and to be aware of challenges the youth of today now face.

Overarching Themes for Successful Alternative Programs

The intent of this review was to uncover key themes presented in current research leading to successful work with complex youth. Several overarching, recurring themes emerged. These larger themes will be addressed throughout the review and will be broken down into key ideas and concepts to explore and they will also be addressed in the considerations moving forward.

The overarching themes for greatest learner impact and success are:

  • Staffing considerations, including:
    • Low teacher-to-student ratios
    • Student access to teaching assistants, youth care workers, counsellors and staff trained to work with at-risk youth
  • Positive relationships including:
    • Supportive atmosphere
    • School connectedness
  • Inclusive and accessible environments involving:
    • Removal of barriers and timely entrance
    • Accessible and engaging learning opportunities for all learners
    • The concept of “programs designed for students” – not “students who fit programs”. A differentiated approach guided by the question of “What does this child need right now and how do we provide this”?
  • Clearly articulated program goals that:
    • Translate into flexible, individual learner outcomes
    • Involve regular, ongoing assessment of both program and individual learner outcomes
  • Viable, current, and authentic educational plans including:
    •  Individual Education Plans and Student Learning Plans among others
    • Integrated, timely wrap around supports involving community agencies and individual student support networks
  • Engaging learning opportunities involving:
    • Effective and innovative pedagogy
    • Student voice and choice
  • Flexibility in educational programming including:
    • Flexible schedules
    • Flexible curriculum structures that allow for the identification of individual learner needs and strengths, the personalization of learning, student access to additional support where required, and the ongoing adjustment of strategies to support student success
    • Flexible attendance (This is a vital component of Alternative Education Programs for students experiencing personal challenges; 30% of youth in some studies reported that flexibility was the factor that kept them attending.)
  • Community connection including:
    • Partnerships with community agencies providing students with access to volunteer and work experience, community mentors, community-based leadership opportunities, mental health services such as addictions counselling, and pre-employment training
  • Growth and strength-based approach involving:
    • Strength-based philosophies
    • Belief in the collective efficacy of the adults working with the student to cause positive change in the student’s life
    • Belief in the students’ abilities to experience success in their learning and in their personal lives when the right learning opportunities are provided in combination with necessary supports.
  • Thoughtful referral process involving:
    • Effective transitions between learning environments and to life beyond graduation.

Unlocking Common Understanding: Key ideas to explore and discuss

  1. Definition

The research describes an ongoing difficulty in establishing one widely accepted definition of alternative education with accompanying broadly agreed upon criteria for the identification and categorization of alternative education programs. As a result, alternative education means different things in different places.

A. Alternative education programs may be categorized according to the program purpose or goal.

For example:

  • A learning environment separated physically from the neighborhood school with the goal of providing students exhibiting personal and academic challenges with the support required to achieve graduation. These programs provide a protected learning environment, smaller than the neighborhood school, with increased opportunities for individualized learning, community connections and access to wrap-around supports as compared to larger, neighborhood schools

B. Alternative education programs may be categorized according to the program function.

For example:

  • Schools of choice reflecting programmatic themes or emphasis on specific content or on a specific instructional approach or both. Enrollment typically involves both students who experienced success in their neighborhood schools along with students who experienced significant challenges in their neighborhood schools.
  • Alternative education programs in which students are required to enrol as a means of providing intensive and highly individualized social emotional and mental health support; sometimes following a suspension or other process revealing the student’s intense support needs

C. Alternative education programs may be categorized according to the program focus.

For example:

  • Alternative education programs centered around providing students with opportunities to participate in specific activities such as work experience, outdoor education programs or art-based programs among others.

D. Alternative education programs may be categorized according to the target population.

For example:

  • Alternative education programs designed to provide highly targeted supports and services to students experiencing common social emotional or mental health challenges. Enrolment in the program may be temporary with the goal of equipping learners with the competencies and personalized support networks required to address personal challenges.
  1. Tensions

The literature on alternative education programs identifies several existing tensions.

Some of these include:

  • Whether alternative education is intended only for students experiencing difficulties in their neighborhood schools or whether alternative education should be available to all students interested in alternative learning experiences.
  • Ensuring that alternative education programs form a component of a district-wide continuum of academic, social emotional and mental health supports and options.
  • Student populations are diverse with ongoing shifts in student strengths and support needs. To achieve student success, schooling options must be responsive and flexible. To this end, there must be ongoing review and adjustment in both neighborhood schools and in alternative education programs of social emotional and mental health supports, and of the nature of academic learning opportunities and of pedagogy. The goal is to ensure that diverse student populations experience success in both schooling options. The alternative education program must not be the only option available to students experiencing challenges in their neighborhood schools.
  1. Possible Barriers 

The literature on alternative education identifies several criticisms and associated areas for improvement.

Some of these include:

  • Programs of choice may present unintended barriers to student access including affordability, transportation, the willingness or ability of young people to leave familiar locations to attend programs and the relative scarcity of alternative provision in rural communities. Many questions exisit regarding equity of access.
  • Referral processes may alienate students and families due to the administrative and organizational processes used to manage referrals, transfers and monitoring processes. (This is in stark contrast to the agency and success students experience once enrolled in an alternative education program.)
  • When alternative education program attendance is required as a result of chronic behavioral challenges, there may be an unintended over emphasis on positive behavioral support in comparison to engaging and innovative pedagogy and curriculum.
  • Recruiting and retaining staff may be a challenge when alternative education programs are not considered to be as stable as neighborhood schools. When funding fluctuates, skilled staff may choose employment in the neighborhood school over the alternative education program.
  • While the available data about the outcomes of alternative education is largely positive indicating positive changes for students with regards to attendance, engagement, social emotional competency development and academic attainment, the research on alternative education remains limited. For example, there is limited available comparative data and limited data on long term outcomes. Ongoing and robust data collection is required.
  • For a variety of reasons, the curriculum in alternative education programs may not be as differentiated as in neighborhood schools.
  • Communication between the students’ neighborhood school and the alternative education program may be limited in particular as related to:
    • Comprehensive assessment information
    • Student transitions
    • Wrap around supports and services
  • Students enrolled in alternative education programs may not maintain sufficient contact with their neighborhood schools. Unintended consequences may involve reducing students’ access to peer relationships with students enrolled in the neighborhood schools, reducing students’ access to positive adult mentors, reducing students’ access to courses offered in the neighborhood school, and hindering student transitions from the alternative education program to the neighborhood school; thereby unintentionally reducing student choice and agency as related to schooling options.
  • The literature on alternative education indicates that successful student transitions from alternative education programs to neighborhood schools requires the following conditions. Without these conditions, student transitions are compromised.
    • Timely and targeted access to needed supports.
    • Connections to adults matching the highly positive relationships with adults that students experience in alternative education settings.
    • Positive peer interactions
    • Ongoing adult support with developing and maintaining positive peer relationships
    • Engaging, accessible learning opportunities with teachers who are aware of and respond to the student’s specific learning needs and strengths
  • While intended to enhance student success through the provision of an alternative, protected, individualized and highly supportive learning environment, alternative education programs may have the unintended and unfortunate outcome of increasing student exclusion from neighborhood schools. This unintended outcome must be mitigated through the ongoing review and adjustment of both neighborhood schools and of alternative education programs to ensure both options remain responsive to diverse student populations and to shifting student strengths and support needs.
  1. Stigma

The literature describes stigma associated with some alternative education programs. Removing this stigma is required to achieve equity. Factors related to stigma referenced in the literature are as follows:

  • While unintended, alternative education programs may be seen as “other” to the neighborhood school. The neighborhood school may be viewed as the norm against which any other kind of option is seen as not only different but also lesser.
  • Some students report experiencing stigmatization from attending an alternative education program.
  • Students attending alternative education programs intended for at risk or marginalized youth have expressed that program descriptions and program names can be damaging to their identity resulting in stigmatization.
  • Using the language of at-risk and vulnerability in reference to alternative education programs perpetuates the idea that it is primarily factors attached to the young person – psychological makeup, personal education history, behaviors or social environment, that have resulted in the young person’s inability to experience success in neighborhood school. This, in turn, may make less urgent the need for ongoing review and adjustment of the supports and services and of academic learning options available in the neighborhood school.
  1. Best Practice

The research on alternative education programs reveals the following best practices:

  • Inclusive environments: ensuring equity and access to a high-quality education for a diverse student population in ways that are responsive, accepting, respectful and supportive;
  • Commitment to equitable practice: identifying what individual learners need and how can we help support them;
  • Developmentally responsive programs: involving a deep understanding of the developmental spectrum of students and nurturing student social, emotional, physical and cognitive development;
  • Comprehensive programs: providing a broad range of robust learning opportunities, universal and targeted wrap-around supports and services, community connections and transitions between educational programs and to post-graduation opportunities;
  • Access to an alternative environment that is available in a timely manner: minimal or no delay for students experiencing a critical need for an alternative education program;
  • Flexibility in a variety of formats: personalized and flexible learning opportunities in combination with flexible scheduling and flexible course completion timelines;
  • Programs committed to youth engagement, empowerment and mentorship;
  • Connected relationships: fostering youth connection to school, their families, their communities and to their individual support networks;
  • Smaller class sizes and lower teacher to student ratios.
  • Relevant and flexible curriculum that is:
    • Connected to the students’ experiences, needs, aspirations and interests;
    • Combines experiential learning with opportunities to “catch up” and accelerate learning;
    • Offers challenging tasks with real world applications; and
  • Access to a range of health, social emotional and community supports.

Teaching approaches that are successful in alternate programs involve the following:

    • Having a positive orientation to student behavior and to student agency, voice and choice;
    • Listening and are patience;
    • Demonstrated enjoyment working with the students;
    • Are less formal, fair and kind while remaining firm about rules;
    • Negotiating when needed;
    • Clear, high and achievable expectations; and
    • View all students as filled with potential
  1. Student Perspectives

The literature identifies largely positive student perspectives about participation in alternative education programs. These are as follows:

  • Some of the key themes include:
    • Community and belonging
    • Ambience of acceptance
    • Meaningful relationships with teachers
    • Mentorship relationships with teachers
    • The ability of teachers to function in different roles in order to meet different student needs
    • Increasing student self-awareness and agency
  • Some of the positive perspectives students expressed include:
    • The alternative education program provided an opportunity to achieve academic goals such as high school graduation.
    • Students were influenced positively by the level of respect, encouragement and support they received.
    • Students valued the sense of belonging and community.
    • Students were provided with time and encouragement to reflect on their past experiences, present circumstances and future prospects.
    • Students appreciated the non-intimidating, supportive atmosphere; referring both to the physical and emotional environment.
    • Students shared the importance of staff providing opportunities for one to one conversations about personal and academic challenges and the support that staff provided.
    • Students expressed the importance of having opportunities to refine their interpersonal communication and social skills.
  1. Monitoring and Measuring Quality

The literature identifies several challenges with monitoring and measuring the quality of alternative education programs. At the root of this challenge is the question of what is determined to be a valuable outcome of alternative education. Educational leaders and governments tend to emphasize alternative education outcomes including futures-oriented goals such as educational achievement, student well-being, post-graduation outcomes and access to further education. In contrast, students emphasize the value of relationships, the sense of agency and identity, academic achievement, and opportunities to participate in activities that are both enjoyable and productive. Program staff emphasize the differences between students when they arrive and the observable positive changes that occur during the student’s time in the program.

Also at the root of the difficulty with monitoring and measuring program quality is the challenge associated with identifying and measuring outcomes with differing timelines including immediate, medium and long term outcomes. Some positive outcomes may be immediate while others may take time to be revealed. Some positive outcomes may be apparent in the short term, but are not maintained over longer periods.

As a third root to the difficulty of monitoring and measurement is the question of whether or not alternative education programs should be held solely responsible for outcomes. The question asked is whether or not what happens in alternative education be separated from other factors in a community and in the students’ personal lives.

Moving Forward: Considerations for Greatest Impact

  1. Trauma Informed Practice

Students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences may experience trauma. The literature identifies trauma informed practice and trauma-skilled schools as key to the school success of these students.

  • Trauma-skilled schools act on the understanding that trauma influences students’ beliefs, assumptions, reactions and learning. They build student resilience through connection, security, achievement, autonomy and fulfillment (awareness and concern for others).
  • Trauma-skilled schools require buy-in from all staff, disciplinary policies that are sensitive to students, staff professional learning and strong relationships between school staff and mental health professionals.
  • Trauma-sensitive strategies in schools can assist traumatized students even without a direct interaction with students. Schools that create a school culture of sensitivity through institutional implementation of trauma- informed practices can impact student outcomes t positively by cultivating in students the competencies required to build better futures.
  1. Student Engagement

Student engagement is an effective strategy for student success. As such, an emphasis on student engagement forms a critical component of schools for students experiencing vulnerability or for students seeking an alternative education experience by choice or both.

  • Several studies point to student engagement as a critical factor in students’ academic success.
  • Research demonstrates that student engagement is an effective strategy for students to develop academic, social emotional, career, and civic competencies.
  • Student engagement responds to the challenges many students identify as reasons why they do not attend regularly or leave school altogether including boredom and lack of motivation
  • Student engagement occurs when:
    • Students have invested themselves, their energy and their commitment to the learning environment, both within and outside the classroom.
    • Students willingly put forth the required effort to find a level of personal success academically, socially and emotionally, care about the success of others, including peers and adults, contribute meaningfully to the school and classroom climate and recognize that their presence is of value.
    • Students recognize that learning is a personal endeavor.
  • Students who are engaged:
    • Sustain energy commitment to achieve goals for the purpose of personal growth rather than for a measure of student achievement or other external outcomes.
    • Continue to perform a task until the desired outcome is achieved.
    • Demonstrate a willingness to persist even in the face of obstacles.
    • Exhibit positive emotions during the learning process.
  • Student engagement involves:
    • Authentic student voice.
    • The incorporation of meaningful learning with authentic choice
    • Student ownership and control over the learning process (empowerment and self-efficacy)
    • Supportive learning environments with connection to both the school and broader communities
    • High expectations for every student
    • Innovative and suitable pedagogy
    • Shared leadership among staff, students, families and the community
    • Centering student voices and experiences with the goal of removing barriers to student success.
  1. Mindset

Having a growth mindset and a strength-based approach in education (for both educators and students) is critical to the success of all students, particularly those identified as at risk and experiencing academic challenges.

  • Research on neuroplasticity indicates that human brains are highly adaptable and that every time humans learn something new the brain changes and reorganizes. We need to be cognizant regarding fixed-ability thinking about intelligence that may unintentionally limit student potential and achievement.
  • Studies in brain science identify the impact of self-beliefs and the role of teachers in influencing self-beliefs.
  • When educators approach student learning with the following key ideas in place (in combination with robust learning opportunities and a supportive, connected learning environment), students experience increased personal and academic success.

Key Ideas:

    • Every time students learn something, their brains form, strengthen or connect neural pathways. Replacing the idea that learning ability is fixed with the recognition that everyone is on a growth journey results in increased student success.
    • The times when students are struggling and making mistakes are the best times for brain growth. When students are presented with the right amount of challenge in a learning task and are willing to face obstacles and make mistakes in the learning process, they enhance neural connections expediting and improving the learning experience. The value of changing mindsets needs to be accompanied by different approaches to teaching involving students learning and trying new strategies and seeking input when they are stuck.
    • When students change their beliefs, their bodies and brains physically change as well. Considerable evidence exists showing that students demonstrate progress when they believe in their learning potential and let go of ideas that their achievement is genetically determined. Therefore, it is critical to create opportunities for students to develop a growth mindset.
    • A multidimensional approach to teaching and learning increases brain connectivity.
    • Speed of thinking is not an accurate measure of aptitude, competence or mastery. Learning is optimized when students approach ideas and life with creativity and flexibility.
    • Connecting with people and ideas enhances neural pathways and learning. Part of the reason students give up on learning is because they find it difficult and think they are alone in their struggle. An important change takes place when students work together and discover that everybody finds some or all of the work difficult. Additionally, collaboration provides students with opportunities to connect with another person’s ideas, something which requires and develops higher levels of understanding.
  1. Pedagogy

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” Ignacio Estrada

Pedagogy is at the core of teaching and learning. All students benefit from robust learning opportunities resulting from effective pedagogy. Pedagogies are specific configurations of teaching and learning in interaction, combining theory and practice and ways of thinking and implementing learning designs.

  • Pedagogical expertise is exercised through:
    • Effective classroom management (how teachers keep students organised, attentive and focused);
    • A supportive climate (teacher-student relationships);
    • Effective and authentic assessment practices; and
    • The strong focus on students acquiring diverse competencies, the expectation that all learners achieve a higher level of educational attainment, and the expectation that all young people become lifelong learners with deep understandings and broad sets of socials skills
  • Effective pedagogy requires teachers to pursue the proficient development of competencies.
  • The learner-centred pedagogies (e.g., inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, collaborative learning) are particularly suitable to achieving deeper learning goals.
  • Assessment of the core competencies demands the use of complex and authentic tasks rather than an excessive focus on discrete knowledge. Teacher modelling, demonstrations and the presentation of information remain highly relevant but framed with the ultimate objective of promoting students’ performance and their active role in solving tasks.
  • Emphasizing competencies does not come at the expense of content knowledge and a deep grasp of substance. The reality is that both competencies and a deep understanding of content knowledge are needed.


What we know about learning and learners is constantly evolving. Youth today are navigating an increasingly complex world that requires more than just the basic skills and rote knowledge of the past. They need to be able to confront complex ethical questions, make informed decisions in the face of uncertainty and tackle open-ended questions in creative, critical and collaborative ways (Mehta and Fine, 2017). They will also need to be able to communicate and advocate for their own perspectives, engage in productive dialogue and decide amongst imperfect options. All students are capable of learning and contributing their full potential. Learners in our alternate school settings are often struggling with outside pressures, anxieties, learning disabilities, traumas, equity imbalance and disconnectedness from neighborhood schools. As such, it is our moral imperative to celebrate our successes in these alternative school environments but also to review, revisit and challenge current practice.

It is clear from the research reviewed in this paper that further collaborative stakeholder discussion and exploration is needed amongst our school and district teams, regarding key foundational ideas and concepts. As educational leaders, we should consider providing clarity in terms of our definition of alternate education as it exists today, and work with to consider the criticisms within existing systems world-wide and the perceived barriers that might exist. Perhaps we could start by generating questions that emerge from each of the key ideas to provide the baseline for common language or a possible inquiry moving forward.

Secondly, students who are successful in alternative settings have been regularly surveyed and report many positive experiences. Further research could be collected from those learners who perhaps feel they are becoming disenfranchised or disengaged from our alternative school settings. It might be relevant for us to reach out to those who are struggling with attendance, no longer coming or who are moving within and amongst systems.

Finally, when thinking about moving forward, the most current research suggests that we need to consider trauma informed practice, student engagement, mindset and pedagogy in order to experience the deepest learning impact. These would be topics to explore with our learners and leaders throughout the entire system in order to initiate the sustainable influence we are hoping to achieve for our students.


The purpose of this review was to provide a brief thematic analysis of the current research in the area of Alternative Education and to look at key themes presented in the research for working successfully with complex youth. As each school district is unique and no single alternative education program or structure will be able to transfer identically to all contexts, we are hoping that the research in this review will provide a guide for discussion moving forward. The key themes, the ideas for exploration, as well as the considerations for greatest impact presented in this paper will hopefully serve as the groundwork for collaborative conversation and planning to provide successful learning experiences and greatest possible life impact for our complex and diverse learners.

Shauna Ross

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Shauna Ross' leadership vision is to act with a high level of integrity and ethics, collaborating with others to support, question, encourage and celebrate learning – allowing every student valuable opportunities to move forward with the knowledge, skills and competencies to live their best life. She has been blessed to work in education for over 20 years, in a variety of roles and in a variety of locations. Currently, she is thrilled to be thoroughly engaged in the role of Acting Director of Instruction for Continuous Learning in Surrey.

Joanna Angelidis

Joanna Angelidis is Director of Learning Services with the Delta School District. She is committed to the success of every student; believing that inclusion and equity are irrefutable truths and the responsibility all educators.

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