Many marginalized youths are disconnected from traditional education due to complex problems and education inequities. These youths often experience poor grades, lack of attendance, disruptive behaviors, and teen pregnancy, and enroll in alternative high schools housed in public school districts to complete high school education. Despite the rapid growth in independent alternative high schools, there is a significant gap in the literature to offer any scientific study into the characteristics and services provided. The present scoping review aimed to address this research gap by answering the following questions: (1) What are the demographic characteristics of the students who attend alternative high schools, including racial/ethnical composition and socioeconomic status? (2) How have changes in school district boundaries affected the development of freestanding alternative high schools in the past two decades? (3) What multi-tiered school social services have been offered to meet the high needs of these vulnerable youths?
Following the PRISMA Guidelines, we systematically searched databases, including ERIC, Education Source, Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection, APA PsycINFO, SocINDEX with Full Text, and Academic Search Complete, dated between 2001 to 2021. Together with the grey literature, the search rendered over 23,400,000 results. 844 articles were included moving forward to the full-text screening. 114 articles remained as the final data analysis sample.
Most school districts assessed in the studies hosted alternative high schools located in urban areas (52.6%) and had one dominant racial group: Black, Latino, or White (58.33%). Slightly over half (54.55%) of the student body enrolled in alternative high schools were BIPOC students, whereas district-level data indicated the main student body of the school districts was White. The age range of the student samples was 14-29 years old. About one-fourth of the students identified as receiving free/reduced lunch; almost half of the students (43.75%) came from low-income households. As for the district’s major changes, poverty or loss of economic opportunity (34.48%) was the most highlighted. Other changes reported by the authors included violence (government violence, police violence, community violence, gun violence, etc.) (10.34%), increase or loss of student population (3.45%), staff turnover (3.45%), change in student population demographics (3.45%), and increase in charter schools (3.45%). Most programs focus on graduation and academic recovery. Almost one-tenth were therapeutic settings (9.62%), and 42.31% were a free combination of academic recovery, discipline-oriented, and behavioral health therapy. In terms of social services, 36.84% of the studies reported that the schools offered Tier-I interventions such as students’ sports clubs, student government, restorative justice programs, mental health services, career consultations, and community internships.
Conclusions and Implications
Findings from this review demonstrate potential inequities in education within alternative schools and a need to increase social services. This review also showed that alternative schools provide a minimum of educational and social services even though their student populations are often identified as having disciplinary and behavioral health issues. Future research needs to examine further the function of alternative schools and the critical social services that provide educational equity to these students.