Are Alternative Schools Worsening Inequity?

Are Alternative Schools Worsening Inequity?

By Javier Guzman | Regional Director, Big Picture Learning | February 21, 2019

"In the end, the student graduates—but after having so few opportunities for deep learning, what is the real value of that diploma?"
"In the end, the student graduates—but after having so few opportunities for deep learning, what is the real value of that diploma?"
"In the end, the student graduates—but after having so few opportunities for deep learning, what is the real value of that diploma?"

If you want to find the most glaring inequities in our country’s educational system, visit an alternative education school or program. For various reasons, it is largely where inequity is allowed to fester. Many state and local metrics don’t even count alternative education in graduation statistics. The marginalized are pushed farther out and become invisible.

The typical students that attend such programs are usually defined by deficits: poor academic performance, irregular attendance, disengagement, disciplinary histories, and challenging life circumstances that impact their grades. Rarely are they offered opportunities to engage in deep learning and transformative experiences. Rarely are they supported in cultivating their own talents and interests. And rarely are those talents used as building blocks for a more personal and humane educational program. Tragically, alternative high schools are often designed solely around the acquisition of credits, rather than real-world skill building and preparation for post-secondary life.

Reports from the ground

I recently led a three-hour session with alternative education leaders from across the country where we began by asking: “Is inequity in alternative education a real thing?” These educators found that the pathways are rigid, the curriculum is inflexible, cultivating and supporting students’ interests are not priorities - and despite the alternative approach, many still conform to the four-year graduation timeline that doesn’t serve students with complicated lives. These schools often have a high concentration of students with trauma and ACEs, but lack adequate mental health support and trauma-informed competencies and disciplinary approaches. Not to mention the social stigma of “alternative” schools and the low expectations that are allowed to persist.The prevailing design punishes students for having volatile lives by offering an inferior education.

In the end, the student graduates—but after having so few opportunities for deep learning, what is the real value of that diploma, which provides a distorted sense of preparation?

The alternatives for alternatives

Instead, what if alternative schools were personalized to each learner? What if they had built-in internship opportunities, experiential learning, and community partnerships? What if the students were judged authentically, with assessments that measured the depth of their actual learning and competencies, and demanded rigorous presentations through dissertation-like defenses?  

Several communities of practice have emerged—and they’re doing just that. In California, schools such as John J. Cairns in Lindsay, North Bay Met in Windsor, Highland Park High School in Los Angeles, Confluence High School in Auburn, South Valley High in Ukiah, academy in Manteca and many others have redesigned their schools to include learning through interests/internships, project-based learning that allow for deep dives into topics, presentations of learning, and a focus on social-emotional learning. In Washington, my colleagues are leading important work on credit and seat-time waivers that create the space for real learning to take place. It is bold work—if we don’t have to contend with credits, then what is schooling? These schools and districts are challenging the established norm and those long-held practices.

As Future Focused Education says, it is clear that the most underserved students deserve our best ideas. The reason is simple—our future depends on it. To go with these instructional shifts is something more fundamental—a deep belief in the enormous potential of every student.

In order to combat social injustice, we must move from content-centered to student-centered alternative education models. All students have talents. The more we listen to them, the clearer it becomes that schools need to be redesigned. And we’re at a point where we can quickly act on this knowledge.

Javier Guzman is the regional director of Big Picture Learning, a nonprofit dedicated to a fundamental redesign of education through innovative, personalized learning environments that work in tandem with real-world communities.



  1. Javier,

    I totally have been living this type of experience more that 20+ years. The type of training I do includes cognitive thinking approaches, understanding students basic needs and how to manage a classroom of students without coercion and trauma-informed practices.

    Recently, at Big Picture Fresno, the school I founded, a few of the teachers and myself have been implementing the training you spoke of in your article. The positive results for any kind of student can be met when teachers are not only informed, but learn how to practice new skill sets that are never covered in traditional teacher education programs.

    I’m on board and willing to assist in any way I can.

    Great article!!

  2. I think many continuation high schools have realized that the old model does not work. At Phoenix High School and ATLAS Learning Academy in Lincoln, CA we have been using this type of learning along with many other outside the box ideas for students to learn, feel valued and graduate. Check us out on Instagram at outpost_6 and atlas_learning_academy and online at!

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