Back to
Experiential Learning

Adventure Therapy

Problems with Alternative Schools

James Neill
Last updated:
06 Oct 2004

  • The quality of an alternative school consists of two main components:

    • the program (i.e., the school climate, curriculum, including the school location, the activities, etc.), and b)

    • the staff (i.e., the teachers, the administrative staff etc).  Thus three main categories of problems can occur

  • Sometimes there are good curricula, but poor implementation; other times there are great teachers in poor working environments.  There are some alternative schools with excellent staff and a well-designed curriculum; and in the alternative systems of most concern are poor teachers, with poor curriculum.

  • More so than in mainstream education, there area a wide variety in the quality of alternative schools - e.g., Montessori, Steiner, Charter Schools, Schools for Troubled Youth, Outdoor Education.  Some programs are fantastic, many are OK, and some have significant problems.

  • Look for evidence of the degree of match between the stated mission and goals and the actual curriculum/practice - because there is little standardization across alternative schools, be aware that actual program content varies considerably.

  • Look for evidence of evaluation and research outcomes.  A good quality alternative school that has been around for more than 5 years should be able to present hard evidence of its short and long-term effects on students.

  • What are the qualifications of the directing staff and the instructing staff?  The qualifications and past work history of the staff will provide a good indication of the likely emphases and focus of the program.

  • How are the staff recruited and trained?

  • Is the school accredited with appropriate state or national bodies?

  • If possible, visit the school or a presentation by staff from the school.  Be aware of over-relying on printed brochures or the internet for developing a picture of the actual practice of a school.

  • Consider whether an alternative school is likely to help any particular child to best fulfill his or her potential.

  • Check the schools' annual report.  Read between the lines and it can help you to form an impression of the overall health of the school administratively.  If they have financial problems, be aware that they are likely to be trying to get more students through the door, so they may be less selective.  Struggling programs often take on more difficult students than they are actually capable of providing good education for.

  • If you are looking for an alternative school or residential educational place then read over Lon Woodbury's "Struggling Teens" site - it is packed with over 15 years of his advice as an educational consultant.

  • If you are looking at a therapeutic outdoor program, read Michael Connor's advice for parents via his www.wildernesstherapy.org site.

  • If you are looking for advice about what makes a quality camp, I recommend Randall Grayson's "Vision Realization" site.