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Exploring Alternative Teaching and Reform

Many parents are now enrolling their children into alternative learning programs and classes that go beyond the traditional boundaries of their public school districts. Keeping up with this trend, more and more schools are electing to offer such programs.

In this piece, EdWorld explores schools, programs and classes designed as an alternative – and sometimes addition to –  traditional learning within public school systems.


A recent article featured in MindShift covered the idea of unschooling, a subset of home schooling that might lack a formal curriculum, but is driven by student interest.

This alternative learning path is often supported by a variety of EdTech, including game-based apps. Filament Games produces such educational games, many of which are tailored to individualized learning paths, especially those that are STEM-orientated.

“Our games have been used by 100s of schools. Each of those schools offers a unique perspective on implementation, and we are consistently thrilled and surprised by the inventive ways our games are used by savvy educators. One example is our friend Michele Huppert, a Wisconsin science teacher who incorporated our game Backyard Engineers into her project-based science, technology, reading, engineering, art and math (STREAM) class of 7th graders, collaborating with art and technology teachers to combine the game experience with physical, hands-on activities like creating their own catapult kits,” said Dan Norton, founding partner and CCO at Filament Games. “Other teachers have included our games in Makerspaces and personalized learning environments because the content is particularly applicable to project-based and self-guided styles of learning.”

In these situations, students direct their own curricula under guidance and supervision or educators; meeting testing standards and other requirements alike. The controversy is inherent to the concept, as many educators feel that students will miss necessary foundations that are offered through the traditional K-12 system. Others, however, see benefits to the method.

One unschooling network, Big Picture Learning, boasts schools that are often above district averages on state tests. Accountability is key in keeping these schools afloat, with tech departments typically acting as a nucleus for administrators and a pathway to data for outside measurements from third parties.

“We work with a number of private schools, charter schools, and also some tech schools that specialize in field training programs that work in conjunction with traditional public schools. No two districts are exactly alike; they all have slightly different goals,” said Tom King, EdTech expert and regional sales manager for Skyward. “But whether a district is public, private, or charter…tailoring a solution that begins with implementation and evolves along with them [is paramount].”

Within the approach, college-level accountability is instilled into the Big Picture Learning network. Centered on learning communities averaging about 150 kids (either at school size or within lager school populations divided into smaller communities), many of the classes are focused on student interests and offered at area community colleges, says MindShift.

According to the article, each student has a teacher adviser, with each advisor assigned to 15-20 students. Advisers keep state standards in mind while student interests evolve, and they get to know student families while they assist in developing quarterly goals that cover both academics and personal strengths. Advisers also help students explore other opportunities, such as internships.

The Big Picture Learning network has 55 schools in the United States, with most of those being traditional in-district public schools, the article states, with almost 25 percent being public charter schools. Nearly all of them serve striving districts, most of them in needy communities. Many students – more than half – don’t speak English as a first language. Almost 20 percent of them have special needs, and nearly all of the students – between 62 and 74 percent – are low income, said the article, citing a longitudinal study of 23 of Big Picture’s U.S. schools.

With the right tools and support, students in these communities are thriving within alternative learning programs, many of which offer attention and tools that other schools at the public level aren’t.

Restoring the Arts

Other forms of alternative learning aren’t replacing traditional public schools, but rather aiding them.

Teresa Graham Sullivan, founding executive director of Connecticut Academy for the Arts, believes that art is a cornerstone of K-12 education, and told EdWorld that this type of valuable expression may be lost if more action isn’t taken.

“The future of education is really having a creative element,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan co-founded the school with her husband John six years ago as a nonprofit with the goal of being a “right arm to the public school system, because we realized with the budget cuts that most of the creativity is being cut from school curriculum.”

They aim to supplement those cuts.

The organization partners with area communities and schools throughout Connecticut, utilizing career-based technologies to both teach and inspire through art. Through a visually rich environment, including art exhibits and lectures, CAFTA exposes K-12 students to careers as artists and designers in a variety of fields.

“We teach individually to students. We do not teach for testing. We do not teach, especially in visual arts, that all people think alike or create alike. Every program is based on each individual student. We keep small classes. We try to keep the ratio of six students to one teacher. No more than that, sometimes even less than that,” said Sullivan.

One of CAFTA’s standards is asking children what their dream job is, and then trying to fulfill that training. Most times, according to Sullivan, students take an entrepreneurial approach and want to start companies. She said that students often act as if they’re executives in a boardroom after the pursuit of an interest begins.

“We say ‘Wow, you’re having a good idea. That’s interesting. Let’s listen.’ Then we evaluate. Then we have critical thinking. We talk about it amongst ourselves. We let the students say ‘Is this a good idea? What’s the criteria for this idea being a good idea?’ and if you have a good idea [the class] gets behind it,” said Sullivan. “If it’s not a good idea, we figure out how we can make the idea better.”

They also tap into core industries within the art world to foster positive relationships between students and business organizations, and their guidance continues through former students’ professional careers.

Their digital media program, for instance, incorporates film and visual arts within project-based learning, and has proven to be quite popular. Sullivan highlighted that family members are often brought into a student’s filmmaking process, which also offers the additional element of sibling and parental participation. Some students even have pages on IMBD after their experience with CAFTA.

Located in downtown Torrington, the organization is spread through 21 Towns in the state, as well as Massachusetts and New York.

Career and Technical Education

While CAFTA is a supplement to regular public school programs, it echoes some of the strategies that make up the foundation of the unschooling movement. It also shares many traits of Career and Technical Education programs.

Known by their abbreviation CTE, these classes help students pursue specialized careers as they learn the job’s technical elements while gaining experience to help them become better acquainted with that area of interest.

Jeff Lansdell, president of CEV Multimedia, a curriculum and resource provider for CTE subject areas, sees students finding great success through learning goals directed toward particular career paths. 

“Studies show that students who participate in these CTE-affiliated organizations not only experience higher academic engagement and college aspirations, but they are also more likely to develop problem-solving, time-management, and project-completion skills,” Lansdell told EdWorld.

Like the other forms of alternative teaching, CTEs are also showing positive results in underserved areas.

“Just one CTE class for every two academic classes minimizes the risk of dropout rates among high school students. Beyond the classroom, CTE allows students to connect with educators and professionals through formal and informal mentorship programs. Establishing these relationships helps students envision a career trajectory and offers a greater sense of community, resulting in increased engagement,” said Lansdell.

A designated CTE pathway allows students to partner with businesses for direct on-the-job training, leading to high-skills instruction in high-demand jobs, Lansdell highlighted.

“To offer the training needed for these high-demand jobs, high school CTE programs further help advance student training by adopting digital platforms, like iCEV, to offer industry-backed certifications that not only increase an educator’s ability to train their students, but also offer a competitive edge when students search for a career,” said Lansdell. “With this specialized training and certifications, students can fill critical roles in today’s fastest growing industries. Students with a CTE-related degree or certification can earn up to $20,000 more per year than those without career and technical training. These high-demand, high-wage jobs can be found across the country, in a wide variety of industries, such as health care, engineering, and information technology.”

There’s also accessibility within CTEs, as they don’t limit students to one set of skills like their predecessor, vocational schools.

“For decades, ‘vocational’ education prepared students for a newly industrialized workplace by training them in a specific occupational skill set. Today, career and technical education, or CTE, though different in nature, is even more important. These training opportunities are generally open to all students, regardless of their career interests,” said Lansdell. “Additionally, these programs help train skilled workers who are essential in today’s high-growth industries. As technically skilled jobs become some of the hardest to fill in the U.S., schools around the country are turning to technical training to help train students for their future careers.”

According to Lansdell, districts in Texas are using CTEs to meet requirements for House Bill 5, which has students choose an endorsement area of study before entering high school. Florida also has a statewide planning partnership between businesses and education communities through the Career and Professional Education Act. California, Kansas, Alabama, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, and Arizona also have CTE programs within their K–12 curricula.

Military Academies

Some students crave structure while wanting to remain academically rigorous in core subjects. If private, boarding, or religious schooling interests parents and students, then a military academy might also be a suitable option.

An article promoting military academies for high school students on sates that “most people don’t give military academies much thought when making plans for their children’s high school education,” and enrollment rates certainly confirm it.

The article argues that families should reconsider, especially if some form of private high school was already in the cards for the student.

“Military academies provide excellent preparation for college. High school students graduating from Wentworth Military Academy and College, located in Lexington, Missouri, have a ninety-five percent college acceptance rate… Hargrave Military Academy, located in Chatham, Virginia, enjoyed a ninety-nine percent college acceptance rate from 2003 to 2011 and average SAT scores in the 1500’s,” says the article.

The option of a military academy shouldn’t be considered for children that need additional help meeting their learning objectives.

“Military based schools for troubled children differ from military academies, which are college prep schools for motivated students. Military academies are not a good fit for troubled children because they don’t provide psychological or behavioral therapy for kids, according to The Aspen Education Group, a national provider of education and therapy for children with academic, behavioral, emotional or substance abuse problems,” the article reads. “According to Aspen, sending a challenged kid to a military academy is like putting a bandage on a struggling child’s problems. The discipline at the academy might help the child for a while, but eventually, without therapy, the child’s problems will resurface. Well-adjusted, motivated children who enjoy a structured environment are the best fit for military academies, the Aspen Education Group explains.”


Article by Jason Papallo, Education World Social Media Editor

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