Alternative high schools for at-risk students

Program basics

  • Alternative high school programs aim to increase the likelihood that students at risk of academic failure receive either a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) diploma.
  • Programs take many forms and may be delivered in schools or alternative community facilities affiliated with an accredited school.
  • Programs may have a single focus, such as mentoring, or they may include multiple services such as regular academic instruction, counseling, behavioral services, social skills and support, and career education.
  • Many school districts provide services in collaboration with the justice system, community mental health agencies, child protective services, substance use clinics, and crisis intervention centers.
  • Referrals to alternative schools are often based on recommendations from school staff; committees of teachers, administrators, and counselors; district-level administrators; or parent requests.

Strength of evidence

Evidence level: Proven (highest tier)


Proven (highest tier)

Ranked as having the highest level of evidence by County Health Rankings and Roadmaps

Target population

High school-aged children

Program cost

$1,700 to $12,900 per student

Implementation locations

  • Nationwide

Dates active

Not available

Outcomes and impact

  • Strong evidence of improved high school graduation rates
  • On average, improved graduation rates among high-risk students by 15.5 percent
  • Studies show that all types of prevention strategies have success in reducing school dropouts

Keys to successful implementation

  • Note: This content is under review
  • Track student progress through unified databases.
  • Improve teacher effectiveness by providing specialized training and professional development.
  • Prioritize physical space and sufficient staffing in order to allow for a larger student capacity.
  • Follow the models of charter schools, career-focused schools and dropout-recovery programs by providing small classes staffed by caring professionals and offering career counseling. These are more successful than alternative high schools that closely resemble highly disciplinary correctional programs.
  • Hold high academic standards for students and set clear learning goals.
  • Programs that foster a close internal community and connect with outside organizations and the local business community successfully give students a sense of safety and connection, and provide them with further opportunities.

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