What Do High Quality CBE Alternative Schools Look Like? 

by Chris Sturgis

Photo: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

This is an initial cut on this question. It’s a topic that hasn’t been adequately researched….yet. I’ll update as people share ideas and resources. Feel free to jump ahead to find a few promising practices and examples of competency-based alternative schools at the end. 

Every school that makes the multi-year transition to competency-based education has to think about the immediate demands of students and their family. High schools have greater time constraints given there are only 4 years remaining until graduation. Schools also have to manage worries from some parents that their children might not remain competitive for college admission. This is one of the reasons that the GPA is often the last piece of the traditional system to go (although thanks to the Mastery Transcript Collaborative more colleges are accepting alternatives.)

Alternative schools—serving students that have rejected the grade-driven comprehensive school, are under-credited, under-skilled or perhaps returning to school after an interruption—have even greater time constraints. Most districts offer a two year program although that seems somewhat arbitrary given where students are in their skill development, maturity and/or credits. Students of course have the hope of graduating on time or even sooner.  Although most states now count 5 and 6 year graduation rates, kids just want to cross the finish line as soon as they can and get on with their lives. Thus, acceleration is the name of the game in alternative schools. 

So how is an alternative school supposed to teach the mindsets and skills involved in student agency, rebuild the sense that students are learners after years and years of failure,  nurture lifelong learners, fill gaps, cultivate career goals, address mental health issues, and help students accumulate credits as quickly as possible? Oh and did I mention love the students, build vibrant relationships, and show up in all the ways a teen who has already been bumped around in life needs? 

The quality of alternative education varies. I’ve visited the most loving, high quality alternative schools, a few that have the coldness of prisons and I’ve seen cultures of love and respect in schools in detention centers. The instructional strategies and depth of knowledge varies as well ranging from worksheets to poetry. The primary focus tends to be on credit accumulation.  This is understandable given that it is driven by state graduation policies and determines if students will receive a diploma or not. The highest quality schools try to spark the belief of students that they are learners and the joy of learning. 

Promising Practices

It’s Different at This School: It starts with enrollment and orientation. Think about how you engage students from the first moment and introduce them to the school. Find out about their interests, hopes and dreams. Emphasize leadership development, teach about how the brain works and introduce them to the growth mindset, and have them experience some academic success with feedback and revision. Spark wonder and curiosity.

At Avanti High School, all new students take an orientation class that explores the question What is Education? It helps students to claim ownership of their learning. Unpacking how the traditional system ranks and sorts students can help students understand how systemic practices shaped their understanding of themselves, limiting opportunities for some while opening them for others.  

Express Yourself: Most students in alternative schools have had multiple years of terrible educational experiences. They experienced failure day after day, they were bullied, they were ignored. Neuroeducation research tells us that we all need to bring our whole selves to optimize learning. Schools need to create safe environments where the amygdala isn’t activated. Furthermore, teachers need to be able to build deep relationships with students so that students will take risks (and not feel judged) and contribute to intrinsic motivation. Thus, the more they know about students the better they can engage them in their learning. 

The arts are a fantastic way to create opportunities for students to express themselves. It can be integrated with all the academic content areas. BreakFree Education, dedicated to improving the quality of education in detention centers, uses poetry and music. Avanti uses the arts all the time, everywhere. One of my favorite projects was Where I’m From with student portraits (photos and drawings) posted above their poem.  

Using Time: The traditional high school schedule of 7 50-minute courses is slowly being replaced with 90-120 minute blocks that enable more high engagement instructional strategies such as interdisciplinary projects. Some schools run different shifts. When I visited ACE Leadership in Albuquerque they had a shift that started in the morning that ran until mid-afternoon and another one starting at 4 pm for students with jobs or health care issues that made early morning challenging. Avanti runs a morning 3 period shift for early birds and a post-lunch shift for the night owls. They dedicate every Friday to extra instructional support mixed with a variety of high interest activities such as a social justice institute. My guess is that we’ll see lots of other scheduling innovations such as Generation Schools that broke the assumption that students and teachers all had to be on the same annual schedule and Flex-Mod

Plus Years: Do students that need more time to build skills and maturity have to graduate after 4 years of high school? Graduation is an important developmental benchmark but most states have expanded policy for additional years of education. Washington measures 4, 5, 6 and 7 year graduation rates. Most students want to get out of school as fast as they can but what if alternative school offered them something really valuable? 

One idea is to create progressions in the school model with a Foundation phase and a Plus phase. They aren’t time-based. Students move from the Foundation to Plus phase based on their demonstrating a mix of behaviors, skills and credits. The Plus phase includes taking a college level course, work experience (paid or internship), and other developmental experiences such as service learning or visiting a place they’ve never been. 

The key is that state policy has to be interpreted that students don’t have to graduate with the completion of time-based course credits (which do not tell us anything about what students know and can do), just that they can. Perhaps as state portraits of the graduate are operationalized they will 

Examples of CBE Alternative Schools

What makes an alternative school? It’s not just an alternative to a comprehensive high school. Those tend to be considered options for students transitioning from 8th grade. State and district policy has a lot to do with what is considered an alternative school. For example, Washington defines Alternative Learning Experiences based on the type of schedule and ability to individualize instruction. 

I personally use an expanded definition that includes any school that enrolls students regardless of their previous educational experience. Students might have been bullied, pushed out, dropped out, never fully taught the literacy/numeracy basics, work or have outside passions such as competing in rodeos that challenge attendance policies. They tend to have flexibility built into their schools to accommodate a variety of life and educational experiences, interests and needs that can inform both comprehensive high schools and alternative schools. There aren’t many of them that I know of so for right now I’m just going to refer to them as inclusive schools. 

Two schools I’ve visited are regular 4 year high schools that have built in instructional and scheduling strategies. 

  • Future Focused Education has a very strong project-based learning approach and ways of engaging with the community that brings in rich resources for students. Ask about schools that have dual schedules and focus on the one for students that have work or other responsibilities (it’s more similar to alternative school). 
  • Building 21 focuses on growth as well as meeting performance standards enabling students that are on accelerated pathways to get credits even if they aren’t performing at high school levels yet. Thus, they are not penalized for the failure of the educational system to respond to their needs earlier.

Below are descriptions and/or links to alternative schools that have developed cbe models at one point in time. However, as is too-often the case, innovative models often disappear because they don’t have the weight of the education system to support them. However, I think each of these models offer invaluable insights to alternative schools transitioning to competency-based learning. 

  • Boston Day and Evening Academy is a long-standing school that became CBE 15+ years ago. You can read about their model at CompetencyWorks at Aurora Institute and Education Reimagined
  • North Bronx Community High School was thinking about how Bloom’s taxonomy might be helpful in strengthening the pedagogical strategy of the school. Too often alternative schools focus on comprehension when stronger engagement strategies call for higher levels of learning.
  • Bronx Arena is a highly individualized approach with a strong focus on credit accumulation than learning. They challenge the assumption that students have to move from classroom to classroom by inverting the model so teachers move to where students need their support.
  • Diploma Plus was the first competency-based school I ever visited. Although the Diploma Plus network is substantially smaller than it once was, the information about the model may be helpful. One of the founders of DiplomaPlus created a second iteration called Schools for the Future that is no longer in operation.

Below are alternative schools that I’ve visited years ago but I’m not sure they are still using CBE approaches (D51 called it performance-based and Idaho calls it mastery):

  • R5 High School in Grand Junction has had a superintendent and principal change that has led to CBE dropping off the agenda. I include it here as it was a very high quality alternative school when I visited and I think it might be inspirational for others about what an alternative school can be when fully supported by the district.  You can read about R5 at CompetencyWorks blog.  
  • Initial Point was just starting the transition to MBL when I visited. They were focusing on deepening the curriculum with support from reDesign

This article was sparked by school visits as part of the Washington Mastery-Based Learning Collaborative.


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