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  • August 2012
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Alternative Education

It’s just a fact that the traditional format of high school doesn’t work for some people. Or college, worthy as it is, doesn’t feel like a great fit (plus, the cost of college is rising rapidly, in case you hadn’t heard).

That doesn’t mean you should quit your education every time it feels challenging, but there are alternatives.  As the National Alternative Education Association’s website says:

“alternative schools, programs and classrooms are serving students who are not succeeding in the traditional educational setting.  Often this population of learners exhibits one or more of the following traits: under-performing academically, possessing learning disabilities, displaying emotional or behavioral issues, being deliberate or inadvertent victims of the behavioral problems of others, displaying a high risk of potential expulsion, suspension, or dropping out of school, and/or displaying the need for individualized instruction.  Alternative education offers innovative, non-traditional approaches to teaching this population of learners, which aides in preventing these students from becoming dropouts. “

High School:

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit runs Community Schools for students who need a smaller learning environment and more intensive counseling. Learn more here.

To read an overview of the need for forms of alternative education, go to this report done by The Urban Institute.

Education Revolution offers lists of Democratic, Montessori, Waldorf, and Public Alternative education, as well as homeschooling.

Speaking of democratic schools, the most riveting 16 minutes of radio time I’ve experienced was hearing the students of Brooklyn Free School make their own school rules in an episode of This American Life. The episode is called “Kid Politics” and you can download it for free.  Here’s their introduction to the story:

“What if you ran a school and you had the kids vote and decide on all the rules? They decide on all the discipline, decide which classes should be taught, what would happen if you don’t show up for class, can you nap in school. Not to be harsh, but what if the inmates ran the asylum?

Well, there’s a movement in alternative education called the free school movement. Typically there are no courses. Each kid studies what he or she wants independently. At The Brooklyn Free School, for instance, a teacher can offer a class, or the kids can vote for some class they want created. There are no tests, no homework, there aren’t even grade levels– you know, first grade, second grade, all that. And the kids decide everything about how the school is run.

If this sounds nuts, you should know that since The Brooklyn Free School was started seven years ago, nearly all its graduates have gone on to normal accredited colleges. We wanted to see what happens when the kids make all the decisions, so we headed over to The Brooklyn Free School.” (transcript)

lounge at the Inglenook Community High School in Canada. photo by flickr user cayoup

And finally, there’s a movement out there called Unschooling. Like at Brooklyn Free School, you can study whatever you want in Unschooling, but you do it at home, on your own time, through your own preferred structure.  It’s less structured than homeschooling, but still requires a portfolio to be turned in to state education authorities each year.  Families that choose unschooling say that they do it because they want their kids to have wider options in their learning and more opportunities to be responsible for themselves.

It also sounds like a path to education that requires a lot of open communication with your family and a lot of self-knowledge.

There are a bunch of websites out there to explain unschooling, including Unschoolers.com, a site to promote the movie called Unschooling, Radical Unschooling, and a Pennsylvania-based group-maintained site called Keystone State Radicals (membership must be vetted), as well as a Yahoo Group for PA Unschoolers.

If there are any homeschoolers and/or unschoolers reading this, I’d also like to say that we love to have you at the library!  Say hi to your Teen Services Librarian the next time you’re in the building.

Want to read more? Here is a list of books on unschooling compiled on Amazon.

At the library you can check out:

Real Lives: eleven teenagers who don’t go to school tell their own stories

The Teenage Liberation Handbook

The Teenagers’ Guide to School Outside the Box

Alternative Schools: A Reference Handbook


A college degree can give you a better chance in making more money and getting a better job in life. But it will also probably give you a lot of student debt, unless you can pay out of pocket or work the scholarship and grant route.  Some organizations are looking for an alternative to that debt.

Right here in Pittsburgh there’s a homegrown alternative to a private or public four-year college. It’s called Saxifrage School.  They’re just starting out, but part of their philosophy  is to

host a tight academic community that weaves into local organizations, creating a dynamic resource network that will serve students and neighbors alike.  Graduates of the Saxifrage School will leave as seasoned thinkers, skilled producers, engaged citizens, and social entrepreneurs.

They’re currently offering courses in Web Development, Carpentry, and Agriculture, and hosting talks every Tuesday.

Want to learn more about educating yourself and getting the most from your money in regards to college?

DIY U : edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education

But what if I don’t want to go to college? : a guide to success through alternative education

Whatever your educational path in life, it’s never too late to start learning.

-Tessa, CLP – East Liberty

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