Critical Ingredients for Building Effective Alternative Education Programs

Topics: Systems Change

“When students come to us from the main high school, it might look on the schedule like what they’re getting is similar to a traditional school, but the reality is that when you visit our classrooms, it’s almost like you’re seeing a one-room schoolhouse inside of each classroom,” said Robert Hatfield, Associate Principal of Success Academy in Milford, Ohio, when describing the way classroom learning is personalized to individual student needs.

Success Academy is one of five schools that are part of Alternative Pathways to Success (APS), a KnowledgeWorks grant-funded initiative to engage disconnected youth and help better prepare them for college, career and life through a more personalized, student-centered approach. APS is entering its third year – and the Success Academy of Milford Schools is helping to light the path with best practices and critical ingredients for building effective alternative programs for students.

Hatfield described lessons learned from the past few years of participating in professional development and activities associated with the Alternative Pathways cohort which have resulted in positive changes within his program. Among the changes Hatfield stresses as being really valuable in the way the Success Academy is structured, as compared to a more traditional school or even many alternative academies, are:

  • Student relationship-building so that communication between students and teachers and school leadership is effective and can help advance learning
  • Flexibility for students to own their learning through personalized learning experiences that meet their needs, while still helping them achieve mastery of the learning standards
  • Restorative justice practices which help create community and help students gain a sense of belonging and leadership

Among the examples Hatfield shared was of a junior-level math class where some students were on target taking junior math, but others were advanced doing senior-level work and others were catching up with freshman coursework.

“We have to be flexible with our students’ needs,” said Hatfield. “We’re asking our teaching staff to be advanced in what they are doing, helping all students achieve mastery, knowing that they are all at different places in their learning.”

“A strong staff has been essential to the work happening at the Success Academy. The staff must have the right balance of content expertise and the ability to form strong relationships with their students. If a teacher can build a strong rapport with their students, those students will do whatever is asked of them,” said Hatfield.

Many alternative schools, such as the Boston Day and Evening Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, take a restorative justice approach to school discipline. This means focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and the approach is working well at the Success Academy.

“We try to create an environment that is welcoming to students,” said Hatfield. “We try to coach people through behavior, and take into account the students’ backgrounds. By working with students and keeping them engaged, we’re seeing a stronger commitment from students. I think it’s because we’ve created a safe place and a sense of community for them.”

Director of Student Services, Jennie Berkley, said Mr. Hatfield’s leadership in the revision of the Milford Success Academy strongly supports the district’s goal and mission to transform an online learning environment to a blended learning environment with academic and social and emotional supports that re-engage off track high school students in preparing them for post-secondary success.

“Every day, we are celebrating new accomplishments of our students,” said Berkley, “Milford has been grateful for the opportunity to partner with KnowledgeWorks and look forward to continuing to expand our outreach for its students.”

The Ohio Department of Education is partnering with KnowledgeWorks to make the benefits of Alternative Pathways to Success, like what is happening at the Success Academy, available to more students and schools.