alternative education

Updated on October 17th, 2022

In the world of K-12 education, traditional public and private schools are the most commonly used approaches. However, those solutions aren’t necessarily right for every student or household. As a result, some parents embrace alternative education programs instead.

As with traditional schools, alternative education isn’t automatically best for all students. Additionally, there are multiple alternative school models, which may play a role in determining the ideal overall fit.

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If you’re curious about alternative education, here’s what you need to know about non-traditional schooling.


Traditional schools aren't the perfect for fit all students. If you’re curious about alternative education, here’s what you need to know.

In a broad sense, alternative education simply refers to non-traditional schooling. What is a non-traditional school? Essentially, it includes any form of alternative schooling outside of the classic public and private school options. They challenge educational norms, using potentially unconventional strategies to promote learning and growth.

Alternative schooling options exist at every level within the K-12 framework, ranging from alternative elementary schools to non-traditional high schools. As a result, there isn’t inherently a minimum age that students need to reach before these options end up on the table.

While these options may seem risky since they don’t always align with a typical educational flow, successful alternative education programs do allow students to meet various state standards regarding education. As a result, non-traditional schools can still allow students to receive high school diplomas (or the equivalent) and qualify for college admission.



Among the alternative education programs, the homeschooling route is one of the most widely used. With this strategy, parents assume the role of teacher. Some may follow a set curriculum while others use a framework-less approach, mainly using graduation requirements as the only guide.

While many homeschoolers learn, in an academic sense, solely in the presence of parents and siblings, that isn’t the only strategy. In some cases, several homeschooling households come together, allowing parents to support each other and students to benefit from a broader array of expertise.

Along with somewhat traditional learning, many homeschooled students regularly take part in educational activities outside of the home. While the closest example to the experience is field trips that commonly occur in traditional learning environments, the experience is typically more one-on-one than a conventional school can support.

high alternative education


From a curriculum standpoint, online-only alternative education programs often closely mimic traditional experiences. The curriculum is set by the institution, and classes are led by licensed teachers. The main difference is simply that students participate solely online instead of in a physical classroom.

The nature of online-only schooling can vary. Some programs are part of the local public school education system, so students proceed just as they would if they were attending classes at a brick-and-mortar school in that district. Others are operated privately, giving them space to deviate from educational norms, suggesting that they align with educational standards.

In some cases, online-only schools are used in conjunction with homeschooling led by parents. It gives them a supplement or allows the online experience to serve as the core learning experience, with alternative approaches acting as augmentation.

Usually, the biggest challenges of online-only education are social, as students aren’t engaging with one another in person. Technical issues can also stymy learning. Finally, online-only learning requires a lot of self-motivation and self-discipline, as there’s less oversight in many cases.


While not all private schools are faith-based, many do have religious components. With these, students get a near-traditional educational experience, though they also complete educational requirements relating to the faith associated with the school.

Generally, two types of parents turn to faith-based private schools for their students. Often, the largest portion of parents is those who also follow that particular faith. However, parents who want their students to explore various religious perspectives may enroll their students in different faith-based private schools over time, essentially broadening their exposure to different perspectives.


Montessori schools follow a non-traditional approach in a semi-traditional environment. Typically, there’s an emphasis on cooperation and collaboration, though it also focuses on self-reliance and building skills for future independence.

Customization is a common part of the approach, ensuring developmental stages are taken into account. It’s also highly exploratory, providing a degree of freedom.

One primary risk is that the term “Montessori” – while originally associated with the educational philosophies of Dr. Maria Montessori – is not trademarked. As a result, any school can claim to follow the concepts, essentially using the familiar word as justification for a high price tag even if the educational experience doesn’t align with the Montessori model.

Additionally, the educational approach relies far less on adults. As a result, students who need more support and guidance may struggle to adapt to it.

alternative elementary schools


Embracing the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, this alternative education approach focuses on the concept that there’s inherent goodness in people and their ability to transform themselves. Additionally, art is emphasized, nurturing creativity.

They also don’t rely on traditional grades, opting for more narrative review approaches. However, students do end up with a GPA, which can ease their transition into college.

However, this option can be challenging for parents, as significant parental involvement is expected. Additionally, it can be expensive.


While many people think of military school as a destination for unruly students who may need discipline, these educational alternatives can also work for a wide range of students. The academic experience is typically high-quality, and there’s an inherent sense of routine related with attendance. Plus, it may make some post-graduation opportunities easier to capture, particularly some relating to future military service.

Military schools also breed certain traits in many students. Respect, discipline, leadership, time management, and accountability are all major parts of the equation. There’s also a notable emphasis on physical fitness, with daily activities being the norm at every grade level.

However, the highly regimented approach and discipline-heavy environment can be challenging for students, particularly those who lean toward the creative side. Still, the experience can be worthwhile for some.


With worldschooling, the goal is to use experiential learning approaches while also traveling around the planet. It allows students to explore a range of cultures firsthand, giving them a clearer perspective on what life is like for others and unique chances to learn about history.

The worldschooling approach is typically coupled with another strategy. For example, it may be used with homeschooling or online-only schooling, ensuring students have a strong academic foundation that’s supplemented with global experiences. In others, parents may enroll students in a series of local schools, essentially signing them up for a new one with every move.

While a deeper understanding of the world around them is beneficial, worldschooling may also lead to less interaction with traditional teachers or peers, depending on the approach. There’s also an inherent lack of routine in many cases, and frequently relocating can make it hard for students to keep friends long-term or feel a sense of stability.

successful alternative education programs


Potentially the most controversial alternative education program is the concept of unschooling. With this, parents generally aim to shirk a traditional approach to learning entirely, focusing more on life experiences and forgoing any form of set curriculum.

In some cases, this approach can cultivate passions in students, as they can spend more of their time learning about their areas of interest. It encourages natural exploration, using a range of techniques to facilitate learning in an organic way.

Essentially, students are able to follow their interests, nearly without restriction, as well as forgo subjects that aren’t appealing. The resulting educational experience is ultimately haphazard, and many people have concerns that it leaves students ill-prepared academically.

Unschooling can cause a student to fall drastically behind their peers. Additionally, since unschooling often doesn’t involve traditional assignments, tests, or grades, it can make qualifying for a high school diploma tricky, if not impossible. However, students may learn enough to pass equivalency exams, depending on whether they cover the subjects during their education.


Alternative education programs can seem very appealing, but figuring out if they’re right for your student isn’t always easy. Generally, the first point parents should examine is how successful their student is – or would be – in a traditional environment. Some students may have unique needs that make a classic approach to education or a typical school a poor fit.

Additionally, it may be helpful to factor in a student’s talents and interests, along with general educational goals, both currently and in regard to the future. Many non-traditional schools support a transition to college later, while others can make it hard to qualify for higher education, so it’s critical to keep that in mind.

Finally, there are the financial and time commitment aspects of non-traditional schooling. Some come with high tuition rates or significant parent involvement. Whether either is practical will vary from one household to the next, so it’s crucial to make sure you include it in the equation.

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