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Ask a REL Response

Programs and Strategies in Alternative High Schools — June 2020


Could you provide research on evidence-based school improvement programs, strategies, or interventions in alternative high school settings?


Following an established REL West research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and resources related to school improvement programs, strategies, or interventions in alternative high school settings. The sources included ERIC, Google Scholar, and PsychInfo. (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched for references through the most commonly used sources of research, but the list is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. Access to the full articles is free unless indicated otherwise.

Research References

Burkholder, S. M., & Merritt, M. (2007, Spring). Achieving student success in a regional public alternative school setting through a consequence-based model. Forum on Public Policy Online, 2007(2). Full text available from

From the abstract: “Genesis Alternative School is a regional, public alternative school setting for middle and high school students from four participating school divisions. It serves 1 rural county school division and 3 small city school divisions. Students are placed at Genesis for disciplinary reasons. Genesis is unique among alternative schools in Virginia because of the nature of its therapeutic program (a project director with a school psychology background and a full time clinical psychologist), the variety of outcome options for students (regular education credits, special education diplomas, GED program, cooperative vocational training at a nearby facility, work-release program), and the staff training model (consensus decision-making, extensive psychological staff training). This program has worked with over 1000 students over the past 10 years with 62 seniors completing their high school experience at Genesis with a high school diploma. An additional 75 students have earned their GED while enrolled. This is a dynamic, ‘in-the-moment’ program which directly addresses social decision-making, personal responsibility for choices and consequences, as well as academic preparation for program completion.”

Farkas, M. S., Simonsen, B., Migdole, S., Donovan, M. E., Clemens, K., & Cicchese, V. (2012). Schoolwide positive behavior support in an alternative school setting: An evaluation of fidelity, outcomes, and social validity of Tier 1 implementation. Journal of Emotional & Behavioral Disorders, 20(4), 275–288. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “The paucity of research investigating the effectiveness of universal behavioral strategies for supporting students in alternative educational settings is of great concern. However, a growing literature base supporting schoolwide positive behavioral support interventions (SWPBS) has been encouraging. This program evaluation provides additional support for this literature, indicating a positive impact of SWPBS Tier 1 implementation on key student outcome measures in a school serving students in Grades 5-12 identified with emotional disturbance or as otherwise health impaired. In addition, this program evaluation includes measures and positive findings for both (a) implementation fidelity and (b) social validity in this alternative school setting.”

Jolivette, K., McDaniel, S. C., Sprague, J., Swain-Bradway, J., & Ennis, R. P. (2012). Embedding the positive behavioral interventions and supports framework into the complex array of practices within alternative education settings: A decision making process. Assessment for Effective Intervention, 38, 15–29. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Alternative education (AE) programs and schools usually serve distinct populations of students with educational disabilities and mental health or other needs. AE program staff often employ a range of curricula, interventions, and strategies that form an eclectic approach to addressing student needs. This may result in practices that are misaligned, contraindicated, or improperly implemented and lead to poor outcomes. In addition, this eclectic approach may not be implemented in an organized, tiered manner that ensures all students’ access to a continuum of supports and services. In this article, a decision-making process for staff in AE settings to adopt and embed positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) practices is presented. This process is rooted in the PBIS framework of systems, data, and practices, and in a public health model of team-based decision making. The authors submit that this approach could be used across a variety of AE program models.”

McDaniel, S. C., Flower, A., & Cheney, D. (2011). Put me in coach! A powerful and efficient Tier 2 behavioral intervention for alternative settings. Beyond Behavior, 20, 18–24. Full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “The article discusses Check, Connect, and Expect (CCE), a Tier 2 behavioral intervention designed to improve behavior by providing students with comprehensive support from a full-time coach. It presents simple CCE implementation steps including building and maintaining an effective discipline plan, securing funding for hiring and training the CCE coach, and determining which students require secondary-tier CCE. The top unique alternative setting considerations are also included.”

Quinn, M. M., Poirier, J. M., Faller, S. E., Gable, R. A., & Tonelson, S. W. (2006). An examination of school climate in effective alternative programs. Preventing School Failure, 51, 11–17. Abstract available from and full text available from

From the abstract: “The alternative education field lacks a common definition and has a major divide between the differing philosophies of alternative programs; little empirical evidence is available to identify the components necessary to create effective alternative educational programs. Tremendous growth in the availability of alternative programs in the United States over the past several decades, however, illustrates continuing demand for such programs as well as the need for research on the characteristics that constitute effective alternative programs. In this article, the authors study exemplary alternative programs in 3 racially and economically diverse communities to characterize the school climate as viewed by the students and the staff. At this relatively early stage in the field of alternative education, it is essential to examine the similarities, as well as any differences, in the social climate of highly effective alternative programs and to consider their potential relationship with student academic and behavioral success. Furthermore, it is important to recognize how these findings might be one foundation for future inquiry and research on alternative education.”

Simonsen, B., Britton, L., & Young, D. (2010). School-wide positive behavior support in an alternative school setting. A case study. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 12, 180–191. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Students with disabilities who display serious (e.g., dangerous) problem behaviors are frequently educated in alternative school settings. Although there is considerable research on intervention approaches (e.g., function-based support) to support individual students with challenging behaviors, there is a lack of research on schoolwide intervention approaches to support all students in alternative school settings. A 3-year, descriptive, single-subject case study (AB design) was conducted to examine the impact of introducing School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) into an alternative education setting. Results indicate that introducing SWPBS is associated with an overall decrease in serious incidents and an increase in the percentage of students who refrain from serious physical aggression. The limitations and implications of this study are described.”

Simonsen, B., Jeffrey-Pearsal, J., Sugai, G., & McCurdy, B. (2011). Alternative setting-wide positive behavior support. Behavioral Disorders, 36(4), 213–224. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “School-wide positive behavior support (SWPBS) has an established evidence base in general education settings, and emerging evidence suggests that SWPBS may be effective in alternative settings (e.g., alternative, residential, or hospital schools; psychiatric hospitals). Given the intense educational and behavioral needs of students typically served in these settings, the critical features of SWPBS (i.e., outcomes, data, practices, and systems) need to be intensified across the implementation continuum (e.g., three tiers) of support. In this article, we document common features of alternative settings and suggest strategies to modify, enhance, and extend the existing practices, structures, and processes in SWPBS to fit alternative settings.”

Simonsen, B., & Sugai, G. (2013). PBIS in alternative education settings: Positive support for youth with high-risk behavior. Education and Treatment of Children, 36, 3–14. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “Many public schools are experiencing improved student, staff, and school outcomes with the adoption of a positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) framework, which organizes evidence-based practices into an integrated continuum of supports. Although alternative programs are often more restrictive and specialized because of the intensified needs of their youth, they share instructional, behavioral, and organizational characteristics with public schools. The purpose of this article is to describe how the similar challenges and characteristics of alternative and public schools support the use of a PBIS framework as a means to support the needs of youth who display high-risk behavior.”

Skiba, R., & Sprague, J. (2008). Safety without suspensions. Educational Leadership, 66(1), 38–43. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Many schools favor School-wide Positive Behavior Support over suspensions and expulsions. Research indicates that suspensions and expulsions can produce poor outcomes and are inconsistently and unfairly applied. The alternative School-wide Positive Behavior Support approach has three interlinking elements: prevention, multi-tiered support, and data-based decision making. More than 6,000 schools nationwide using this approach report reduced problem behaviors, improved academic outcomes, and better perceptions of school safety.”

Southeast Comprehensive Center. (2015). Descriptions of state-developed alternative intervention models for School Improvement Grants in Colorado, Minnesota, New York, Rhode Island, and Texas. American Institutes for Research. Full text available from

From the abstract: “A state education agency (SEA) served by the Southeast Comprehensive Center (SECC) has requested information regarding state-developed (also referred to as state-determined) alternative models for schools receiving School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds. The state-determined school improvement model (one of three new models) offers an alternative to the prior version of SIG, which included four intervention models (U.S. Department of Education, 2015, February 9). Consequently, this report focuses on state-developed alternative intervention models that are being offered in five states and is organized into the following sections: (1) Procedure; (2) General Limitations; (3) Overview; (4) States’ Demographics and Their State-Developed Alternative Intervention SIG Models; (5) Conclusion; and (6) References.”

Whitcomb, S. A., Hefter, S., & Barker, E. (2016). Providing behavioral feedback to students in an alternative high school setting. Intervention in School & Clinic, 52(1), 25–28. Abstract available from and full text available for a fee from

From the abstract: “This column provides an example method for improving the consistency and quality of daily behavioral feedback provided to students in an alternative high school setting. Often, homeroom or advisory periods are prime points in the day for students to review their behavior from the previous day and set goals for a successful day to come. The method described outlines a planning process and strategy for building teams and teachers to use to establish a behavioral feedback routine, and a case example of the implementation of the routine.”

Wisner, B., & Norton, C. (2013). Capitalizing on behavioral and emotional strengths of alternative high school students through group counseling to promote mindfulness skills. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 38(3), 207–224. Full text available from

From the abstract: “Alternative high school students are at risk of negative social, emotional, and academic outcomes. School-based group counseling is often implemented by mental health professionals to address these risk factors. This study explores benefits of school-based group counseling utilizing mindfulness meditation to help students improve functioning. Participants included 28 students (12 boys and 16 girls). In a pre-post test design, student strengths showed significant increases following the intervention, as evidenced by scores on the Behavioral and Emotional Rating Scale–2/Teacher Rating Scale. Findings indicate that application of mindfulness meditation in a school-based counseling group has the potential to help students enhance strengths.”

Additional Organization to Consult

National Dropout Prevention Center –

From the website: “The mission of the National Dropout Prevention Center is to increase graduation rates through research and evidence-based solutions. Since inception, the National Dropout Prevention Center has worked to improve opportunities for all young people to fully develop the academic, social, work, and healthy life skills needed to graduate from high school and lead productive lives. By promoting awareness of successful programs and policies related to dropout prevention, the work of the Center and its members has made an impact on education from the local to the national level.”

REL West note: National Dropout Prevention Center has two resources that are relevant to this request:

Gailer, J., Addis, S., & Dunlap, L. (2018). Improving school outcomes for trauma-impacted students. National Dropout Prevention Center. Full text available from

National Dropout Prevention Center. (2020). Effective strategies for alternative school improvement. A practice guide by the National Dropout Prevention Center. Full text available from


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used:

[“school improvement” AND (programs OR strategies OR interventions) AND “alternative schools” AND (“high school” OR “secondary education” OR “grade 9-12”) AND (research OR “evidence-based”]

Databases and Resources

We searched Google Scholar and ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When searching and selecting resources to include, we consider the criteria listed below.

  • Date of the Publication: References and resources published within the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations and academic databases. Priority is also given to sources that provide free access to the full article.
  • Methodology: Priority is given to the most rigorous study designs, such as randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental designs, and we may also include descriptive data analyses, survey results, mixed-methods studies, literature reviews, or meta-analyses. Other considerations include the target population and sample, including their relevance to the question, generalizability, and general quality. Priority is given to publications that are peer-reviewed journal articles or reports reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations. If there are many research reports available, we select those with the strongest methodology, or the most recent of similar reports. When there are fewer resources available, we may include a broader range of information. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the West Region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012, administered by WestEd. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.