Alternative education is a growing need among at-risk youth. This is a dynamic field that continues to grow as parents, educators, administrators, and other youth-centered professionals recognize the need to provide effective and high-quality education beyond the traditional classroom.

I want to introduce you to Wanda Routier, the program director for our graduate special education and alternative education programs. She shares her expertise in both areas, and highlights the features of alternative education that can create successful outcomes for those that do not fit in the traditional educational system.

Understanding at-risk students

At-risk individuals have needs that are not met in the average school, home, or community environment. These needs range from learning, mental health, physical, psychological, behavioral, emotional, or others. They are present regardless of race, gender, socio-economic level, family situation or other factors. A student can be at-risk at any time due to environmental factors, trauma, or other circumstances beyond their control. The average structured school setting can be a difficult experience for these individuals

Many students who have been identified as being at-risk also have undiagnosed disabilities or other conditions. These challenges impair their ability to achieve in the traditional classroom, which lacks the necessary resources to meet those needs. The at-risk student population can also include individuals of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These individuals may require alternative education for the short-term or possibly a longer duration.

Regardless of the challenges, it is essential to help these students feel safe and connected to others who care, so they can be empowered to believe in and work to their full potential.

Why develop alternative education in schools and other youth focused communities?

Alternative education should be provided at all levels of education, because early intervention can largely influence student success. It also helps reduce more severe difficulties in high school. A flexible program that is student-centered will help students get back on track, prepare them for adult life, and help them graduate high school. Individualized instruction in an alternative setting is important because each student has different needs and reasons for the challenges they are facing. 

Alternative education programs are more essential than ever to help students find their way to becoming productive citizens and adults. Working in alternative education goes beyond classroom learning. It means teaching life lessons and personal strategies that help students identify issues, take on challenges, and cope with the wins and losses.

A caring, interested, and kind adult can make all the difference in the life of a student at-risk.

Wanda Routier, MA in Special Education, Ed.D. in Management of Programs for Children and Youth

What is the current law for alternative education programs in schools?

According to WI State Statue PI 25, “every school board shall identify students at risk of not graduating from high school enrolled in their respective school district on an annual basis by August 15, and develop a plan describing how the school board will meet their needs.”

Currently, many school districts have implemented alternative education programs, but at some schools they are just plans on paper and not being acted on. Unfortunately, this is ignoring students for whom traditional school does not work or is inappropriate.

What are the current trends in alternative education?

The educational environment is becoming a key focus in this area. However, many districts are going to online credit recovery as the only option for at-risk students.  This is not an appropriate solution because the student sits at the computer all day with very little interaction with anyone, including the teacher. 

Other school districts are doing a “school within a school” program where students attend school with others, but have their own courses and classrooms. Still other districts have an actual physical building where only at-risk or alternative education students attend. These approaches incorporate the critical aspect of the student feeling connected and supported. Another positive trend is a special focus on the mental health needs of students, and implementing trauma-sensitive approaches to student education.

Finally, an exciting trend we’re seeing is the work-study program within alternative education. Students are in school part-time and are later released from school to work and learn on-the-job. These real world, job experiences are often more relevant to these students than high school courses. Successful programs are flexible and meet the individual needs of each student.

How can you serve in alternative education?

You can work as a licensed educator at an alternative school or in a specified at-risk class or program. Enhance your skills and awareness in this specialized area with Concordia’s add-on licensure for current teachers. This is a quick but impactful, two-course program. You will learn more about Response to Intervention (Rtl) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), along with other important alternative education topics.

However, alternative education needs more than teachers to help at-risk students succeed as future adults in the real world. Professionals who are working with at-risk students are encouraged to take our online program, but note that you would not be eligible to earn a full teacher licensure. Individuals that work in the following settings would benefit from coursework in alternative education:

  • Juvenile justice settings (boot camps, work programs)
  • Group homes and other alternative living communities
  • Alternative employment settings
  • Youth programs

What is the program director’s background?

Wanda Routier has served as a licensed special education teacher in private and public schools. She has also served as a teacher at a state residential home for the deaf. This has provided her the opportunity to teach individuals from birth to 21 years of age.

She was a Director of Law-Related Education for Students with Disabilities for an international non-profit law organization in Washington, D.C. , for four years. In this role, Wanda worked with teachers from across the U.S. and with Congress. She was actively involved in the re-authorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) which continues to govern special education. She also worked with alternative education teachers at the Washington, D.C. juvenile justice agency.

Wanda is dedicated to teaching her special education and alternative education students both through coursework and hand-on experiences. She dedicates class time to take CUW students to the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center School in Milwaukee to demonstrate special education in an alternative educational setting.