Guest Blog (Kathy McKean): Alternative Education – Oklahoma leads the nation

Kathy McKean is the director of the Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center, which provides evaluation and professional development to Oklahoma schools.

When people think of alternative education, they may imagine “punishment schools” or the Sweathogs on Welcome Back, Kotter.  In many states, they’d be right.  But in most of Oklahoma, alternative programs are true alternatives – schools of opportunity for some of our highest-risk students.  A national study of alternative education conducted in 2010 concluded, “Only two states – Oklahoma and Minnesota – have set the policy conditions necessary to encourage the development and sustainability of innovative alternative education models.”

In the late 1980s, a handful of pilot projects were funded and the most cost-effective proved to be an academy model that grew out of the alternative school research of the 1970s. Pilot projects were initiated in 1989. By 1993, because the program had established a strong record of success, the Oklahoma Legislature expanded the initiative statewide.  Every high school in the state was required to operate an academy or to join an academy cooperative. Alternative education now receives $17 million in annual funding and serves more than 10,000 students every year.

Over the last decade, Oklahoma has invested in developing real alternative programs for its students at greatest risk of failing to complete high school. These are engaging, authentic, nurturing environments that provide the kinds of supports researchers (and dropouts!) believe to be necessary: caring teachers, smaller classes, more individualized instruction, the chance to work at one’s own pace, and at least one strong relationship with an adult at school.  Programs include stand-alone alternative schools, afternoon and evening programs, and alternative classrooms within traditional high schools.

Alternative Education grew because it got results. Every year, each individual program is evaluated to determine its implementation of the 17 criteria that are set out in law and to assess its student outcomes. The individual evaluations are used for program improvement. The outcome data from all 250+ sites are combined to determine overall program effectiveness. You can read the Executive Summary of the most recent report here; the full report is also available on the OTAC website.

Here’s how the evaluation plan for these programs is set up:

  • Statewide Alternative Programs collect data on five variables highly related to dropping out of school (grade point averages, courses failed per semester, days absent per semester, days suspended per semester)
  • Two types of analyses are conducted: pre-post, involving only students enrolled in alternative education programs, and treatment/comparison group analyses.

The 2009-10 findings are summarized in the chart below.  Data on the five variables most related to dropping out were collected from alternative education students and students on waiting lists.  The findings have been consistent for more than eleven years: Once students were enrolled in an alternative education program, they were absent less often, made higher grades, failed fewer classes, earned a greater number of credits, were referred less often for disciplinary problems, and improved their scores on tests of basic skills.

Since 1998, when the program was expanded to the entire state, the Oklahoma dropout rate has been cut in half – from 5.5 percent to 2.3 percent.

When we survey students about their experiences in alternative education, we hear about academic success, but many students tell us something more important – it helps them turn their lives around.  What makes it work?  Students tell us, over and over again:

“The teachers changed my life.  They have given me love and support that changed my whole outlook on life and how I see others.”

“Before I came here I had failed and thought I couldn’t do it…the teachers have made me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to.”

“It let me see that you can change the outcome of your life if you just work at it.”

“It’s made me realize that I need to do the things I don’t want to do.”

Punitive programs don’t get these kinds of results.  Suspending kids out of school doesn’t get these kinds of results.  Programs of choice get them, and Oklahoma has been getting them for more than a decade.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

5 thoughts on “Guest Blog (Kathy McKean): Alternative Education – Oklahoma leads the nation

  1. My oldest daughter was on a downward trajectory her freshman year in a Norman high school with over 2,000 students. She was falling through the cracks. We succeeded in getting her an IEP based on “Other Health Impairments”, specifically ADD, and we used that and the fact that excessive absences caused her to fail most of her freshman courses as grounds for an application to the Dimensions alternative school. She made a dramatic turnaround and finished high school a year early. She worked for the next 4 years, but last year after being laid off from her job at a call center she enrolled at Moore Norman Technology and yesterday completed her second semester of the Legal Office course. She expects to graduate in September. It is unlikely any of this would have been possible without alternative school.

    Unfortunately, alternative school is only available for a small percentage of students-65 slots for a high school population of over 4,000 in Norman. There are probably closer to 1,500 who need alternative school.

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