Alternative Schools & Programs of Choice FAQsFrequently asked questions (FAQs) about Alternative Schools and Programs of Choice.
What are the definitions of alternative schools of choice and programs of choice?
For a school to be classified as an alternative school of choice, it must meet at least the following criteria:
- The organizational entity must be within the state public education system.
- Students and teachers must be selected from among volunteers.
- The educational program must be essentially equivalent to grade-level programs of the district.
- The learning environment must be such that it allows students to achieve their maximum potential.
An alternative program of choice is a special program that a student may elect to take within a school. An alternative program of choice does not meet the Definition of a School. The criteria listed above also apply to an alternative program of choice.
Alternative schools of choice and programs of choice must be offered in addition to, rather than in place of, the traditional program.
Are there any special requirements for an alternative school of choice?
California Education Code (EC) Section 58510: Each school district operating an alternative school shall annually evaluate such schools.
The evaluation will include the following:
- Testing of basic skills for student participants
- Identifying variables which may have affected student academic achievement
- Teacher, parent, and student input from the school
- Reports are sent to the Superintendent of Public Instruction (California Department of Education) on or before August 1 of the following year.
- Reports are annually reviewed by persons designated by the district superintendent who are not employed by the district operating the alternative school under review.
What are the essential elements of an alternative school of choice?
The general characteristics of alternative schools of choice are covered in California Education Code (EC) sections:
- Maximize opportunities for students to develop positive value
- Recognize the importance of students' desire to learn
- Maximize student self-motivation
- Maximize parent-teacher-student cooperation
- Maximize opportunities for students, teachers, and parents to react to the changing world
"Alternative schools shall be operated in a manner to maximize the opportunity for improvement of the general school curriculum by innovative methods and ideas developed within the alternative school operation and to improve the general level of education in the State of California as provided in Section 58510…".
In addition, the requirements for alternative schools of choice are in the following EC sections:
- 58503: Voluntary for both teachers and students
- 58404: Previous classroom performance not a criterion for enrollment
- 58507: Maintained and funded at the same level as other district schools
- 58510: Annual evaluations of the school by the district
Can a charter school be an alternative school of choice?
No. Although the intent of charter school law is to give maximum flexibility, there are inherent inconsistencies between charter school law and the alternative school of choice law (California Education Code [EC] sections 58500–58512). For example:
- The provisions of EC Section 58507 require alternative schools of choice to be funded at the same level of support as other educational programs operated by the district but charter schools are funded according to the charter school funding model.
- Non classroom-based charter schools must apply to the State Board of Education for a Senate Bill 740 funding determination, whereas independent study schools formed as alternative schools of choice are funded on the same basis as other schools of the district.
- The EC Section 47605(l) provides the credentialing requirements for teachers in charter schools whereas teachers in alternative schools of choice may teach with any Commission on Teacher Credentialing approved credential according to EC Section 44865.
- The EC Section 58510 requires alternative schools of choice to submit annual evaluations to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SSPI) whereas it appears that charter schools would be exempt from this provision of law according to EC Section 47610.
- The EC Section 58509 provides that, for the operation of alternative schools of choice, districts may apply to the SSPI for a waiver of any provision of the EC other than provisions relating to earthquake safety or the provisions of chapter 3 (EC sections 58500–58512), whereas EC Section 47610 itself exempts charter schools from all of the laws governing school districts with the exception of the specifically listed provisions.
How is an alternative school of choice different from a charter school?
Alternative schools and programs of choice have flexibility under California Education Code (EC) Section 58507, which authorizes the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, upon application of a school district, to waive virtually any other part of the EC.
Charter schools also have flexibility, outlined in EC Section 47610.
Finally, charters may be schools of the district or they may be directly funded. Alternative schools of choice are always schools of a district.
What steps are necessary in order to establish an alternative school of choice?
- First, read the Alternative Schools and Programs of Choice Summary.
- Next, if you decide to go forward, read Frequently Asked Question #1, What are the definitions of alternative schools and programs of choice.
- Then, determine if your plans fit the Definition of a School. If your idea does not fit as an alternative school of choice, you might want to establish an alternative program of choice.
- Then, review the directions for establishing a school on Schools and Districts, and complete an Application for a County-District-School Code. This online form is used to open a new school or district.
- Finally, review the Checklist: Preparing an Application for a New School to ensure that you have all of the elements needed for approval of your new school code.
What is a good starting point for implementing an alternative school or program of choice?
Districts should consider student needs, interests, and learning styles that may not be well met by existing schools and programs.
What should a district do in processing a request from parents to establish an alternative school or program of choice?
Districts should be prepared for such requests before parents make them. Having a plan ready for the implementation of at least one alternative program of choice is a good indication of interest at the district level. Districts should consider organizing an alternative program of choice committee, composed of parents, staff, and community members, to process requests and to make recommendations to the district governing board.
Are there restrictions regarding which students can enroll in an alternative school of choice?
The only restrictions on student enrollment are in California Education Code sections:
- 58503: "…students enrolled in the alternative school shall be selected entirely from volunteers."
- 58504: "Previous classroom performance shall not be a criterion limiting any student from the opportunity of attending an alternative school."
Must students reside within the alternative school of choice district boundaries?
Yes, unless there is an interdistrict transfer to cover students from outside the district. Questions related to student residential requirements (if any) would be answered by local district enrollment policies. California Education Code Section 58505 provides that "A district may establish alternative schools in each attendance area or on a district wide basis, with enrollment open to all students district wide, or any combination thereof."
What steps are necessary in order to establish a new alternative program of choice?
School board approval at a public meeting is necessary in order for a school to establish a new alternative program of choice (such as an independent study class). As long as there are public records of board approval for the program, the school staff is at liberty to establish the program.
What authority do parents have in making decisions about an alternative school of choice or alternative program of choice?
- California Education Code (EC) Section 58502. "The parent or guardian of any pupil may request the governing board of a school district to establish an alternative school program or programs in the district pursuant to this chapter."
- EC Section 58501. The following notice shall be sent along with the notification of parents and guardians required by EC Section 48980:
- Notice of Alternative Schools. California state law authorizes all school districts to provide for alternative schools. Section 58500 of the EC defines alternative school as a school or separate class group within a school which is operated in a manner designed to:
- Maximize the opportunity for students to develop the positive values of self-reliance, initiative, kindness, spontaneity, resourcefulness, courage, creativity, responsibility, and joy.
- Recognize that the best learning takes place when the student learns because of his desire to learn.
- Maintain a learning situation maximizing student self-motivation and encouraging the student in his own time to follow his own interests. These interests may be conceived by him totally and independently or may result in whole or in part from a presentation by his teachers of choices of learning projects.
- Maximize the opportunity for teachers, parents and students to cooperatively develop the learning process and its subject matter. This opportunity shall be a continuous, permanent process.
- Maximize the opportunity for the students, teachers, and parents to continuously react to the changing world, including but not limited to the community in which the school is located…This law particularly authorizes interested persons to request the governing board of the district to establish alternative school programs in each district.
Are diplomas and credits from alternative schools of choice equivalent to those granted by other schools in a district?
Yes. Alternative schools of choice are designed to provide alternative means to reaching the same ends that traditional schools seek to reach. Alternative schools of choice must meet the same standards for:
- Instructional minutes (California Education Code [EC] Section 46201 as amended by EC Section 46201.2 [the 5-day reduction])
- Student performance
Course credits earned in alternative schools of choice should be equivalent to the credits earned in traditional schools. Parents/guardians/caregivers and high school students should be encouraged to ask if the school has been accredited and if the school offers courses that meet University of California/California State University "a–g" admissions requirements.
What are some examples of alternative schools and programs of choice?
See Examples of Alternative Schools & Programs of Choice for more information.
Can a school offer more than one alternative program of choice?
A school may offer more than one alternative program of choice. Please note that an alternative program of choice is a special program within a school that does not meet the Definition of a School. This means that the district does not need to apply for a County-District-School code for an alternative program of choice, but it must ensure that the program meets other requirements of the authorizing legislation.
Must a student be failing or having difficulty in school to be considered for admission to an alternative school or program of choice?
No. Students volunteer for alternative schools and programs of choice. Previous classroom performance may not be used as a criterion for limiting a student's opportunity to attend an alternative school of choice. California Education Code Section 58504
Do alternative schools of choice offer instruction in the basic skill areas?
Yes. In fact, testing of basic skill areas is part of the required annual evaluation. Fundamental schools, which stress a return to the "basics," may be classified as alternative schools of choice if participation by students and staff is voluntary.
Can an alternative school or program of choice be located at a museum, park, or nature preserve, for example, rather than in a regular school building?
Yes. Alternative schools and programs of choice can be conducted in any location that is conducive to learning. The nature of a school or program can be a determining factor with regard to its location.
Is the quality of teaching in alternative schools and programs of choice as good as that in traditional programs?
It should be. Since teachers volunteer for the assignment, selection of staff is based on those qualified teachers who are interested and willing to become a part of an innovative venture. Since students also volunteer, alternative schools and programs of choice are likely to attract students if a high-quality option is offered.
Can a child who is in a program for gifted students volunteer to attend an alternative school or program of choice?
Yes. A district may even have an alternative program of choice that is designed to offer innovative or theme-based instruction that allows for accelerated, project-based learning that might be of particular interest to gifted learners. Districts must be careful, however to honor the intent of California Education Code Section 58504, which stipulates that previous classroom performance may not be used as a criterion for limiting a student's opportunity to attend an alternative school or program of choice.
Are continuation schools considered to be alternative schools of choice?
Not under California Education Code sections 58500–58512. For a continuation school to be established as an alternative school of choice, students and teachers must be selected on a volunteer basis and the school must meet the other criteria for an alternative school of choice. However, many continuation schools have developed their own programs for students who want more flexibility, have part-time jobs, wish to accelerate their learning for early graduation, or want help in academic areas in which they are struggling.