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Alternative schools: Growing in popularity, increased student success

When you hear the phrase "alternative school," what do you think of?
Posted at 8:12 PM, Mar 26, 2023

"Alternative school" hasn’t always had a positive connotation. Typically, alternative schools were where students who struggled in traditional public schools would go to finish up their class credits.

But today, there are many new kinds of alternative schools — community-based programs and charter schools — and they’re looking at education in new and completely different ways, hoping to flip the stereotypes and our education system on its head.

It’s not every day you see a student leading the class.

But at The LIFE School in Atlanta, students are on their feet. They are learning, laughing, and enjoying their time in school.

"We've passed the age of just sort of factory cookie cutter preparation of our children," said Mikayla Streeter, the founding principal of The LIFE School.

Streeter and Khabral Muhammad started The LIFE school to keep students from experiencing education the way they did.

"My classmates were much more confident and comfortable launching into these really complicated problems. And for me, I was like, 'Well, where is the worksheet? What are the step-by-step instructions?'" said Streeter.

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But at this school, instructions, textbooks, and test scores do not dictate success. Class is about learning with joy and empathy and learning how to work on a team. 

Kids aren’t separated by age but by abilities, and students can suggest what they want to study.

"We've had students who've produced original music albums, who started businesses, and earned thousands of dollars. I mean, there's students who've published novels. I mean, really runs the gamut," said Streeter.

And as a father himself, Muhammad wanted to create a space where he could be involved.

"My driving force here is my son; he's 6. And actually, I guess what this space has meant for me and for a lot of like-minded parents was just having access to our children in a way that a normal school setting wouldn’t," said Muhammad.

Muhammad says this space gives his son the freedom to learn social and emotional skills he’ll need his entire life.

Studies show this setting works.

Middle schoolers studying science in a project-based setting in California tested 11 percentage points better than peers in traditional lecture-style classes, and second graders in Michigan who learned in project-based settings demonstrated 5–6 more months of social studies learning and 2-3 more months of reading comprehension than peers in traditional classes.

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Students are also less likely to drop out and more likely to attend college; it’s a model Streeter says can help all students.

"You think, ‘Oh, well, smart kids or good kids can learn by listening. It's really those other kids that need to run around or something.' But that's not the case. If you take a kid that is being successful in a traditional environment and put them in an environment that's more project-based, more hands-on, and flexible, they will flourish even more," said Streeter.

Of course, these small schools cost money to open and run, but that’s why Streeter and Muhammad hope the example they are setting will get the attention of community leaders and lawmakers to extend more grants and state and federal money to schools like theirs. Because those actions today could be the foundation for the generation of tomorrow to flourish.

"When you think about the people who are most successful in life, they are people who can think flexibly, who can think in an agile way," said Streeter. "We want our students to embrace the nuance, embrace spaces for creativity, and take that into the real world, have that capacity, because that's really what leads to success."