The Potential of College and Career Pathways in Alternative School Settings

Trainee Nurse Sitting By Female Patient's Bed In Hospital

by Candice Benge, Miya T. Warner

Alternative high schools were originally conceived of as a place where students who were not succeeding in a traditional setting could have their academic needs met. A continuation high school is a type of alternative high school that serves students who are over-age and under-credited. These schools have developed negative stigmas, with the reputation as being dumping grounds or credit-recovery factories for students who are off-track to graduate. The Oakland Health Pathways Project (OHPP)—a partnership between the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) and local industry partners—set out to combat this deficit mindset and provide students in alternative high schools with access to high-quality college and career pathways in the health fields.

Promising Strategies for Implementing College and Career Pathways in Alternative High Schools

Integrated Career Technical Education and Rigorous Academics

  • Focus on one career theme but foster broadly applicable employability skills.
  • Integrate career technical content into courses students need to graduate.
  • Break curriculum into smaller, stand-alone units that build on each other.
  • Expose students to college-level coursework.

Work-based Learning

  • Help students see themselves in careers.
  • Make work-based learning opportunities accessible.
  • Provide wrap-around student supports for internships.

Comprehensive Student Supports

  • Start by understanding student assets and needs.
  • Scaffold the transition to college and career.

Adapting College and Career Pathways for Alternative High Schools

OHPP adopted the Linked Learning approach, intended to increase the rigor and relevance of students’ secondary education by clearly linking it to potential future careers in in-demand industries.

The Linked Learning approach was originally designed to be implemented in traditional high school settings where students would progress through a sequenced, three- or four-year program of study. OUSD is at the forefront of districts considering how to implement college and career pathways in alternative or continuation high school settings, which often enroll students for shorter time periods. Staff centered the design of these pathways around students’ need to prioritize remaining graduation requirements and identified and addressed common barriers to student participation, including:

  • demanding work schedules
  • extenuating family circumstances
  • limited English proficiency

In Making Health Pathways Work in Continuation High Schools, SRI researchers document nine promising strategies for adapting Linked Learning for students confronting these barriers. Staff in these schools encouraged students to go beyond the minimum requirements for a high school degree and take advantage of the work-based learning opportunities provided by the health pathways.

Helping Students Reimagine Themselves

In addition to tailoring pathway opportunities to meet the needs of students in alternative high schools, staff prioritized convincing students they were capable and worthy of the opportunities the health pathway affords. Relieving their students of the negative stigma associated with alternative or continuation high schools requires pathway staff’s intense supports and repetition of efforts.

For some students, these efforts seem to be paying off. For example, a student at one of the schools featured in the brief describes how internships integrated into the pathway changed their understanding of what it means to be a continuation school student and their own self-worth:

When I hear continuation school, I was always told, “Oh no, that’s not a good thing,” you know? … When there’s internships like this telling us, “You know what. Forget everything that you’ve been told. You still have a chance to become what you want to become…” even though everyone’s telling you, “You go to a continuation school, that means you are not going to become anything in life.” But…we’re given these opportunities and we see people put in so much effort for us to feel better about ourselves and be able to move forward in life, instead of staying stuck in that mindset that we’re not worthy of doing anything outside of this.

Although college and career pathways hold great potential for reducing negative stigma and increasing college and career readiness in alternative high schools, practitioners warn that high rates of student turnover, attendance issues, and the needs of students to maintain employment create challenges that make a cookie-cutter pathway infeasible. But by leveraging their lower student-to-staff ratios, embracing flexible scheduling, and tailoring their program to the needs of their students, the two continuation schools featured in this brief demonstrate that implementing Linked Learning pathways in alternative school settings is not only possible but potentially transformative.

Topics: Access and equity Career and technical education English learners Integrated college and career pathway approaches Linked learning Low income Opportunity youth Research and evaluation STEM and computer science pathways Students off track to graduate Underrepresented Minorities Work-based learning