Alternative Schools Essay

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Throughout its history, American education has included alternative forms of schooling that provide choices to parents, students, and teachers. Over the years, alternative schools have provided opportunities beyond those offered by traditional public, religious, and independent schools. In many different formats and motivations, they have met evolving needs.

Public schools did not exist during the Colonial Period (1607–1783). Lawrence Cremin has described the period as the golden age of alternatives. These alternatives ranged from formal Latin grammar schools to academies, dame schools, moving schools in the South, the use of tutors, and the apprenticeship system, reflecting the strong religious beliefs of the colonists.

Following the formation of the United States, the focus was on nationalism and patriotism. During the National Period (1783–1876) of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization, the common school movement was publicly supported and controlled. Private academies attracted the wealthy. Experimental educational ideas were part of the newly created utopian communities. Examples are Robert Dale Owen’s vocational education in New Lanark, Scotland; Joseph Neef and William McClure’s Pestalozzian School in New Harmony, Indiana; and Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, which offered an idealistic form of schooling within a utopian community. Catholic parochial schools also developed during the nineteenth century as religious alternatives.

During the Progressive Period (1876–1957), the individual student became the focus of alternatives to public schools. Parents, teachers, and communities utilizing Dewey’s progressive teaching ideas led these efforts. Examples include the Walden School and Caroline Pratt’s play school in New York and the Park Schools in Baltimore, Buffalo, and Cleveland.

During the social and political ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, parents demanded choices in the schooling of their children. These alternative schools were not state accredited or funded. An alternative schools directory listed about 350 schools with about 15,000 students and 3,000 staff. These schools symbolized the radical reform movements of the time.

They focused on changing the structure and process of education, influencing public schools. The spectrum ranged from schools as part of communes in rural settings to urban-centered, storefront schools. The middle-class White community was seeking unstructured opportunities for their children to acquire traditional academic skills.

People of color emphasized their culture and parental involvement. Examples were the Harlem Prep School, Born Free, the Unschool, Someday School, and the Sante Fe Community School. They ranged from suburban to rural, Black inner-city to multicultural schools. They could be found in churches, storefronts, homes, and old barns. Such notables as George Dennison, Nat Hentoff, and Jonathan Kozol were leaders in the movement. Kozol ran a free school in the Roxbury ghetto. Learning also began to take place within the community, like at the Cleveland Urban Learning Community, a school without walls. “Schools within public schools” were started, like that at the New School in New York. More recent efforts have focused on such alternatives as homeschooling and voucher and charter schools.

Alternative schools since the 1970s have taken on many guises, including school choice programs and independent and home-based education. They not only provide a test bed for innovation, but an alternative choice for those parents and children not interested in more traditional models of schooling.


  1. Brown, L. H. (2007). Building community in an alternative school: the perspective of an African American principal. New York: Peter Lang.
  2. Cremin, L. A. (1970). American education: The colonial experience. New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Graubard, A. (1973). Free the children: Radical reform and the free school movement. New York: Pantheon.
  4. Neumann, R. (2003). Sixties legacy: A history of the public alternative schools movement, 1967–2001. New York: Peter Lang.

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