General Education

The Powerful Case for Alternative High Schools

The Powerful Case for Alternative High Schools
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD July 27, 2015

If you have a child who’s been passionate about a particular interest since she was very young, your teen is likely going to be most satisfied with a highly-focused high school experience. Learn why STEM, arts, or vocational high schools may be the perfect answer for your family.

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Are you parenting a middle schooler who already knows what she wants to be when she grows up? Does she show a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects? Does she dream of a career as a dancer or artist? Or does she want to develop advanced skills that enable her to choose work or college after 12th grade?

If the answer to any of these is yes, then you may want to consider one of the many nontraditional public, charter, private, or magnet high schools whose programs are designed around specific academic, artistic, or career paths.

STEM High Schools

Careers in STEM sectors are on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs are expected to grow by <a href="{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }. In the past decade, job growth in these fields was three times as high as it was in non-STEM areas, creating the impression that the nation needs to increase the number of students holding STEM degrees. Notwithstanding recent research suggesting that we may now be creating [too many STEM graduates](" target="_blank">13 percent through 2022, a growing number of STEM high schools and programs have emerged to train the new generation of students who pursue careers in these sectors.

Many STEM high schools offer rigorous, innovative curricula in which students collaborate in project-based environments designed to enhance creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

Some programs include internships for exceptional students who are ready for advanced experiences in a range of career paths. These offerings provide additional learning opportunities in “young scholar programs" at nearby universities or on-the-job training at corporations that seek to groom students for future employment.

While many STEM high schools provide excellent, comprehensive programs, be sure you examine a school’s curriculum carefully because the quality can vary widely. Ask about the percentage of course offerings that focus on STEM subjects and how well non-STEM classes are integrated into the themed curriculum. Some schools, while designating themselves STEM high schools, actually have a limited range of courses and lack full-fledged integration of all academic subjects into a STEM focus.

Admission at these schools is often selective and may be based on placement exams, standardized test scores, other academic assessments (like grades or portfolios), and teacher recommendations.

You can learn more about about STEM education by reading Evaluating and Improving Your Child’s STEM Education.

Arts High Schools

Most major cities have public, charter, magnet, or private schools that focus on one or more areas of the arts, such as music, dance, acting, creative writing, painting, sculpture, and drawing.

In arts schools, students usually have an intensive focus on their chosen artistic endeavor, alongside a traditional curriculum that may include advanced placement or honors courses. Through partnerships with cultural arts centers or universities, these schools aim to prepare students for higher education and the rigorous competition that comes with careers in creative fields.

Students will nearly always have to audition or provide a portfolio of artistic work to apply for admission. Academic measures, such as standardized test scores, grades, and attendance may be required, as well as teacher recommendations.

To learn more about the pros and cons of arts high schools, check out Noodle Expert Rosemary Black’s article Should Your Child Go to an Arts High School?.

And if you have a child who is interested in the arts and STEM education, read STEM to STEAM: In Defense of the Creative Critical Thinker.

Vocational High Schools

Vocational, technical, and career high schools are focused on providing their students with educational experiences that allow them to take advantage of employment opportunities as soon as they graduate or to continue their education in college. In the past, vocational education — now often referred to as career and technical school — was designed for students who were not on a college track. Today, however, the guiding principle is career and college readiness. While many graduates of vocational high schools still go straight into the workplace, others enter two- and four-year colleges alongside their peers from traditional high schools.

Vocational high schools provide students with a solid academic curriculum as well as courses related to specific careers. They may offer classes in subjects such as cosmetology and culinary arts, or lay the groundwork for professions in the health sciences, gaming, computer programming, or automobile manufacturing. In many cases, schools cultivate partnerships with local industries or employers to provide training that is integral to the curriculum; many of these employers also offer post-graduation apprenticeships that can lead to eventual employment. Ultimately, vocational high schools seek to provide their students with a broad set of practical — and highly sought-after — skills in order that alumni have the flexibility to change career paths as often as is needed in a 21st-century economy.

In some cases, vocational schools design programs that enable nontraditional or economically disadvantaged students to pursue a secondary education while allowing them time to attend to personal circumstances or needs. These schools aim to support the educational attainment of students who might otherwise be prevented from earning a high school diploma. For example, participants may be able to attend a vocational school for part of the day or week, and continue to work or care for family members during periods when they are not in school.

Many, though not all, vocational high schools are in high demand, and their application processes may be competitive. Prospective students may need to submit grades and attendance records, as well as take part in an interview.

A Path to Match Your Child’s Interests

Nontraditional high schools offer your child a chance to concentrate on her "major" while still in high school. If she already has a strong and specific focus on a future career, a nontraditional high school may be just the place to build her strengths well before she earns her diploma.

Check out more articles on this topic, or ask Noodle Experts your questions on our high school page.

New York City families can learn more about the high school admissions process by reading Maurice Frumkin’s Expert Tips on NYC High School Admissions for Middle Schoolers.


Charette, R. (2013, August 30). The STEM Crisis Is a Myth. Retrieved June 2, 2015, from Spectrum.

Schwartz, K. (2015, March 13). Want to Get More Girls Into STEM? Give Them Real-World Work. Retrieved June 5, 2015, from Mind/Shift.

This High School Trains Baltimore's Students to Be Artists. (2015, May 15). Retrieved June 2, 2015, from PBS.

Vilorio, D. (2014). STEM 101: Intro to tomorrow's jobs. Retrieved July 20, 2015, from Bureau of Labor Statistics.


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