A Different Path Through High School


At the end of her first year of high school Ellie Adams felt miserable. She had spent more time in doctor’s offices and hospitals than in classrooms and study halls. When she felt well enough to go to school, teachers showed little interest in helping her catch up. “I started missing more classes because I was having panic attacks, and then I got sent to the guidance counselor,” she recalls.

The guidance counselor suggested Adams not return to North Central High School in Spokane the following year. The 15-year-old felt she had been treated like a juvenile delinquent instead of a person with a rare immune disorder.

Adams applied to On Track Academy, an “option school” in the Spokane public school district. She graduated in 2022 and has completed two years toward a bachelor’s degree in history at the University of Puget Sound. 

Washington offers high school students multiple options for alternative learning experiences (ALE). These schools typically serve students with specific needs such as those who are differently abled or highly capable. In the Seattle area, ALEs cluster primarily south of the city and east of Lake Washington. Most high school students in Washington attend comprehensive high schools which offer generic curricula for all students. Those schools are typically structured around a bell schedule that dictates the mass migration of students between standardized classes and overworked teachers. 

Lisa Matson Coleman launched Spokane’s On Track Academy in 2009 to serve students who failed to thrive in the city’s comprehensive public schools. She began OTA as a pilot for 70 students. The school now serves 377 students (enrollments are about 1,600 in each of Spokane’s five comprehensive high schools). The student-to-faculty ratio at OTA is lower than the comprehensive high schools (12.6:1 vs. 16.1:1), but the expenditure per pupil is also lower ($17,095 vs. $18,230).

Comprehensive high schools use fewer teachers per pupil, in part because they use industrial-era approaches to keep the majority of students moving along a pre-defined educational assembly line in a cost-effective way. ALEs expend less per pupil in part because they use modern tools to customize learning experiences for students with a broad range of interests and abilities. They also limit some educational experiences. For example, OTA does not offer advanced Spanish classes so Adams had to take Spanish at a comprehensive high school to prepare herself for a Latino studies minor in college.

Many OTA students complete their core curriculum using self-directed online tools provided by organizations such as Summit Learning. Students spend hours in the same room with the same advisor/mentor/teacher who answers questions, provides tutoring, and helps them develop relevant projects. OTA teachers actively develop and share best practices in competency-based learning through organizations such as the Aurora Institute.

In the state of Washington, 83% of high students graduate in four years as compared to 87% nationally. At OTA 93% of students graduate in four years. But these numbers often hide differences, since students don’t apply to OTA until they have “failed to thrive” in a comprehensive high school. 

Libby Vallon graduated from OTA this spring. At the end of her sophomore year, she considered dropping out of high school and getting a GED as her mother had done. If she had dropped out, she would have contributed to a lower graduation rate at her comprehensive high school. By deciding instead to seek an alternative high school experience she enhanced the graduation rate of OTA. Vallon plans to attend Evergreen State College in the fall.

Vallon started OTA with an interest in nursing, having enjoyed an epidemiology project. But other experiences such as volunteering in hospitals reduced her interest in the medical field. OTA partners with many community organizations and has recently affiliated with Big Picture Learning to give students more options for more workplace-based learning experiences. These out-of-classroom experiences also help to reduce the cost of instruction in many alternative high schools.

In-classroom experiences are often different at alternative and comprehensive high schools. Eric Magi taught math and science at OTA for seven years after teaching for decades in comprehensive high schools. He says, “teaching at On Track was less teaching and more mentoring and tutoring and supporting.” In the same classroom, he might have a student who hoped to become an engineer and one who wanted to become a journeyman plumber. He structured math instruction suitable for each.

Ellie Adams believed she was “very bad at math” when she came to OTA. Magi disagrees, noting she was “very good at picking up new ideas and working with them.” But her under-resourced primary school had not prepared her for secondary-level mathematics. Neither of her parents had earned a four-year college degree and didn’t know how to help her. 

Libby Vallon enjoyed some aspects of math classes, but she wanted to be “done with it.” In the first semester of her junior year at OTA, she completed the junior and senior year math curriculum. That gave her time in her senior year to take courses in business, psychology, philosophy, and communications at the local community college.

OTA students complete state-mandated learning assessments. But incomplete data is provided on the state’s educational “report card” for percent of students who meet state standards. The school also uses NEWA Map tools to assess growth. Students earn grades for their core curriculum. According to Magi, an “A” grade at OTA means that the “student is achieving at a level appropriate for the direction they want to go at this moment in their life.” Magi said that when post-secondary institutions have problems with this concept, then “shame them for only looking at grades” during the admissions process.

Adams and Vallon both began high school with poor grades that improved after transitioning to OTA. Grades played a small role in their college admission process. Both these first-generation students benefited from teachers and mentors who helped them find their “dream school,” coached them in preparing application materials, and wrote strong letters of support.

Coleman, the founder of OTA, said the school focuses on demonstrating competency. “We broker and co-design learning plans for students. The goal is to help students figure out what’s next for them. A high school diploma is not a magic bullet.” College is not a magic bullet either. Magi said most OTA students don’t go to college. They may join the military, go to technical school, or go to a computer-tech boot camp. “What we really want is for them to leave high school confident and with a plan for doing something in September.”

The Center for Reinventing Public Education reports that as high schools across the United States adjust to post-pandemic realities, both comprehensive and alternative schools have begun to focus more on “helping students set their own goals and develop a high-quality post-secondary plan to achieve them,” rather than on attempting to prepare all high school students to be college-ready. 

Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan
Sally J. McMillan, author of "Digital Immigrants and Media Integration," is a writer, academician, and organizational leader. She has been a high school teacher, book editor, non-profit leader, journalist, technology executive, university professor, academic administrator, and higher education consultant.


  1. Great article. My family member (no disabilities) found OTA in Longview, WA during COVID and wanted to continue through high school. He just graduated this year with offers to college.


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