Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Options in Education Outside the Public Schools

My oldest niece started kindergarten this school year.  Between my sisters-in-law and I, there are seven grandchildren in my husband's family, ranging in age from 17 months to 5 years old.  Four girls and three boys.  To my knowledge, none of the grandkids will be starting school next school year, but three will be starting kindergarten the 2013/2014 school year.  Needless to say, all our thoughts are beginning to turn toward our schooling options.

You would be hard put to find anyone in the United States who is not familiar with the largest and most prevalent school model in the country:  our public school systems.  Public schools are funded by taxpayer and federal (read: more taxpayer) monies that are allocated to the districts to pay for the cost of educating students from kindergarten through twelfth grade.  As a result, these schools are "free" in a sense.  There is no tuition per se.  Every taxpayer, young or old, whether he/she has children or not, pays into the public education system, though some districts allow individuals who are elderly or childless to pay a reduced rate in taxes because they are not directly benefiting from the public education system.

Because of their status as public, they are open to all children who reside within that school district who are of school age.  Since the United States, like most industrialized nations, has compulsory education laws mandating that all children attend school, public schools are typically the most susceptible to over-crowding because they are unable to turn any student away unless they have a very good reason.

While there are some very good public schools in the United States, the American public school system has been taking a beating in the court of public opinion because of low test scores, harassment, over-crowding, violence and other various issues that have parents wondering, "Do I really want to put my child in that kind of situation?".

Are you one of those parents?  Are you looking around at the school your child(ren) is/are zoned for and questioning them as a center of education?  Do you want other options?  They do exist, and this list is a just a few of the alternative educational opportunities that may be available to your student.

  1. Charter Schools.  First, understand that charter schools are still a part of a school district's public school system.  They still receive state money, but can also obtain money through private donations.  However, because they are a public school, they cannot charge tuition.  Charter schools can be started by teachers, parents, non-profit groups, universities, etc.  The school applies for a charter from either the school district or state which states that they will achieve certain goals and meet certain requirements in exchange for certain educational waivers.  Usually these waivers have to do with things like maximum class size and teacher training and certification.  Charter school students are still required to take their state standardized tests (some things are just unavoidable).  Pros:  One of the biggest pros of the charter school is that they don't answer directly to the school system's board of education.  Instead, most charter schools are headed by a board of directors that usually are comprised of school administrators, parents, teachers, and a couple of members of the local school board.  Decisions regarding the school are generally made by the board of directors.  Charter schools are frequently smaller with a smaller teacher-student ratio than their public counterparts, and because of this they are usually able to do more with less money.  Cons:  Good charter schools have good reputations and it isn't unusual for these schools to have fairly significant waiting lists.  Like all public schools, they can't turn people away because of money, race, sexual orientation, or religion, but they do usually have a cap on their enrollment.  Acceptance to the school is generally based on a lottery of the applicants.  In other words, getting in can be very difficult.  Also take into consideration that if a charter is not renewed for whatever reason, your child(ren) is/are suddenly thrust back into the regular public school population.  Finally, not all charters are required to provide either transportation to or from school, or nutrition services.  
  2. Montessori Schools:  Montessori schools are based upon the theories and methods of Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori.  Montessori believed strongly in emphasizing independence, freedom within limits, and a healthy level of respect for a child's natural psychological development.  Good Montessori schools stress a constructivist or discovery approach to learning where students learn by working with materials rather than through direct instruction.  Students are allowed to choose which activity that want to do within a limited set of activities, and they are given an uninterrupted block of time to learn the concepts they are working on.  Pros:  Most children do exceptionally well in Montessori schools.  I tutored a girl once who attended Montessori from kindergarten through fifth grade, and she was the hardest working student I've ever had.  She learned that you never give up just because something may be difficult and she excelled where her peers were falling behind.  Having said that, Montessori education is not a miracle cure and some children simply do not do well with the Montessori structure which tends to be comparatively loose.  Teachers assume the role of guides or coaches more so than that of a figurehead.  Montessori schools tend to embrace technological advances and might allow your child access to technology that he/she would not be able to use in the public school system.  Cons:  Many Montessoris are private schools, which is their biggest drawback, though according to the Association Montessori International (AMI) eight school districts throughout the country are attempting the Montessori approach in some of their schools.  While Montessori high schools exist, the vast majority of Montessoris are k-5 (or pre-k through 5) or k-8.  This might cause a difficult transition for your child at an all ready difficult time in his/her life.  Additionally, there are many schools out there that use the Montessori name, but who do not strictly adhere to the Montessori method of education.  You're paying too much for your child's education to throw it away, so check out the AMI website to find a good school.
  3. Private Schools:  Obviously, private schools are the first thing people think of when they think of a non-public education for their child(ren).  Private schools can run the gamut from insanely expensive to fairly inexpensive.  They can be religious schools or have no affiliation whatsoever.  Pros:  Few people can argue that, for the most part, the level of education your child will receive at a private school is going to be better than the education he/she receives in most public schools.  This doesn't mean that bad private schools don't exist, but a private education is a competitive business and the bad schools simply don't last long.  Because they charge tuition, private schools tend to have a smaller enrollment than your local public school and, thus, smaller class sizes.  Cons:  The biggest drawback to a private education is the expense associated with it.  Private schools receive no funding from either the state or the federal government, thus they are on the hook for all their own expenses.  Some schools are well enough off that they can offer a few scholarships.  Unlike public schools, some private schools have their own admission standards which can include auditions, intelligence testing, interviews, etc.  If you're looking for some private school options (including Montessori), you can visit the National Center for Education Statistics which will allow you to search according to your criteria.
  4. Homeschooling:  Last but not least is the homeschooling option.  In modern America, homeschooling seems a little strange and unusual, but prior to compulsory education laws most teaching occurred inside the home.  The laws regarding homeschooling vary from state to state, but students are still expected to master the same curriculum as their public school counterparts, and they are generally required to take standardized tests to demonstrate the mastery of this knowledge (though these tests may or may not be the same as the ones their public school peers are taking).  There are many companies that sell homeschool curriculums, though correspondence schools and online schools are completely valid and increasingly popular options.  What if, however, you are not comfortable teaching, say, algebra?  Or physics?  In many areas, especially more metropolitan areas, homeschool co-ops exist that provide support and knowledge to the local homeschooling community.  Sometimes these co-ops are merely warehouses of information to allow homeschooling parents to connect with people who are more qualified to teach their children a certain subject.  Other co-ops are taking the shape of umbrella schools.  That is, locations that offer some classes, field trips, sports, and standardized testing.  The fees for umbrella schools vary and the classes often are fluid, frequently depending on who is available to teach.  The umbrella schools I have seen will offer a given class once per week and allocate their in-class time for discussion or lab.  The majority of the student's work is expected to be completed outside of class.  Pros:  Homeschooling is amazingly flexible.  As long as your child meets the state requirements, the state generally leaves you alone.  You can tailor your curriculum to your child's interests and needs--a point that even the most progressive public or private school can't boast.  Frequently, individuals who have had interactions with homeschool students report they are extremely polite and intelligent.  I worked once with a set of brothers who were competitive gymnasts, and, additionally, they were incredibly talented gymnasts.  There was no way to reconcile their training and competition schedule with traditional schooling so they were homeschooled.  They were some of the most intelligent, polite, and hard-working high schoolers I have ever had the opportunity to work with, and I am fairly certain they both received college scholarships for gymnastics.  Cons:  Most of the cons of homeschooling are more or less parenting pitfalls to avoid.  It is very important that, if you should choose to homeschool, you go out of your way to ensure that your child has adequate social interactions with children his/her own age.  We sometimes forget how important good social development is to a child so don't overlook this aspect of you child's education.  A good social background will help your child if he/she should choose to attend public school at any point in his/her educational career, and it is not unusual for homeschoolers to enter public school in the ninth grade.  As a result, I have interacted with a variety of formerly homeschooled students.  The biggest problem I have seen is a tendency of parents to intervene in their child's education rather than see them struggle through a problem.  I had one student who started ninth grade unable to read at all.  His mother had simply read his schoolwork to him, but there was no underlying disability preventing him from learning to read.  By the time your child gets to high school, the inability to read has become a disability.  This student had to learn how to read in ninth grade and it was not easy.  Other students suffer from an inability to complete assignments and we later discover that frequently their parents were completing their schoolwork for them or simply telling them the answers.  Though these behaviors come from a good place, resist the urge to save your child unless they truly need saving.  Finally, understand that teaching your child requires advance planning.  Some of the best lessons can be taught off-the-cuff, but do not plan on using this approach to teach your child all the time.  Even if you intend to teach addition at the grocery store the next day, have a basic gameplan in mind before you get to the store.  Lack of planning is the number one killer of otherwise good lesson ideas.  Likewise, throwing a couple of workbooks on the dining room table and having your kids work for a couple of hours makes you a no better teacher than some of the ones all ready in classrooms who occupy their students with endless worksheets.  There is a place for worksheets and workbooks, and these can be good tools for assessing your child's mastery of a topic, but if you are dedicated to a quality homeschool education they should not make up the majority of your instruction.
As with all major decisions, do your homework and know your child.  Some kids will excel in almost any educational environment while others truly do respond best to one specific environment.  This list is certainly not exhaustive and some options may exist in your area that are not included here.  For even more alternative education options, visit the Alternative Education Resource Organization.  

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