With public school enrollment numbers plunging, more families are considering alternatives for their children’s education. But before you rush to join the 1.2 million students who have left public school districts since the start of the pandemic -- whether it‘s to join a different kind of school or to experience alternatives to school all together -- get clear on which direction to head.
Here are two questions to get started:
1) How involved do you want to be in your child’s education?
2) What kind of educational approach best suits your child?
The first question will help you decide on the physical location: in-person (public, private, charter, parochial, or magnet school), or at home (homeschool or virtual school).
Once you’ve figured out the ’where’, the second question will help you determine the ’how,’ narrowing your choice further to a kind of school that matches your educational goals: traditional, specialized or alternative.
When you start considering alternatives to traditional public education, ask yourself, ”How involved do I want to be?” For parents who want - or need - to send their children out of the house to learn alongside other kids who live in their zip code, the most logical starting place will be their community‘s private, parochial, magnet or charter schools. This option requires the least parental involvement but, on the flipside, provides the least flexibility.
For parents who want their kids to receive a traditional education from home without having to take full responsibility, online school is a good middle ground.
Virtual school has diversified in recent years, with public and private educational options. Many local school districts offer virtual academies that replicate the traditional school experience, following the standard state curriculum.
Private online schools are open to anyone, without geographical limitation, but at a cost (often a fraction of in-person, private tuition). Like public online academies, these schools replicate traditional aspects of education: an instructor who teaches a standard curriculum of siloed subjects, assigns letter grades and conducts assessments. Some online schools have clubs and activities to help students socialize.
Parents who want the highest level of involvement might be drawn to homeschooling, a highly customizable education unconfined by their child’s grade level or the traditional calendar school year.
Home-based approaches range from the more structured curriculum-out-of-the-box to free-form unschooling – as well as flexischooling where kids put together a mosaic of options, including online classes or independent study. (See our deep-dive into homeschool options here.)
Flexible and customizable, homeschooling allows your family to work and play according to its rhythm - and get in plenty of quality time. In large urban areas particularly, there are no shortage of meetups, playgroups and extracurriculars geared toward nontraditional learners, putting to rest the myth of the isolated homeschooler.
Still, these advantages come with a cost for parents: You’ll have to select a curriculum, foster opportunities for socializing, and provide supervision (at least until high school). But even if a yellow bus isn’t whisking your kid away every day, there are ways to get many of the homeschool benefits that don‘t become a full time job – such as a microschool or a full-service, home-based option like Prisma.
A hybrid option between homeschooling and traditional school is microschooling. Born out of the pandemic phenomenon of learning ’pods,’ in which families pooled resources while schools were closed for in-person learning, microschools serve a maximum of 10-15 students - but may be joined in a network to other microschools.
Microschooling is a good fit for parents who are attracted to the small, customized environment of homeschool and want a built-in cohort to support their child’s education. Parents can have significant input into curriculum, approach and peer group, without shouldering the daily obligations -- once the school gets up and running.
Once you decide which of these choices gives you the right level of involvement, you’ll want to drill down into the question of educational approach: traditional, specialty or alternative.
If your child does well in an environment structured around individual academic subjects, tests and letter grades, but wants smaller class sizes and (generally) better funded extracurriculars, consider these alternatives.
Private schools have significant freedom to design high quality curriculum, create an academic calendar, and establish graduation requirements. Cost is often the biggest barrier to attending, although need- and merit-based financial aid is generally available. (There are also specialty and alternative private schools as discussed below.)
Parochial schools often cost less than their private counterparts and incorporate religious instruction.
A charter school is a free option with no geographical limitations on enrollment, so if you’re willing to drive your child, you might be able to take advantage of this category of school. Make sure to consult the school‘s charter to learn more about its mission and approach.
If you can’t find the ideal situation in your community and are willing to let your child live away from home, a boarding school could be the right fit. Boarding school students often establish deep bonds with their community and develop independence while living away from home. While boarding schools have jaw-dropping price tags, many offer significant financial aid.
If your child has a passion for the arts, an interest in STEM, or a love of foreign language, you might look into a specialty school. In addition to private specialty schools, consider magnet schools: These public education programs are free but may require a lottery to enter. If this is on your radar you’ll want to inform yourself of the yearly deadline (and have a backup plan in case you don’t get a slot).
If you hear your kid constantly saying school is boring or asking, ”When will I ever need this in my life?” you might look into alternatives to school that kindle their desire for real-world learning.
A subset of private schools, alternative schools are rooted in the tradition of progressive education, a pedagogical movement that started in the late 1800s. The term ‘progressive’ signals the movement’s interest in experiential, interdisciplinary, real-world learning that teaches problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork. Well known contributors include Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, whose philosophies live on in modern-day Montessori schools and Waldorf schools.
Access to alternative schools has increased dramatically in recent years. Whereas parents interested in alternative education had been limited to local, in-person options, a new category of home-based virtual learning -- led by Prisma -- has opened possibilities for alternative education that makes zip codes irrelevant.
At the intersection of homeschool, online school, and alternative school, Prisma is ideal for parents who want to spend more quality time with their child, and to be more involved in their education -- without shouldering the entire responsibility. Whereas most online schools replicate the traditional silos of public education, at Prisma kids learn through project-based learning: building, creating and designing. Rather than earn grades from a teacher who imparts knowledge in a mandatory series of subjects, Prisma learners receive growth-oriented feedback from coaches with whom they build close relationships and discover the real-world implications of their interests.
No longer limited by one‘s address, the search for alternatives to traditional school has grown increasingly complex. So start by getting clear on how involved you want to be. Then, once you consider the kind of environment that will help your child thrive -- whether it’s a traditional, specialty or alternative school -- you‘ll be able to do a deep dive into the specific options and, ideally, attend an information session to get a better sense of fit. If you‘d like to check out a free demo Prisma workshop, run by one of our coaches, sign up here.