Online High School: How it Works

Distance learning is gaining popularity. Here’s what you need to know about online learning for high school students.

Prisma Staff
February 23, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

Distance learning is gaining popularity. Here’s what you need to know about online learning for high school students.

For high school students and their families who want the flexibility of learning from home without the full-scale responsibility of traditional homeschooling, online education is an increasingly popular choice.

Most of the country had the experience of remote learning during the pandemic, but formal online school works very differently than the spontaneous online classrooms created in March 2020.

Today, there are multiple virtual high school options available, including online public, charter, and private schools, plus online homeschool programs.

Public schools

Open only to students residing in that school district, these tuition-free options offer traditional high school courses. If you enroll in a public cyber school, you’ll likely have access to the same academic high school program as your in-person peers (including advanced placement courses). Some offer credit recovery options — the ability to repeat a required course so that the student can finish high school. You’ll want to check and see if online students are able to participate in extracurriculars and athletics at the local brick and mortar school.

Charter schools

Open to students across a given state, charter schools have more flexibility in terms of  curriculum. They may offer a wider variety of advanced level courses than public online programs. However, since these schools are generally not tied to a physical campus, pay careful attention to whether there are extracurriculars, as well as opportunities for socializing or athletics.

Private schools

The category of online private high school is incredibly broad. These range from large-scale, corporate academies in which students take traditional subjects in asynchronous online courses with little face-to-face interaction, to individualized programs with innovative coursework — like Prisma. While these schools are tuition-based, the cost is often significantly lower than an in-person private school. When investigating these options, check to see that they are accredited (or in the accreditation process), and ask about  opportunities for socializing, field trips and extracurriculars..


Homeschooling with online support

The online high school experience doesn’t have to be full time. Homeschooling families who need support or enrichment in a certain area can look for à la carte online classes. Since you don’t receive a high school diploma from any one institution, your parent will need to make you a transcript — but you’ll have a seemingly infinite supply of classes from which to choose, from core subjects to electives, many of which are free. Just carefully read online reviews about the learning experience (and consult the refund policy!) to ensure you’re getting a high-quality offering that lives up to its promises.

Benefits of an online high school education

Here are common reasons students and families want to take advantage of online high school:

  1. You can engineer a low-distraction learning environment
  2. You get a more flexible schedule
  3. There’s plenty of free time to pursue extracurriculars
  4. You’re able to learn at your own pace
  5. The sky’s the limit for school year travel
  6. You can avoid negative in-person interactions, such as bullying and discrimination based on perceived identities (gender, race, sexuality, learning differences, disabilities, etc.)
  7. It’s possible to socialize with a diverse cohort beyond your school district.

Questions to ask when considering online learning

To go into an online high school experience with open eyes, ask these questions before signing up.

What kind of curriculum is offered?

When people take their first steps towards online education, they’re often concerned about   pragmatics. That can leave big question marks where the learning is concerned.

First, think about what gets your learner excited and what leaves them “blah.” What kinds of approaches to learning do they appreciate? Are they hands-on? Are they eager to work with others? Are they self-directed?

With your child’s profile in mind, make sure to find out:

  1. Are courses traditional or interdisciplinary?
  2. How are the students grouped (grade level, age, other)?
  3. What degree of autonomy do students have in choosing their own topics / approaches?
  4. Are there electives and, if so, are they included in the tuition?

At Prisma, all of the core courses are custom and taught in a project-based, interdisciplinary way. Our electives, such as foreign language, are taught through online partner providers. We also allow learners to receive credit for in-person courses they find locally.

How much individualized attention do I get?

When choosing an online high school, a make-or-break issue is access to the teacher. Without the physical proximity of in-person schooling, you want to make sure you’re going to get individualized feedback on your work — and that you know the person giving it to you. Check to see:

  1. Do learning coaches offer live classes?
  2. How big are the classes?
  3. Is there continuity year-to-year?
  4. Are there regular one-on-one / family meetings?

Since Prisma coaches follow a small cohort of 20, leading daily workshops and offering regular one-on-one feedback sessions, they get to know their learners and challenge them in the most effective way possible.

What is the community like?

Once you step away from the conventions of in-person high school, you need to find out what kind of social environment you are walking into. In addition to asking technical details like class size and student-to-teacher ratio, request the chance to talk with current enrolled families and learn about their experience first-hand. We also recommend you look for things like clubs or other social opportunities, where community building happens.

  1. Are there in-person meetups?
  2. Are there school-sponsored activities (clubs, teams, study groups)?
  3. How much time is spent in live workshops?
  4. Is student collaboration allowed, facilitated and/or encouraged?

Prisma learners go through the program with small, close-knit cohorts who meet in daily live workshops, frequently collaborate on projects, and have the chance to participate in Prisma-sponsored clubs. Our end-of-cycle Expo days provide the opportunity for learners to showcase their projects to the larger Prisma community, which allows them to build connections with other learners, coaches and families.

How do assessments work?

While assessment might be straightforward at an online public school, charter and private schools have more leeway.

  1. How are assessments conducted?
  2. Are there grades and, if so, how are they assigned? If not, what kind of feedback do I receive?
  3. What kind of transcript do I receive?

Prisma high school awards credits and provides a traditional transcript, although we don't approach it a traditional way: We use a feedback-rich, self-assessment process where kids propose their own grades for each theme, and the coach either approves or revises it. While the ongoing feedback process is qualitative, learners get a traditional numerical transcript that they can use to apply to college.

What’s the schedule like?

The one million dollar question. Check how many face-to-face classes are offered, versus the expectation of independent, asynchronous work. For total flexibility, you might want more offline work but will likely have little-to-no sense of community; for meaningful peer and teacher interaction, look for more live high school classes being offered.

  1. How many hours a day am I expected to be in live classes?
  2. How many hours of independent study am I expected to do?
  3. What other opportunities for interaction are part of the day?

Prisma’s schedule provides a balance between live and independent work, with ninety minutes of daily workshops and math classes during which learners and coaches collaborate, combined with self-paced study.

How does it prepare me for the real world?

The bottom line of high school education: how well does it prepare learners for the world beyond graduation (both in terms of its curricular and extracurricular offerings)? In addition to college prep courses, find out:

  1. Are there opportunities for internships as part of enrollment?
  2. Will you be 100% responsible for finding the internship?
  3. What kind of support do you get from the program, as you find and complete the internship?
  4. What kind of credit do you receive?

Prisma high school offers a weekly life skills class, where students master adulting and get ready for college applications. This real-world focus is the lens through which all our courses are designed: as part of our project-based approach, students are taught to engage in real problems, using actual tools.

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