K12 Online School Options: Homeschool, Private, and Public

“Traditional” online schools try to replicate the traditional school experience. But innovative new models are designing a totally new approach.

Emily Veno
May 3, 2024

Although it’s becoming more common, choosing online school over in-person is outside the norm. As part of my work at Prisma, I’ve spoken with hundreds of families exploring online learning. I never could have predicted the variety of reasons they give for taking this path!

I’ve met digital nomads who want to “worldschool” as a family. Parents of “twice-exceptional” learners fed up with a one-size-fits-all system. Rural families who want a more innovative education than what’s available near them. Plus parents who are simply passionate about their child's education, and want to get involved.

When you start dipping your toes into online education options, it can be hard to sort through all the names you find on Google and Reddit. In this post, we’ll give an overview of common types of online school options. We'll also link tons of other guides we’ve written on the topic.

Types of Online Learning

Whether in-person or at home, online programs are a part of most K-12 education programs. But when people talk about “online school,” they usually mean one of these three things:

  1. Homeschooling with online curriculum. Homeschooling means you are in charge of selecting or creating your child’s learning materials. Many homeschoolers use online curriculum (digital learning activities) for some or all subjects. These options don’t include live classes and are not accredited (only schools, not curriculum, are accredited). There are no teachers, so you keep your child on track.
  2. Online public school. Tuition-free programs run by local school districts, often through companies like Connections Academy. Enrollment is not considered homeschool. It’s like attending in-person public school, only online. Programs usually include both independent work and live classes. Mixed reviews on engagement, quality, and level of interaction.
  3. Online private school. Like families can choose private in-person school, you can pay tuition to attend a private online program. There are hundreds of private online schools with different approaches. Many, like Prisma, boast more teacher support, peer interaction, and specialized curriculum. Many also offer scholarships, or allow use of ESA funds!

If you’re not sure if you want to pursue true homeschooling or enrollment in a full-time online school, explore the guides below.

Our Guide: What’s the Difference Between Homeschool and Online School?

Want to Homeschool? Use this Guide to Decide Which Style of Homeschooling Is Right for Your Family

Guide to Online Homeschool Curriculum Programs

Types of Online School Programs

If you’re leaning toward full-time online school, use the resources below to decide what kind of school you’re looking for.

Self-paced virtual schools vs. live online courses

Not all online schools provide classes led by a teacher. Instead, in “self-paced” programs, learners do assignments...well, at their own pace. Self-paced programs enable a 100% flexible schedule. They are also often more affordable, since the school isn’t paying teachers to lead classes. Self-paced can also help kids who learn at a very different speed from their peers.

But education research shows self-paced platforms are better as a supplement rather than the sole form of education. Kids need to discuss what they learn and apply it to complex projects. Plus, they might get bored if the platform is repetitive! So if you use a self-paced program, incorporate extra interaction.

Traditional vs. innovative

Before you pull the trigger on any option, take a step back. What are your goals for your child’s education? What do you truly want them to learn before reaching adulthood? Make sure any program you choose instills those skills.

Why are you pursuing at-home education? Make sure any program you choose enables the learning experience you were hoping for.

“Traditional” online schools try to replicate the traditional school experience. Think math class, then science class, then a worksheet, then a test. But why do we need to just put traditional brick and mortar school online? Are we that happy with the status quo?

Innovative new online schools like Prisma are designing a totally new approach. Think flexible schedules and personalized paths. Think cutting-edge curriculum that teaches real-world skills and lets kids choose what to learn.


Online Elementary School

Online schools are more popular than ever with the K-5 age group. Prisma’s program begins at 4th grade, but there are options available for younger.

If you’re exploring these options, it’s essential to understand the developmental needs of this age group, and how online programs may align or not. For example, most elementary learners aren’t ready to work completely on their own. Even if an online school offers teachers, be ready to support for up to several hours each day. Some programs (like Prisma’s parent-coach program), give parents the official role of “learning coach.”

Also consider screen time. For the youngest learners, Common Sense Media recommends no more than an hour or so, while older elementary learners can handle more. Regardless, for social development, elementary schoolers need ample in-person extracurricular opportunities.

Full List of Online Elementary School Options

Online Middle School

“Middle school” is typically thought of as Grades 6-8. Prisma’s program begins at Grade 4. Research shows kids often lose interest in school (and learning) at this age. Prisma Middle School keeps love of learning alive through "hard fun," project-based curriculum.

Academic subjects get more advanced in middle school. Many homeschooling families try online middle school programs for support teaching these topics. Homeschooled middle schoolers also often begin to crave more connections with peers. They may also want to learn from educators besides their parent!

Some families pull their child from in-person middle school because it just isn't a fit. Maybe they are getting lost in the shuffle or struggling to juggle several classes for the first time. Or their special need, giftedness, or twice-exceptionality isn't being adequately addressed. Online programs can offer less stress and more personalization.

Middle schoolers need a curriculum that allows them to discover, and follow, their growing special interests. They should also apply learning to projects and real-world scenarios that go beyond multiple choice.

Full List of Online Middle School Options

Online High School

Online high school has been around for a long time, from credit recovery options to adults going back to earn a high school diploma. Today, some families try online high school for other reasons.

Online high school can provide a more flexible lifestyle or allow teens to go at their own pace. Some kids enroll in online programs to focus on a special interest like a sport, performance career, or even a business.

Some families may homeschool until 8th grade, then switch to an online program. They could handle grades K-8 on their own, but want support navigating advanced subjects or creating transcripts. They may also want access to dual enrollment or AP (Advanced Placement) courses.

Prisma High School students experience project-based curriculum in all graduation requirements. They attend daily live workshops facilitated by certified teachers. They also engage in LaunchPad, our college and career prep program. LaunchPad includes college application support, dual enrollment through ASU, capstone projects, and internships.

Full List of Online High School Options

Prisma and the Online Education Industry

Many massive online K12 programs were built back when online learning was a temporary fix for families who couldn’t attend in-person. Today, these programs tend to take dry public school curriculum and plop it online.

But since 2020, homeschooling rates are rising. Many families are choosing virtual learning. They want something high quality that engages their learner. Families are realizing they don’t need to live based around the needs of the school district. Instead, they can design their own educational experience based on the needs of their child.

"We started Prisma because we were tired of watching Hattie come home exhausted. She was mildly happy at school. She was also ‘invisible.’ The quiet, good kid. We thought ‘there must be something more.’ Our ‘why’ now is we feel our kids are being raised in our family culture vs. a peer culture. They are receiving an innovative education to actually prepare them for life. They spend more time being ‘them’ and learning how to thrive in who they are vs. adapting to the demands of an overstressed school system. Prisma is how they are stepping into this confidence of what they are capable of, in a life with fewer distractions and broader experiences.” -Jenna W., Prisma Parent

Companies like Prisma are starting from scratch. Our goal is to design a better approach to learning than the traditional system.

Prisma’s Approach to Online Learning

65% of today’s elementary school learners will grow up to do jobs that haven’t been invented yet.

The traditional school system isn’t well-designed to prepare kids to thrive in such an uncertain future. Prisma’s curriculum builds real-world skills alongside academic subjects. Kids learn collaborative problem solving, creativity, and entrepreneurial skills to help them thrive.

Kids need to love learning to be able to adapt in the future. Prisma’s curriculum team designs learning that is “hard fun,” hands-on, and project-based to get kids invested and excited. Kids connect learning to their interests in each Prisma theme, from Legend Has It to Build a Business to Unsolved Mysteries. Along the way, they master each skill they need for future academic success.

And just because families want to learn at home, doesn’t mean they want to be isolated. Prisma’s rich community for learners and parents helps them build lifelong friendships. Prisma learners experience daily interactive workshops with their cohort. They can also attend in-person meet ups, virtual events, and learner-led social clubs.

Prisma’s learning coaches provide mentorship and assessment on learner work to help kids grow. We hire the best teachers in the world to be coaches, because educators who can motivate kids are infinitely valuable.

The online K-12 education industry revolution is only getting started. With more options than ever, it’s an exciting time to invest in your child’s learning journey!

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

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