5 Best Online High Schools

So, traditional brick-and-mortar high school isn’t a good option, and you’re exploring alternatives. Here’s what to discuss as a family to narrow down the infinite options.

Emily Veno
• 
January 31, 2024

The world has changed immensely since the traditional high school system was designed 100+ years ago. At Prisma, we built a new kind of school because we believe many kids are finishing traditional high school education without a sense of purpose, or the real-world skills they need to succeed.

We built an online school because of the unique opportunities virtual learning offers. The schedule flexibility allows online students more time for their passions. Not being based anywhere in particular means we can hire the best teachers in the world and build a global community of learners to expand student horizons. And a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning means we can offer a more personalized learning experience than ever before.

Online high school used to be a last resort for credit recovery and special circumstances. Now, it's a lifestyle choice for families who feel constrained or let down by the traditional system, and want a quality education on their own terms.

We are living abroad for one year and decided on Prisma for our 15 year old daughter. Prisma offers unmatched flexibility, strong academic pathways for each learner, and the most supportive teachers, coaches, and staff. Our Prisma experience has been 100% positive. -Prisma Parent, Niche review

The Importance of Choosing an Accredited Online High School

Accreditation is a validation process ensuring educational institutions meet established regional or national educational standards. The process involves a detailed evaluation by an accrediting commission. This is not a one-time thing; it requires regular self-evaluation, formal review, and renewal.

Why is Accreditation Important?

  1. Quality Assurance: Accreditation signifies that a school maintains a high academic standard.
  2. College and Career Readiness: A diploma from an accredited online high school will be accepted by all colleges.
  3. Transferability of Credits: Credits from an accredited online high school are more likely to be accepted by other educational institutions.

Who Accredits Private Online Schools?

Sometimes we get questions like: “Is Prisma accredited by the state of Texas?” Contrary to popular belief, the state does not accredit private schools! Most online schools will be either public (accredited by the state) or private and accredited through an agency. The U.S. Department of Education maintains a list of recognized accrediting agencies (including Cognia, Prisma’s accreditor), so check if the school’s accrediting body is on this list.

Prisma’s Accreditation by Cognia

Our accreditation process took one year, and we were approved by Cognia’s evaluators on our first attempt. This process involved thorough internal and external reviews. Cognia evaluated our middle school and high school curriculum, attended our online courses, interviewed parents and teachers, and reviewed data on our learners’ progress compared to their peers nationwide. Each year, Cognia will continue to evaluate Prisma to ensure we maintain this high-quality learning environment.

The Best Online High Schools

Prisma

Good Fit For: High schoolers who want a hands-on curriculum personalized to their interests, daily live interaction and community building with teachers & peers, and an innovative, real-world, “hard fun” approach to learning.

Tuition: $10,750 annually; with 40% of families receiving financial aid

Curriculum: High school courses from Biology to English to History are covered through real-world, project-based themes like The Future of Health or Hindsight 20/20. Learners build a portfolio of projects each school year highlighting their strengths and interests for college admissions. Math and foreign language are covered in small groups by level.

In our weekly Life Skills workshop, learners gain practical skills for future success from financial literacy to friendships to household maintenance.

Beyond Core Courses: Electives, dual enrollment (college courses while in high school) and AP courses, and optional honors courses embedded in each theme. Our LaunchPad program incorporates college prep and counseling, a learner-designed Capstone project, and a 12th grade internship program with real-world partners.

Schedule: Learners attend a daily standup and one hour-long academic workshop (connected to each session’s theme) within their tight-knit peer cohort each day. They also attend 1:1 meetings with their mentor coach, plus optional extracurriculars, expert guest speakers, and office hours for support on their work.

Reviews: 4.8/5 on Niche

Laurel Springs School

Good Fit For: Athletes, performers, or other learners who have a schedule making traditional in-person school a challenge; Learners who want a lot of control over their daily schedule and have the self-motivation to complete work without much oversight

Tuition: $9,900 annually

Curriculum: Catalog of core classes similar to what you would find at a traditional high school, with additional electives and mini-modules. Format is a mix of online modules and lecture-style online courses delivered by teachers, but teachers don’t offer support outside the courses. Instead, learners can chat with an outside tutor company.

Beyond Core Courses: College counselors, AP courses, and dual enrollment options are available. Also includes electives, virtual field trips, and a private social network.

Schedule: The schedule is flexible and built by the learner themselves.

Reviews: 4.3/5 on Niche

Avenues Online High School

Good Fit For: Families who travel for work frequently and would like access to Avenues’ in-person campuses; those who can afford elite private school tuition

Tuition: Avenues offers income-based tuition rates ranging from $7,500-$37,400 annually.

Curriculum: Avenues is an elite private school preparing learners for admission to selective high schools and colleges. Their curriculum aims to cover the Avenues Elements (including topics from Classic Works to Algorithms) and learners experience the interdisciplinary course called Great Works — team-taught by two faculty members, one specializing in the sciences and the other in the humanities.

Beyond Core Courses: Each learner is assigned a “crew” of peers to connect with socially. Each “dean” (a mentor assigned to each learner) serves as a college counselor, helping students navigate the college admissions process.

Schedule: Varies based on time zone, but expect 3-hour blocks of live classes and other blocks free for independent work

Reviews: 4.8/5 on Niche

James Madison High School

Good Fit For: Especially caters to adult learners who want a distance learning diploma program, but also enrolls traditional high-school age students who want a flexible approach or need credit recovery.

Tuition: $1,599 with various payment plan options

Curriculum: A completely self-paced online high school diploma program with multiple tracks: college preparatory, general, or career pathways. The format is no-frill online e-books, study guides, and modules, with academic advocates available for limited support. No live interaction provides flexibility but may not be engaging enough for everyone.

Beyond Core Courses: Dual enrollment opportunities available through the eCore program with University Systems of Georgia. Overall, this is not the option to pick if electives and extracurriculars are a priority.

Schedule: 100% flexible and self-paced with no deadlines.

Reviews: 4.4/5 on Niche

Stanford University Online High School

Good Fit For: Gifted learners who are hungry for a major challenge and are intellectually curious, and families who can handle the high cost.

Tuition: Full-time tuition is $29,850, part-time tuition is $17,910, and single courses are $5,970.

Curriculum: A rigorous, accelerated experience focused on higher-level thinking. The core curriculum includes the standard subjects plus Philosophy and an interdisciplinary core sequence covering argumentation, history of science, and more. Live courses are taught by teachers and are available to full-time students and as part-time one-off offerings.

Beyond Core Courses: Extracurriculars like Clubs & Circles and Student Government, elective options, and the residential Summer@Stanford program. There is a robust college counseling program, although the school makes clear they are not a “feeder school” into Stanford.

Schedule: A “college-style schedule” with block-style classes and breaks for outside activities and studying.

Reviews: 4.7/5 on Niche

What's Prisma?

  • Prisma is an accredited, project-based, online program for kids in grades 4-12.
  • We exist to ignite a lifelong love of learning and prepare kids to thrive in the future.
  • Our middle school, high school, and parent-coach programs provide personalized curriculum, 1:1 support from educators, and cohorts where kids build community.

Selecting the Right Online High School

So, traditional brick-and-mortar high school isn’t a good option, and you’re exploring alternatives. Here’s what to discuss as a family to narrow down the infinite options:

Online High School vs. Homeschooling High School

Though the two are sometimes used interchangeably, there are a few key differences. In most cases, enrolling in an online school is like enrolling in a traditional brick-and-mortar school; whereas homeschooling requires a special registration process, depending on your state.

Most homeschoolers pick and choose different curriculum for different subjects and build their own learning program, which is great for personalizing learning, but can be labor intensive for parents. Online schools, on the other hand, offer comprehensive (and often accredited) curriculum.

Private Schools vs. Public Schools

Families seek out private schools for offerings public schools don’t provide, such as cutting-edge curriculum, advanced academics, increased support, or extracurriculars. Families who enroll in virtual private schools are looking for a top-notch experience.

The most expensive component of any school model is staff! In general, the higher a program’s cost, the more educator support you should expect your child to receive. Most online public schools have a teacher:student ratio more than double than in-person school. It’s important to ask any private school for their teacher:student ratio (ours is 1:14) and how often teachers support students individually (at Prisma, learners regularly meet 1:1 with their learning coach, and receive daily feedback and instruction).

Actual tuition costs don’t always match the sticker price. Many online private schools, like Prisma, offer need-based scholarships. In America, we’re currently experiencing a boom in school choice legislation allowing families to spend government funds on education costs, usually in the form of ESAs or vouchers. You can read more about options in your state here.

Philosophy & Format

Although the amount of online schools available can be overwhelming, it means you can choose the program best fitting your child’s learning style and your family’s dreams for their education.

When evaluating any online school, consider the following questions (no right or wrong answers!):

  1. What are the most important skills I want my child to develop for adulthood? (Ex: collaboration, writing, technology) Does this curriculum develop those skills?
  2. What kind of learning is engaging and interesting for my child? Do they light up when learning is hands-on, game-based, or collaborative? Is this program built for that style of learning?
  3. What support does my child need to be successful in distance education? How much support can you provide on a daily basis? Look for a program with lots of educator support if you have a busy schedule or if your child struggles to work independently.

Live Teaching vs. Self-Paced

Not all online schools have teachers. Self-paced online schools contain curriculum modules learners complete independently, at their own pace, with limited (if any) educator support. These programs are best for families who above all desire a flexible schedule, and trust their learner will be self-motivated enough to complete the work.

Other online schools have live teachers. However, what exactly these teachers do (and whether they are certified) varies. Some virtual schools may have limited time where teachers interact with students, or expect parents to handle everything outside of the live sessions. At Prisma, our certified teachers take on the role of “learning coach.” They each lead a small cohort, meet 1:1 to mentor each learner, provide feedback, and facilitate engaging daily workshops.

Beyond Core Courses

Of course, any online high school program should provide all courses learners need to earn a high school diploma and meet college entry requirements. (These vary by country and state, but many schools, like Prisma, with a global population of students, develop curriculum that meets a wide variety of requirements.)

But the best private online high schools do more than the minimum. Look for schools that offer:

  1. Electives, extracurricular activities, and other opportunities for learners to personalize high school to their passions.
  2. Dual Enrollment, Advanced Placement, and honors courses to help your learner boost their GPA and earn college credits.
  3. College admissions support: this might look like ACT and SAT prep, counseling, virtual college visits, and support with navigating scholarships. At Prisma, our LaunchPad program provides each high school student with 1:1 college counseling.
  4. Real-world learning opportunities: High school should be about preparing for adulthood, not sitting in front of a screen doing multiple-choice quizzes. At Prisma, we maintain a flexible schedule so high schoolers can participate in our Capstone & Internship programs and activities in their communities.

More Online Education Resources

Best Online Middle Schools

Our Project-Based Online School: How It Works

How Do Homeschoolers Get Into College?

Best Online Homeschool Programs

How We Build a Sense of Community in Online Learning

Life of a Prisma High Schooler: Aaron

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