What Are the Alternatives to Public School for My Child?

Many parents are dissatisfied with their child’s public school education. They know their child’s potential, and they’ve seen her enthusiasm and capacity for learning. Yet in public school she may be consistently unhappy, bored, or unchallenged. Parents who feel that their local public school isn’t benefiting their child can consider transferring her to a better public school, or a public magnet or charter school. If these choices are unavailable or unsatisfactory, parents can look at other alternatives.

The most common are private schools. Many parents don’t consider private education because of the costs. Yet some private schools are less expensive than others, many offer scholarships, some are co-ops accepting volunteer work in place of tuition, some help arrange loans, and some offer free or reduced tuition for parents who are employed by the school. When considering costs, you should evaluate your priorities. Some parents decide to invest in their child’s education, and accept a simpler and less costly lifestyle in exchange.

Some parents are wary of private school for another reason. They fear their child will lose the social benefits of attending a neighborhood school. While most private schools encourage a strong sense of community and plan many social activities for their students, it is true that a child who doesn’t attend his neighborhood school will probably have a smaller social circle. However, private school students can still play with their neighborhood friends after school and on weekends in organized activities and on sports teams.

Parents who choose private education do so because they want a social, moral, academic, or religious atmosphere they can’t find in public schools. Some parents have always known, either because of their own backgrounds or because they have firm preferences for a particular type of education, that they would send their child to private school. More often, they choose private school because they’re unhappy with their child’s public school. They may want their child to experience smaller classes, less emphasis on preparing for standardized tests, and a more challenging curriculum. While some parents plan on a full thirteen years of private education, some only want private school for the early elementary years. However, many parents find it hard to put a child back into public school, since they often find private school more effective and individualized.

There are many kinds of private schools: religious, Montessori, Waldorf, college preparatory, academically accelerated, and schools for children with learning disabilities or emotional problems. In large urban areas there are many choices, while small cities or rural areas may have fewer options.

Parents who don’t know what they want should begin by visiting private schools. They can talk to each school’s principal or admissions counselor, attend an open house, and sit in on a class. When observing a school, look for answers to these questions: What are kids expected to achieve? How does the teacher present material? How does she relate to the class? Is there an assistant in the class? How structured is the work and classroom atmosphere? Do the students seem happy and interested? Would your child’s learning style and personality be a match here?

Parents should ask other families for advice about private schools and, if necessary, consult an educational specialist who can test and observe a child, interview parents, and then recommend likely schools.

For parents who choose not to look at private schools but are unhappy with the public ones, there’s another alternative, home schooling. A growing number of families have children who learn at home, taught by their parents. Many local school districts allow home education, and some districts cooperate with home schoolers, letting them use school resources.

People are often shocked when they first hear of home schooling. “How can parents teach their child?” “How will she learn to get along with other kids?”

The fact is, most parents who are able to make the significant time commitment can successfully teach their child. Kids in school spend much of each day marking time. They wait in line, wait for their turn to read, wait to have their questions answered. They do “busy work” while the teacher works with other students. They sit while she disciplines others. Very little of the typical school day is actually spent learning. When a child is schooled at home, she can master material quickly and efficiently.

Home-schooled children usually get along fine socially. Like private-school children, they still play with neighborhood friends and join them in organized activities such as classes, teams, and scouts. They don’t miss out on much socializing at school, because socializing is generally discouraged at school. Students are rewarded for being quiet and reprimanded for talking to friends during class. During recess, interaction may be competitive, fueled by students’ need to be smarter, better, faster than classmates. A child learning at home doesn’t get caught up in that competition and for that reason may get along better with other children.

Since you’re familiar with your child’s learning style and interests, you can individualize her work. Sometimes you can use books; other times you can do hands-on projects with her. Her schooling can also include frequent trips to museums, libraries, performances, and nature centers. Many home schoolers give their children standardized tests once a year to be sure they’re making good progress. Find out what tests your school district gives, and either ask to have your child tested with other students or ask for a copy of the test to administer at home.

If you’re considering home schooling, explore the many resources available. There are supportive national and local homeschooling organizations. There are also curriculum guides available from school systems, local libraries, the Internet, and educational bookstores. You might decide to follow the plan offered by a correspondence school or get together with other home schoolers to share material.

One of the hardest parts of picking an alternative to public school, whether private or home schooling, is dealing with the criticism of other adults. Families who are satisfied with public school may be intolerant of your choices. “I think it’s crazy to keep your child out of school!” “Why spend all that money for private school? It’s so unnecessary!” They may also feel threatened because you’ve chosen a path different from their own.

It’s unpleasant to be judged. But the unpleasantness is more than made up for by the satisfaction of seeing your child blossom in a new school environment. Because of the choices you’ve made, your child may flourish in ways she never would have otherwise.

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