Public School: How Does it Rank Against an Alternative Education?

Success and failure
photo taken by Sigurd Decroos

Public School: it is highly criticized and debated about. In Part 1: Choosing the Best School we learned that the American public school system has ranked poorly in a global test for reading, science, and math skills. We also learned that private schooling and homeschooling are two educational models steadily gaining in popularity in the United States. We interrogated the public school system through the eyes of John Taylor Gatto, a former New York City Teacher of the Year, and Sir Ken Robinson PhD. Gatto, as you remember, received his award only to later turn against the system. Robinson, as you recall, has spent a lifetime working to change the way we have structured the education system.

Public School System vs Options:  This is Part of a Series

Gathering Information About Educational Options and Deciding

In Part 2 you will learn how to educate yourself about the local public school systems in your area. Learn what questions to ask and how to get answers from school district personnel. Get the tools you need to compare the unique options available to you in your neighborhood. Find out how to become part of a homeschool community and learn a little more educational philosophy.

How does the public school system stack up against alternatives for children who require special education?

Public School: will it be a success or failure for your child's education?
Will public school be a success or failure for your child? photo taken by Sigurd Decroos

Unlike many parochial schools who offer religious teachings to their students, the public school system has more resources thanks to federal and state tax payer money allocated specifically for children with special needs. By law, a public school must provide an individualized educational plan for children labeled with special handicaps or as talented and gifted. The bad news is that it can take years to get a child properly labeled and eligible for these services. So if you have a child that you think may require special needs you ought to take advantage of your local school district’s early childhood screenings. You can also contact your local university to find out if they offer screenings or whether free testing is available. If you choose to have your child privately screened by an educational psychologist it can cost around $500, but may be well worth the price if that means not having to wait a few years for services. But equally as troubling is the trend to freehandedly label children with ADHD and putting them on drug regimens that alter their personalities and changing their development route. Many parents who have learning ‘differenced’ children will choose to remove them from the public school system rather than have them labeled and pressured into medicating them. Sir Ken Robinson’s video humorously highlights the geographic trends in labeling kids with ADHD in his educational paradigms video:

Sir Ken Robinson, PhD. shows us an ADHD map.
Robinson says: “According to this, the incidence of ADHD increases as you travel east across the country. People start losing interest in Oklahoma. They can hardly think straight in Arkansas, and by the time they reach Washington they’ve lost it completely.”

So the question remains:

There is no question that ADHD diagnosis is very good for the pharmaceutical industry, but is it good for your child?

Where you live will make a difference on diagnosis, services, funding, and available alternative options for parents and children.

But ADHD is only one diagnosis. You may have a child already enrolled in a parochial school and struggling with a learning disability. It may be possible for your child to remain in their private religious school and still qualify for special education services at their local public school for a specific period of time each week. Services such as reading intervention and speech therapy are often provided in this type of model for children with mild or moderate disabilities. So it is possible to get the best of both worlds for some families.

Others may decide to use the public school system as a stand alone option due to the availability of an onsite social worker, available in house full time school nurse who can administer medication, and the option for a personal classroom aide for their child which is paid for by the government. Much revolves around the IEP and that is determined by a team of educators and professionals who service your child within the public school system. In extreme cases parents may want to research local districts and physically move to the one that has the best services and options for their special needs child. If you are allowed to use the voucher system where you live, moving might not be required. But these options, although ideal, are not always available in every school district or for every student. Laws vary from state to state.

For this reason, many disenfranchised families may choose to homeschool their special needs child. This is a trend that is growing among food allergy families dealing with anaphylaxis. It is also quite a trend among families of children on the autism spectrum. These parents believe homeschooling offers their children the opportunity for a completely personalized educational experience rather than a group learning environment that does not mold it’s curriculum to the specific needs of one child but rather to the basic needs of the entire group being educated. Homeschool parents of special needs students believe that their children are being cared for far better because they can provide a specially tailored program within a schedule that fits the needs of their child and their core family unit. This, of course, falls in line with Sir Ken Robinson’s overall philosophy, as seen in the above video.

How do I determine whether or not my neighborhood public school is as effective or better than my local private school options?

U.S. parents have a terrific online tool at their disposal for getting all the nitty gritty on their neighborhood public school. Visit Great Schools to find out about the demographics of your school, and also how students rank there in comparison to other schools in the nation. Great Schools even offers a comment feature for families to share their personal experiences in a particular school. They list 200,000 public and private schools serving students from pre-K through high school.

Many schools offer open house nights, student shadowing, and new parent social activities for prospective families. Find out if the local public or private schools in your neighborhood have these events or more and when they are held. If possible arrange to meet with school officials to discuss their philosophy, and have a list of questions handy about class sizes, use of classroom aides, length of school day, educational levels of the staff, and the curriculum.  Check with your local library to see if they carry copies of the textbooks used in your neighborhood schools. Many libraries provide this service to their patrons. It comes in handy on nights when the school is closed and your child has forgotten his or her book in the locker there.

What is a charter school, is it available for my family, and how might that benefit my children?

A charter school is a public school for students in grades K-12. A charter school is usually created by teachers, parents and community leaders, or a community-based organization. Any such group can petition to start a charter school. They bring their petition to the local public school board or county board of education in their state. Together with the school board they make a ‘charter’ agreement that highlights their goals and standards of operation as a school. According to the U.S. Department of Education, who did a 4 year study on charters in the late 1990s, they tend to be smaller than regular public schools and they generally receive less money per student than their public school counterpart. To date there are about 5,000 charter schools in the United States, most of which are in Washington D.C. To help prospective parents weigh the pros and cons, the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania has put together a white paper for parents considering whether or not to enroll their child in a charter school.

Charter schools are publicly funded but are not subjected to the same strict standards as traditional public schools. They generally gear academics toward a specific area of focus, such as a school of the arts, charter schools for the gifted, as well as focusing for special needs, such as a school for the deaf. A good resource for parents seeking information about charter schools in their state and local area is the Center for Education Reform. If you are looking for a complete list of options, they offer a national directory of charter schools.  The debate on whether or not charter schools are effective is on-going. There are proponents who claim that charter school students fair at least the same or better and there are critics who claim the opposite. Results vary by school and in many studies there seems to be a strong correlation between parent education levels and student success.

Can I use the K-12 school?

The K-12 School is an online public school curriculum available in most states. It is free of charge for its students who are enrolled through their local public school, and in some cases a loaner computer and internet connection are also provided as well. If you live in a public school district that doesn’t offer a partnership program with the K-12 school, you may still take their courses for a fee. How does it work? K-12 classes take place wherever the student happens to be, as long as an Internet connection can be found. Students take their classes online with phone support from their K-12 teacher, online Web meetings, and sometimes they may meet with their teacher in person. The parent or guardian keeps the student on track  between sessions with homework help and tutoring when necessary on the lessons plans provided by the K-12 teacher. While courses are delivered online, the schools provide plenty of opportunities to connect online and offline with a vibrant community.  School takes about 3-5 hours daily for students. K-12 caters to alternative needs students, whether they are accelerated learners, special needs, have particular health issues that make school attendance difficult, or require educational stability while traveling frequently with their family.

How do I find local resources and curriculum materials for my homeschooled children?

Perhaps you don’t like K-12 online curriculum or it isn’t available where you live. Can you still homeschool your children successfully without breaking the bank? How do you figure out the curriculum, the materials you need, and how to structure your day? If you are wet behind the ears, don’t worry. In nearly every neighborhood in every state there is a homeschool community group that you can certainly connect with both online and in person. Start by calling your local library to inquire. Often times homeschool groups meet at libraries and other public places such as churches and community centers. Visit the Homeschool Social Register for information on groups in your area and their contact information.

Deciding to homeschool is the easy part. Deciding what to teach can be overwhelming, though. If you have little teaching experience you may want to start with subject materials that guide you directly until you feel comfortable in your teaching role and with your children’s learning styles. There are many free online sources of materials for all subjects. Start there and slowly build your experiences together until you feel confident in what you need to use. Once you’ve become committed to a particular program or learning style, visit the Homeschool Curriculum Buyers Co-op for possible discount options on the materials you purchase.

What is unschooling and is it successful?

Somewhat controversial is the philosophical concept of unschooling. It is a learning lifestyle that puts the child at the center of their own education, which is guided by their interests, activities, play, talents, and life experiences. Unschool families do not use a traditional school curriculum. Instead, unschooling encourages the child to informally explore the subjects that most interest them. They believe all children naturally possess a desire to learn and this is then encouraged by the adults in their lives. Unschooling families find grading and testing counterproductive to their goal of maximizing their child’s educational development. So unschooled children are not compared to a norm because in their eyes it is irrelevant. The term “unschooling” began in the 1970s by educator John Holt, who is considered the “father” of unschooling.   Most critics of unschooling consider it an extreme educational philosophy. They believe unschooled children lack the social skills, structure, and motivation necessary to be a successful adult in the real world. Proponents of unschooling say exactly the opposite is true. This is a model that is often used by families of highly gifted children. They claim self-directed education in a natural environment will make a child more able to handle real life situations as an adult. For more information about unschooling, visit the website of formerly unschooled siblings Laura and her brother Allen’s website, Why Unschool. Also check out Peter KoWalke’s documentary on 10 successful unschooled adults entitled, “Grown without Schooling.”

Summarizing the Alternatives to a Public School System:

With the advancements that the internet has given us in the recent decade it has become much easier for parents to adapt new educational models for their own individual situations. Homeschooling in the 21st century has become more and more relevant. Homeschool parents have the option to select a specific curriculum for each child, and cater to their exceptional child in a way the public and private schools cannot. Homeschool families can also better avoid some of the most common kinds of bullying and the many other bad things that come together in one package with a school enrollment. Today there is an abundance of prepackaged homeschooling curriculum sets, multiple online schools and courses for student consumption, and active homeschooling parent groups. This removes many of the possible difficulties newcomers to this educational model might encountered 20 years ago.

The kind of schooling you decide to enroll your children in will ultimately affect the next generation of American educational policies. If the popularity of alternative educational models rise, national public education trends will possibly cause major policy changes in the future. In other words, what’s alternative today might become the norm in the not too distant future.

What’s your opinion on the public school system in your neighborhood? Do you send your children to a private school? Have you begun to homeschool your children?

Read Part 1: Choosing the Best School: Public, Private, or Homeschool?

Read Part 3: Supplementing a Public Education: Homeschooling after School

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