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Alternative Education Programs: When to Start Looking?

By Lily Iatridis  January 1, 2001

LP - Happy TeensSo how do we decide when to start looking at alternative education programs for our children?

When it comes to our children's schooling, whether it's an alternative education program or a traditional one, the one thing we have to check every few years is whether or not the program we've chosen is still the right fit. Moving into a "good" school district isn't always the right  answer for the long term. Sometimes, as parents, we need to supplement their brick-and-mortar education outside of the traditional classroom. Sometimes, we need to find a completely different program altogether.

If you're feeling any misgivings about your child's current program, pay attention to that even if you're not a trained professional in education. You know your kids and their needs best. All the same, you certainly don't want to make any big decisions based purely on emotion. Below are some steps to help you objectively evaluate how well your child's education program is working for them.

Determine if your child's learning is where it should be for their current grade level. Do your children have the skills and content knowledge they should have for their age? If you don't have a measure to go by, visit your state school board's core education objectives website. For example, to find learning objectives in my state, I do an internet search on "NJ state education objectives" and New Jersey's Core Curriculum Standards immediately comes up. Detailed learning objectives by grade and subject area at these government sites should be available for every state in the U.S. 

For a second opinion, try checking in with experts in the alternative education arena. Specifically, homeschooling expert Susan Wise Bauer's book, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home is an excellent reference. 

Decide if your current program is meeting your child's needs. For example, is your child happy at their school? Are they bored? Are they challenged enough? Are their weaknesses being addressed? Is their creativity being stifled? You can see this in your daily conversations with them as well as from the work that comes home and the teacher's comments on that work.

Decide on the educational goals you want for your child -- until they're old enough to decide for themselves. Many parents want their kids to go to college. Many want them to receive a religious education. Many want small classroom sizes. Some want a more arts focused environment for their kids. All of these and many more desires are perfectly valid and wonderful in their diversity. We all want our children to be happy and well educated to maximize their opportunities when they go out into the world. Many public school settings only have the funding to focus strongly on core standards, and sometimes, they don't have the funds to even teach all of those. Parents have to decide what they're going to do about that. What's tricky and difficult is deciding the best course of action when you know you need to make an adjustment.

Do you change schools? Do you undertake homeschooling? Do you try an online school? Do you supplement with some form of after school assistance or enrichment? These decisions can feel complicated and intimidating.

How do you approach deciding on an alternative education program?  

Look at the program's teachers. Are their assignments clear? Do they teach in a style that your child responds to well? How do they give feedback to your child? How do they check in to make sure children are truly understanding their lessons? Last but not least, can they demonstrate examples of student improvement over a specific time period? 

Get references from families in the program. Be sure to construct questions that will elicit specific responses. For example:

  • "What are the greatest strengths of this school?"
  • "How do you think they could improve the program?"
  • "What kinds of kids benefit most from this school?"

Get specific about your child's needs. Do they need skills development, exposure to more content, or a combination of both? Seek a school or program that offers exactly what you want or find as close a match as possible. 

What's affordable? If you're looking to save money on tuition, try online options. There are some excellent content-based free options available. Khan Academy is an excellent source for short lessons on a huge variety of subjects, while Coursera offers free classes at the college level from a number of universities. However, if your child needs skills development, which often means regular communication with a live expert instructor, be forewarned that you'll need to pay some amount of tuition. 

Whatever you choose, you'll know you've made the right decision when both you and your child are confident that they're getting the best of what you want for their education.


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