By: Jessica Heichel on May 22nd, 2020
Charter Schools Vs. Alternative Schools | Education
Of all the countless decisions you’ll make as a parent, perhaps none are so important as how you choose to educate your child. Yet, for all the weight and consequence placed on this choice, it sometimes feels like straightforward information on the topic is frustratingly hard to come by.
Where are the facts and figures? Where are the convenient tables, line graphs, and pie charts showing us concrete numbers we can follow with absolute confidence?
While it would be amazing if we could each simply plug a few stats into a program and map out the best possible course for our children, the truth is parents are faced with a dizzying array of options, among them, traditional schooling, charter schools, and other alternatives to public education.
And perhaps it’s that word “alternatives” that acts as one of the biggest stumbling blocks. There is the overarching concept of alternative education, and then there is the very specific meaning of the term “alternative school.” Many times, charter schools and alternative schools are used as interchangeable terms, when in fact they are quite different.
Understanding exactly what is meant by charter schools vs. alternative schools will be a crucial part in helping you make the right decision for your child.
Let’s begin by unpacking each of these terms individually.
What is a Charter School?
Charter schools are still a relatively new concept in American education. The first charter school in the country opened in 1992, whereas the first public schools in America date all the way back to the 17th century. As you can imagine, an idea that stretches back more than 300 years is easier for most people to get their minds around than an idea which has not yet turned 30.
Here are the most important facts about charter schools that parents need to know:
- They are public schools. While some may be limited in the number of students they can admit, they are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, background, income, or a student’s ability level.
- They are publicly funded, just like public schools are, but charter schools tend to receive money based on the number of pupils enrolled.
- Charter schools operate separately from the public school system, meaning they are free to implement more creative curricula, or in some cases even focus in on a single specialty such as technology, art, science, etc.
- The term “charter” refers to the agreement or contract signed between the group of people running the school, and the governing body (such as a state, county, or school district) which approved the school.
- While more innovative teaching techniques may be used in charter schools, and while instruction may vary somewhat from the familiar curriculum taught in public schools, charter schools are still required to meet the same educational standards as public schools. Charter school students are also subject to state standardized testing.
- Some charter schools can offer instruction and testing entirely online. These are often referred to as cyber charter schools (more on those later).
Charter schools were developed in response to a demand among parents for more choice when it comes to their children’s education. Rather than weighing the differences between the local public school, and perhaps a cost-prohibitive private or parochial school, parents now have a wider variety of options.
What is an Alternative School?
The term alternative school refers to a very specific educational scenario. Students who attend alternative school might have begun their schooling in a regular public school, but switched to an alternative school when certain challenges began to arise.
To be clear, the challenges facing a child recommended for alternative school extend beyond the reach of the typical IEP or 504 plan. Children in a regular public school who are exhibiting severe behavioral problems or are grappling with emotional issues which make traditional learning nearly impossible, are not being served well where they are.
Alternative school may look different depending on how each district chooses to handle it. A few examples of an alternative school scenario might include:
- Students report to their regular public school after hours to receive instruction from highly trained teachers in the afternoons and evenings.
- Students remain on home-bound education and public school teachers working for the district visit them in their home for learning. (Typically for an abbreviated day, or perhaps only on certain days each week.) This option is sometimes offered for children recovering from a severe illness or injury as well.
- Students report to a public school building specifically designed as an alternative school. They will not be mixed in with the regular student population.
Alternative school is designed to be helpful for children who are considered high risk. Sometimes, alternative school is presented to parents as a last resort, or last chance for the student to turn their behavior around before being considered for juvenile corrections.
While alternative schooling can be extremely beneficial for some children, it is obviously not appropriate for everyone, and it is important that parents understand what is meant by the term.
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What Makes Parents Choose One Over the Other?
While both charter schools and alternative schools present parents with a choice, there are usually some very clear-cut reasons that parents choose one over the other.
As mentioned above, alternative schools are reserved for at-risk students who need highly specialized educators to see them through their unique challenges. In many cases, alternative school is not chosen by the parent at all but recommended or even mandated by the school district.
If a child’s behavior or emotional issues have made the typical public school setting unsafe for themselves or other students, alternative school may be the best answer for them.
Charter schools on the other hand, can be especially popular in areas where the public school system has a poor reputation. Very few families have the luxury of uprooting their lives and moving to an area where the public school system is more highly regarded. Up until the early 90's, that was really the only option available to students who – through no fault of their own – were living in an area with severely under-performing schools.
Looking at it another way, charter schools may choose to hire teachers who rely on new and innovative teaching styles which they feel will serve students better than the current public school curriculum. Parents may look at differences in performance, safety, student success, and parent-teacher communication, and decide that a nearby charter school makes much more sense for their child.
Can Charter Schools Act as Alternative Schools?
This is another area where precise wording becomes very important. For the most part, no. Charter schools are public schools, and just like the public school system, they will have concerns about a student’s safety and emotional well-being. If a child can truly be served better by alternative school, that will be true regardless of whether that child was originally attending a traditional public school, private school, or a charter school.
However, something charter schools can do is act as an alternative to public school. If you have a child currently enrolled in your local public school and you feel that they are not being challenged appropriately, not receiving the attention they deserve, or are experiencing other problems such as repeated bullying or academic struggle, you do have a choice in where you want to send your child to school. A charter school may be exactly what you’re looking for.
What About Cyber Charter Schools?
There’s another option we’ve only touched on briefly, but it’s very important that parents are aware of this option as well.
Cyber charter schools are also part of the public education system, but they allow students to do all their lessons, projects, homework, presentations, and every other aspect of a typical school experience from home.
A few reasons parents might choose cyber charter schools for their child:
- The days of the 9 to 5 job are ending. More and more parents are finding themselves working what would once have been considered “odd hours.” In other words, some families have a very real need and appreciation of flexibility in their schedules, and that extends to their children’s schooling as well.
- Some children who struggle with pen and paper work may suddenly come to life and thrive when they are able to put technology to dynamic use in their education. Rather than staying in a setting where “iPad day” happens once a week, these children get the benefit of working with technology every day.
- For some students, the biggest challenge facing them in the traditional public school setting is pacing. Perhaps they need 20 extra minutes to finish a test. Conversely, perhaps they finish their test 20 minutes before the rest of the class and become bored and distracted while waiting. Cyber charter schools give parents and students a greater degree of control over the pace at which they learn.
- The local brick-and-mortar public schools available in a given area might not be adequately performing or challenging a child appropriately. While this is certainly not true of every school, some parents find themselves dissatisfied with the schooling options nearby and may choose to reset their child’s learning in an environment that works better for them.
- As much as we would love to think that the bullying issue has been firmly tackled by every school in the nation, unfortunately that’s not the case. Children who have been the victims of incessant bullying often find that they thrive in an environment where they know they will be completely free from that stress and anxiety. This is a case where alternatives to public education can make all the difference to a student and their family.
For some families, cyber charter schools make complete sense. For other families, they are still unsure and may want more information before deciding either way.
Which brings us to our next point…
The Most Important Tool in a Parent’s Toolbox is Information
The best way to decide for sure which type of school is right for your child is to gather as much information as you can. Check out school rankings online, tour local schools whenever possible, talk to family, friends, and neighbors about their experiences – good and bad – with their children’s schooling.
If you don’t feel confident about the public school choices available to you, remember that you have options. Alternatives to public school in your local area come in many forms including private school, parochial school, local charter schools, homeschooling, and online cyber charter schools. Each of these will have pros and cons, and the only person who can truly know what is best for your family is you.
If cyber charter school does sound like something that would benefit your child, we invite you to attend an online open house with PA Virtual Charter School. We are a PA cyber school serving students and families all across Pennsylvania.
This online open house will be much like an open house you would attend at any other school. You will learn about our curriculum and teaching methods, you will get a peek inside our virtual classroom and see how it works, you’ll get a hands-on demonstration of the technology we use, and of course you will get to meet other parents and staff here at PA Virtual Charter School.
This is a great way to add that all-important information to your toolbox so you can make this decision. To RSVP to our open house, click here.