Any way you approach it, school choice is overwhelming. We want to provide the best for our children, but the educational landscape is complex and varied. For most parents and families, our basis of knowledge on the different types of schools available come from our own experiences and stereotypes perpetuated in media: mean nuns, over-crowded public classrooms, or elitist private schools. Finances and housing also complicate our decision-making.
So where do we begin?
In this guide, we’ll highlight various options within the school choice process. First, we will explain the difference between a school’s philosophy and structure. Then we will provide you with a brief primer on the most common U.S. school terminology. Lastly, you can expect a review of available STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) learning opportunities for each.
First let’s distinguish between a school’s learning philosophy and a school’s structure.
A school’s structure has less to do with learning and more to do with operations. There are three main factors that dictate a school’s structure: its mission, funding, and student demographics.
Mission: Every school has a stated mission, mandate, charter or similar document. These state the vision, goals, and philosophy of that school. For a public school with state funding this is a “mandate” or “charter” between the school and the state. Whereas for a private school this is usually a “mission statement.” These documents are readily available online and offer a good starting point. However, they are typically very general and won’t give you much information on the day-to-day culture of learning within the school’s walls. For this, it’s better to visit, talk with parents, school administrators, teachers and alumni.
Funding: Like all organizations and operations, schools need money to run. Where this money comes from is an essential part of school structure. We use it in this article to broadly classify schools into public and private. Public school funding comes from state, federal, and local tax dollars as well federal block grants. While Private school funding comes from student tuition, fund-raising, and endowments. In the case of parochial schools, funding is connected to a religious institution. As such, public schools are tuition free while private schools have tuition, which varies from school to school.
Student Demographics: Finally, a school’s student body is defined by its structure. For instance, the students who attend a public “neighborhood or community” school are made up of kids living within a specific geography. On the other hand other public schools like a “charter, magnet, or intra-district” (definitions below) have students from across the district or region. These students are selected by lottery, school choice, opt-in, or application process. For private schools, students are selected through an admissions process. Some schools only serve students with special needs whether physical, behavioral, or learning.
School philosophy: If you consider school structure as, “how the car is made,” then school philosophy is how that car drives. A school’s educational philosophy includes things like:
- teacher training
- classroom culture,
- and academic focus
Some better-known examples of school philosophy are Montessori and Waldorf, but this also includes faith-based schools, arts magnets, STEM charter, and language immersion schools (definitions below).
It is important to note that every school in the state needs to be certified. Certification ensures that children are safe, healthy, and working towards specific academic standards.
For the most part, a school’s structure and philosophy will affect the day-to-day routines, classroom subjects, and type of field trips. However, there are still standards set by each stage that provide guidelines for what children must learn at a minimum. So despite a school’s specific beliefs, your student will still learn science in a religious school, and history in a language immersion school.
In the end, every school will have positives and negatives. No matter which school you choose, your child will have great and bad days, as well as moments of boredom and excitement. We believe that information is power. With this in mind as you research schools, we hope that the definitions below will help clarify some of the choices you have available to you.
Neighborhood or Community Schoolthis is the traditional local school. Typically, situated in a residential neighborhood complete with adjacent playground, ball fields and school yard. Benefits of the neighborhood school for your child are embedded in its proximity to home: :
- kids are able to walk to school
- create relationships with neighbors
- have an easier time partaking in extracurricular activities
However, some drawbacks to public schools are usually tied to inadequate government funding which often results in a lack of resources for students. This includes crowded classrooms, lack of resources, or less individualized attention.
For STEM learners: As public schools are aligned to state standards and testing, some science and engineering make take back seat to math and language.
What you can do: Find out if the school has a dedicated science teacher and science classroom, computer lab, or maker-space. Find out where students go on field trips, and if there are STEM related afterschool or vacation-week programs. The answers you receive may be a good indicator to the kind of STEM learning happening in the school.
To learn more: Explore your school district website
- school administrators,
- entrepreneurs or a for-profit educational organization
- and the school’s sponsor
In most states the school sponsor is the department of education or local school board. but However, it can also include a local university or private entity. This “charter” also defines elements of both the school’s structure and philosophy and varies widely from school to school. A charter can define the school’s mission, admissions process, curriculum, student assessment, and over all learning philosophy.
This freedom to define itself and freedom from state standards does add a level of scrutiny. Charters are typically reevaluated every five years and are expected to surpass state expectations. This can be good news for students and parents for a variety of reasons.
Charter schools typically:
- have smaller class sizes,
- attract talented teachers looking to teach in a more innovative style,
- and expect high levels of student accomplishment.
However, if the school does not show student achievement, its charter can be revoked and the school closed. Charter schools also find themselves at the center of political controversy. Critics say that Charter schools are run like deregulated private companies. For instance, They receive private funding and can get around school regulations such as student assessment and unions.
For the STEM learner: Many Charter schools are now focusing on STEM, and particularly bringing technology into the school. Consequently, this attracts teachers with real world STEM background such as biotech, lab science, and engineering.
For more: Find out what Charter schools are available to your daughter by using this search tool
Magnet Schools:Like Charter schools, Magnets are a public school open to all students in that district, tuition free. Unlike, “Community schools,” Magnets have a specific school-wide learning focus, that is featured on within each grade in the school.
The most common Magnet school themes are:
- fine and performing arts
- language immersion
and international studies.
However, each school district is different. Magnet schools are operated by the local school board. Students in Magnet schools are held to same state testing as all other students in the district, while Charter schools can be exempt.
Magnet schools are unique because they attract students from across the districts. Furthermore, Magnet schools are not bound to only accept students from certain zip codes or household addresses. Because of this, they represent the largest form of school choice in the country, serving an estimated 3 million students.
Reputation and popularity raise the demand, which is good for schools. Similarly, students benefit from a healthy mix of diversity, and are free and open with their choices for education. The benefits of a focused curriculum and diversity lead to high demand, and students are typically accepted via a lottery system. In some states, where the focus of the school is advanced academics, some aptitude testing might be required.
For STEM learners: Find the nearest Magnet schools with a STEM focus. Then research the student selection process. It may be a lottery system or an Inter/Intra district (see below) process, but either way it helps to be prepared
Both Immersion and Bi-Lingual schools are a model in which a language other than English (for U.S. schools) is heavy featured. Studies show that learning a secondary language from an early age promotes life-long mastery of that language. In addition, it can also have real educational benefits as it promotes brain elasticity. However, there is a significant difference between these two models.
An Immersion School not only teaches in two ways. Students are taught the secondary language from a language arts perspective, but Immersion goes further by encouraging comprehension of subjects such as math in the secondary language. The student receives multiple exposures to apply the second language in a subject beyond the traditional reading and writing. It is meant to teach language in the most natural way, like traveling to a foreign country.
Immersion schools may use:
- “Total Immersion” in which 100% of the school day is taught in that language.
- “Partial Immersion” when half of the day’s lessons are taught in that language,
- or “Two-Way Immersion,” in which students receive instruction in both languages.
One great benefit of immersion schools is that students from different language backgrounds are combined in the classroom, creating opportunities for powerful cultural exchange.
In Bilingual Schools, students receive instruction in two languages, in that math and reading maybe taught in both languages. This ensures that students who have English as their second language, can learn subjects in their birth language.
Inter/Intra District Schools:This is not a type of school, but rather an allowance made by that school or school district to allow for greater choice. This idea allows students from inside (inter) overall district to attend an alternate school of the family’s choosing. One reason for this may be that caretakers who are responsible for afterschool care, live closer to another school.
Additionally, some neighboring districts may allow a family to send their child to a school outside the district (intra) into a neighboring school system. Attending a school outside the home geography requires either the permission of both superintendents from the receiving and home school district’s as there may be money that follows the student. If funding is not released, the receiving school district may seek tuition payments from the family.
For STEM learners: This allowance may provide an opportunity to attend a STEM magnet school or a school with a strong STEM curriculum that is located either across town (inter-district) or in a neighboring town (intra-district). Either way, it is an option worth exploring.
- early childhood education
- machine shop,
- and health.
For STEM learners: Most Voc schools now offer career pathways in STEM ranging from veterinarian tech, computer programming, and environmental resource management. The primary focus is currently on trade jobs, not advanced academics. However there is growing attention and funding for Voc schools as the U.S. job market sees a void in skilled labor, especially in the STEM fields, making a Voc. education a great option for many students.
Private schools are tuition-based schools, that do not use federal funding or local tax dollars and so are removed from government oversight. Conversely, this can affect things many aspects of the school lifestyle including:
- length of the school year
- length or the school day,
- student testing and assessment,
- role of teacher unions,
- curriculum standards
- and even school lunch programs.
The upside to Private schools is usually associated with greater teacher-freedom. Teacher-freedom can promote creative and innovative learning, better facilities, smaller class size, and freedom from “teaching to the test.”
The obvious downside is that the cost of the education is placed on the family and can often be upwards of $10,000 per year. Critics also argue that private schools create an undemocratic educational system. They believe that private educational institutions give an unfair advantage to the wealthy; and also turn resources away from improving the Public School system since the government funds public schools based on number of children enrolled. There are a significant number of private schools in the US. A report from 2013-14 school year reports that there are over 34,576 private schools in the US representing (25% of all US schools) and educating some 5,751,000 (10% of all US students).
To better understand the dynamics within Private School options, we’ve broken them down into three larger categories: Religious, Independent, and Preparatory.
Non-Religious private schools on the other hand represent range of independent, military, and preparatory.
…are always private. Their mix of religion within the curriculum is an educational style that public schools do not participate in. The presence of religion in a certain school varies in execution from the overt, such as morning prayers, and study from a religious text, to subtler forms. One example is Quaker Friends school, which utilizes certain elements of the Quaker belief such as silent meetings and conflict resolution. Regardless of the specifics of their beliefs, religious schools mostly rely on student tuition for funding.
Parochial Schoolshave an affiliation with a Church or other religious organization that supports the school financially through funding, use of space, and staff. This funding structure is the subtle difference between a Religious and Parochial Schools. Perhaps the most iconic example is a Catholic School located on the grounds of the Archdiocese and run by nuns, priests, or other religious figures from the adjoining organization.
For STEM learners: Gone are the days of science vs church. Nowadays, most religious schools will have an active STEM program. As with any school, it is worth asking about the philosophy of science education within that particular school to ensure that there are no potential conflicts between the school’s philosophical approach and science.
An independent school is governed by an independent board of trustees. It is unaffiliated with any church, for profit corporation, or other entity. While private schools can be operated and funded by a religious organization, individual, for-profit educational corporation or any non-governmental agency, independent schools are supported by fundraising, endowments, and student tuition, which is typically higher than other private schools. Independent Schools must be accredited by the National Association of Independent Schools and can represent a huge range of educational philosophies and academic focus.
For STEM learners: Independent schools have the potential for excellent STEM programs. Often with state-of-the-art facilities, many Independent schools teach current STEM concepts and allow kids to get their hands-on new technology, lab equipment, and real-world STEM learning. This of course comes at a cost, and that cost is passed directly to the families through tuition.