School Days: How to Know Which One is Right For Your Child

By Ruth Heil

We know that learning is crucial to child development and unless children participate in, and enjoy school, they might not excel. Yet some kids just do not do well in the standard school environment, for many reasons: Some require individualized attention. Some have learning disabilities or challenges while some need a strict regimen to stay focused. Some need an environment that complements the values taught at home. Many just need the extra stimulation that comes from being challenged, motivated and encouraged.

Public schools must meet strict academic standards, and teachers work hard to educate and inspire, but sometimes that  is just not enough and children  need an alternative.

Private and charter schools in the Lehigh Valley can provide that extra “something” your child needs to thrive. Here are a few considerations to help you decide which, if any, alternative school is right for your child:

Mission or Focus

First and foremost, it is important to define why you are considering an alternative to traditional public education and then find a school  that shares your vision. For instance, are you looking for spirituality to be interwoven into the daily routine and the curriculum? Does your child have a learning disability? Do you want innovative teachers? State-of-the art technology? Is there a natural affinity or talent you want to encourage in your child?

College preparation, community involvement, family tradition and teacher-student relationships are also reasons to choose alternative schools. Understand your own reasons before you take the leap. As George N. King, Jr, headmaster of the Moravian Academy, notes, “We encourage families to examine the schools carefully…to get a clear sense of its people and its programs. In doing so, they will be able to make a decision that will potentially be the best for them.”

School Type

In addition to homeschooling, charter and private schools are the two common options in our area. Charter schools are public schools that enjoy flexibility from many state and local regulations in order to provide students with innovative options. Private schools are tuition-based and are usually tied to a religious faith, however some focus on college preparation, a particular educational philosophy, a special need or a specialty such as science or the arts. You can learn more about the differences by searching “school choice” at ed.gov.

Tuition

Cost can  often be challenging, but scholarships and financial assistance can help. Also, most nonprofit schools keep rates low through contributions from individuals who support the institution’s mission. Charter schools receive two-thirds of their funding from their host districts and work to raise funds to cover the rest. Sadly, there is often greater demand than supply, so as a result, lotteries, auditions or academic testing are sometimes used to determine which children  can get in. According to the Lehigh Valley Academy Regional Charter School’s website, “A lottery will be held if the number of new students who register during the open enrollment period exceeds the number of open spots available in a class to determine the order in which new students will be enrolled or placed on the waiting list.”

Accreditation and Reputation

While many alternative schools are not subjected to the same standardized testing as public schools, most exceed the requirements. Accreditations from organizations such as the National Association of Independent Schools (nais.org) add a measure of credibility. Schools publish graduation rates, class sizes and college acceptance ratios. Regardless, it is best to ask around, visit the school and trust your instincts.

Discipline

Routine and structure can sometimes prevent bad behavior. One example is the classic private school dress code. As Bethlehem Christian School’s code states, “Uniforms are worn so that students can express their individual strengths and Christian character through their own gifts and abilities rather than by how they are dressed.”

Private schools are not required to educate every young person in the community (as public schools must) so  they can take a hard line on zero-tolerance policies and the like; however,  a child may be  less likely to act out when the teachers have the resources to provide him or her with the attention required.

School or Class Size

Smaller student-to-teacher ratios can improve learning. Michelle Frable of Nazareth  transferred from a public to a private school in junior high. She distinctly remembers this greatest difference: “You no longer blended into a sea of adolescents.”

Location

Pennsylvania law requires public schools to provide transportation to nonpublic schools up to 10 miles beyond the district boundaries. Beyond that, you will most likely be responsible for shuttling your child, and since most people do not  want a long commute, it may be helpful to consider the school’s distance from your home .

Process

The process for each school can be found (as well as downloadable or online applications) on most school websites. Application fees are usually less than $100. Oftentimes, kids can transfer midyear. Many hold open house events or offer tours by appointment. Application deadlines vary with most schools requiring entrance testing and then the eligible applicants are accepted by a committee.

More than 65 alternative grade schools serve Northampton and Lehigh Counties, so the choices are great. Visit lehighvalleymarketplace.com for more information on the schools mentioned in this article.

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