Is an Online K-12 School Right for Your Child?
Choosing the right school system for your child is one of the most important decisions you can make as a parent, but it’s not one that will likely come easily.
As curriculum and instruction methods move further into the digital age, it’s no surprise that online schooling is becoming more popular, even for students who are just starting kindergarten. Online instruction can be a worthy alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar schools for children of all backgrounds, ages, and learning abilities, but is it the right choice for your child?
Comparing Traditional Versus Online K-12 Schools
There are a few key differences between traditional and online K-12 schools in terms of how children learn and what they do during the day that might determine whether it could help or hinder your child’s learning path.
Class Size & Teacher Connections
Some children learn better when they have access to at least some one-to-one or small group instruction during the day. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, K-12 classrooms in public schools have an average of 16 students per teacher, while private schools hover around 12 students per teacher. Class sizes can present a challenge for teachers to find periods of personalized instruction with each student.
Depending on the teacher and the school’s policies, an elementary school student will likely get a few minutes with the teacher and in small groups each day. As students move toward middle school and into high school when classes and teachers rotate throughout the day, it can become increasingly challenging for a student to connect with a teacher for extra help.
While it seems counter-intuitive because there’s limited facetime, students in online classes actually sometimes have more one-on-one attention from teachers than they would at their local brick-and-mortar school.
Mary Evelyn Lewis, a mom whose 17-year-old son has been enrolled in an online school for a few years, says that quick responses from teachers are one of the things she appreciates most about online classes. “The online lessons include the information required to succeed,” Lewis says, but adds that if her son needs more help, he “usually gets questions answered quickly from his teachers.”
Parents have access to both free and paid online schools, similar to traditional public and private schools.
Some online K-12 schools function the same way as a public school because they go through a public school system. Your child will learn the same curriculum taught in brick-and-mortar public schools through that district but will use the online platform. These schools have state-certified instructors and follow the traditional school year. You can contact your district’s school board to learn more about the enrollment process for your child.
Opting for a private online school would cost tuition, but could give your child more individualized learning. Many paid schools have special programs that cater to your child’s interests, needs, and schedule. Your child might qualify for scholarships that can assist the cost of tuition, which can range between hundreds to thousands of dollars a year, depending on the school. Books and supplies will likely be an extra cost you’ll need to consider with a private online school.
In many K-12 online schools, classes tend to involve more self-instruction than a traditional classroom, which could be positive or negative, depending on the learner.
In a typical elementary classroom, one teacher instructs the class in the main subject areas, like reading, science, and math. Students might move to other specials during the day, like art or physical education, which another teacher leads. Middle and high school students might have a different teacher for each class and move classrooms with each period.
One constant remains in brick-and-mortar classrooms: A teacher leads the class, while self-instruction is a secondary strategy to create self-sufficient learners.
Conversely, in many K-12 online schools, classes tend to involve more self-instruction than a traditional classroom, which could be positive or negative, depending on the learner.
Leigh Ann Newman, whose son is a senior in a brick-and-mortar high school but takes some classes online, says that her son’s online courses are “primarily text-based instruction with some supplemental pre-recorded videos of content depending on the subject.” Mostly, Newman likes the setup, but says that the self-instruction involved can sometimes prove challenging in tough subjects, like math.
As part of the No Child Left Behind Act, states are required by law to evaluate K-12 students in the subject areas of reading and math. This law includes public schools that run on an online platform. Private schools can, generally, choose whether they want to add these assessments as part of their curriculum.
While students in a traditional environment take these assessments in school, online students usually need to take them at a testing site with a proctor at a specific time and date. The setup can be a hindrance for parents or guardians who need to take time off work to accommodate the school’s testing schedule.
Young K-12 students usually have at least one block of time for recess each day, giving them an opportunity to play and socialize with their classmates. Combined with the occasional small group and partner work, there is often plenty of socialization in elementary schools. Middle and high school students might have less time to socialize but might see their friends between classes and at lunch.
Online schooling may not fulfill the needs of students who crave the social aspect of a traditional school. However, the notion that kids have no opportunity to communicate with their classmates is generally false. Some online programs, like ASU Prep Digital, offer outside clubs, interest groups, and social events for students to attend, as well as ways to communicate over Google Drive and other collaboration software and apps.
Of course, parents can always rely on their community for outside socialization opportunities. For Lewis’ son, lacking the traditional school socialization environment isn’t an issue. Her son regularly plays games at a local game store and, she explains, “he also has grown up in a small town and still hangs out with kids he knew while in elementary school.”
There are set schedules for both online and traditional K-12 schools. Even online students often have to log in to their classes at a specific time to have teacher-led instruction. However, the flexibility that online school provides is two-fold:
- Students in online courses aren’t confined to a building for eight hours, so they can complete coursework where they choose, as long as they have access to the internet. Lewis and her son have been able to travel without worrying about missed assignments.
- Online schools often provide specialized classes that brick-and-mortar schools don’t offer. Newman’s son takes college-level courses online that aren’t offered at his public school, which, she believes, will help him transition to college.
Making the Best Choice for Your Child
There are pros and cons to any type of schooling, but your child may thrive at one more than another. While more self-instruction and a less social atmosphere can be downfalls of attending an online school for some children, others may learn and function better in that environment.
Consider your child’s learning ability, personality, strengths, and weaknesses to determine if online schooling might be the right choice. You should also consider how online learning would fit into your family’s schedule and lifestyle before making a final decision about your child’s education.
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