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Understanding nontraditional schools: K-State education expert looks at some alternatives to public schools

By Jennifer Newberry

 

Figuring out the school that will be the best fit for your child doesn't necessarily begin with selecting a college. Even in grade school and high school there may be choices available. Nontraditional schools are schools that provide learning environments different from that of public schools.

Nontraditional schools include everything other than the traditional school model, said Mary Devin, associate professor of educational administration at Kansas State University. Charter, magnet and virtual schools are types of nontraditional schools.

A charter school is a nontraditional approach to schooling proposed by individuals or groups to the local school district. It is a new approach to organizing and operating a school, Devin said. For example, a charter school could be established for special populations such as low performing groups identified within the existing school system.

A charter school is approved to operate outside the general rules for public schools and provide service to students but would not be restricted to the structural constraints that public schools have, she said. A charter school might not have to follow bargaining laws requiring negotiations with representative teacher groups; a required number of hours and days in school; teacher and staff certification requirements; state or local graduation requirements; and some testing requirements.

Charter schools can benefit students because they offer new and different ideas to address a particular population of students or a particular level of learning, Devin said. Also, charter schools do not have the same regulations that apply to public schools.

On the other hand, charter schools have an emerging problem with issues of accountability because the schools are so open-ended, Devin said.

"As you look at charter schools across the country, you can find examples of fine experiences or situations that weren't so well-managed," she said. "Issues of accountability are a drawback to charter schools. The very nature of being open-ended leaves accountability open-ended."

A magnet school generally puts its learning experience in the context of a theme, Devin said. Some examples are fine arts, science or computer science. All of the instruction is delivered in the context of the theme.

Magnet schools can benefit students because of the idea they will be more engaged in learning if they're interested in the context, Devin said.

But while students at magnet schools have the advantage to focus on a particular area of interest, that also can be a disadvantage, Devin said. Students are more focused on a single area rather than having the opportunity to sample many different interest areas.

Virtual schools have the advantage of being able to serve students in remote areas, especially when students can't be physically together, and can expand opportunities to take more course work in specialized areas. With virtual schools, technology can allow people to do great things, but there are concerns about a lack of face-to-face interaction with teachers and other students, Devin said.

When parents are deciding which type of school environment is best for their child, Devin said they should look at two things: what will satisfy a student's particular interest and what will give the best outcome for the student. The amount of extracurricular activities available at a particular school is also important to note. Academic clubs, organizations, music performances and athletic programs could be limited at a particular nontraditional school.

"It's working together to make that student as well-prepared as we can," Devin said. "I don't think there's any one school that's always right, and any one that's always wrong."

Parents also should keep in mind future education options, Devin said. There's a chance that a particular school could close its doors and not be open to student enrollment in the next year.

"It's not just this year you want to think about. You need to look at the long-term picture, not just a particular year," she said.

Summer 2005