How to Choose a Charter School That Is Right for Your Family

Mother kissing child in school uniform.
Evaluate a charter school according to your child's needs. Wander Women Collective via Getty Images

Charter schools have grown both in popularity and numbers since the first charter school opened its doors in Minnesota back in 1992. Charter schools are independently operated by a local organizing group. These groups may be made up of parents, teachers, or people who share an educational philosophy.

What Are Charter Schools?

Charter schools are a type of public school that operates under their state's Charter laws.

The school must apply for a "charter" with the state. This charter will outline the specific goals of the school, whether it is to better serve a particular group of students, have an emphasis on certain subjects, or follow a particular educational philosophy.

Charter schools are like a unique hybrid of private and public schools. Like private schools, charter schools are independent enough to choose their own curriculum or experiment with new teaching methods, creating their own school day and school year schedule, and often have a very high level of family involvement. The public school benefits include accountability to a governing body, do not charge tuition, and cannot discriminate based on religion, disability, or gender.

Why It's Important to Remember That Charter Schools Are Schools Of Choice

While Charter schools do enjoy some of the benefits of both private and public schools, it doesn't always mean that a particular charter school will be right for your child and your family.

Charter schools are often formed around a central idea, and that idea may or may not be one that is right for you. For example, a charter high school may be centered around serving students who are high risk for dropping out of high school. If your teen is looking for advanced academic opportunities beyond what is available at the neighborhood school, a charter school focusing on struggling students would not a be a good fit.

Charter schools in different states vary significantly in how much oversight they have. They also vary significantly in quality and academic performance. Each charter school is unique. They are founded on a variety of different ideas, have different locations, different student populations, differing state charter laws governing them, and school-specific cultures that can differ more than the cultures found in traditional public schools.

Children and families also vary in their needs and desires. Charter schools provide a publicly funded choice to traditional neighborhood schools. Whether or not that choice is the right fit is something parents need to consider carefully.

First Step When Considering a Charter School or Any School of Choice

Make a list of all of the characteristics you would like to find in a school that you think would be perfect for your child. Some questions you may ask include:

  • Does your child have any special or unique needs?
  • What are your child's interests?
  • Does you child learn better with a certain teaching style?
  • Would your child benefit more from a friendly or formal approach from teachers?
  • Would your child benefit from smaller or larger class size? 
  • Which extracurriculars are important?
  • For high schoolers - Are there early college or advanced courses, or apprenticeship type opportunities for work that may begin after high school?
  • What would be the best times for a school day, and length of school year?

Once you have written out a list of dream school characteristics, highlight the ones that are critical, make-or-break decision factors.

There are a few reasons why you want to make up this list before you investigate the schools. The first reason is so you know what is important to you, so you can find that information.

The second reason is you need to be prepared to hear some good sales type hype from charter school staff.

Charter schools usually receive their public funds through their state department of education on a per student enrolled basis. Most charter schools benefit from keeping their enrollment numbers close to the maximum capacity of the school. While any school will want to present their most positive aspects to potential incoming families, there is added pressure for charter schools to ensure enrollment numbers.

Once you know what matters most to you and your family you can seek the information that you want to find out. You don't need to worry that the charter school staff would lie or deliberately hide anything that parents should be aware of. It's more likely that the charter school staff are very excited about the reasons for their charter and the successes of their school, and will persuasively tell curious parents about what they believe makes the school great. You and your children may have different priorities and needs than that of the school.

Next Step: Do Your Homework on the Charter School

Learn as much as you can about the charter school before you visit. There is a wealth of information you should be able to find online.

Look at the charter school's website to find out about it's unique focus. You should also find an academic calendar that lists the dates of the school year, and which holidays the school is closed. You should also be able to find school hours. Some schools also have information about before and after school programs, and extracurriculars on their websites.

You should also find information about how to apply along with deadlines on the school's website. While charter schools are public schools, they will use an application process to get to know students and to help students families decide if the school is a good fit.

Popular charter schools may get more applicants than the school's capacity. Charter schools with more applicants than slots available select new students through a randomized process, such as a lottery-type drawing. Getting your child's application in early will help their chances of being selected.

If you have more than one child that you would like to attend the school, find out the admission policy for siblings. Some charter schools will automatically enter siblings of an accepted student.

You may also want to find out about the school's reputation by checking review sites such as Greatschools.org or Schooldigger.com. You can also seek out parents of charter school students to find out what other families like about the school.

Keep in mind that charter schools often strive to meet the needs of students who struggled in traditional public schools. This may drive down test scores or earn a good school a bad reputation in the local community. If a charter school has lower test scores or other school metrics, try to find out if the students in the charter improve compared to their previous school experience.

Visit The School to Find Out More Before You Apply

Many charter schools host open family nights for families interested in applying to the charter school. These events are a great opportunity to tour the school and meet the staff. You can also ask about visiting the school when it is in session to see what a day at the school is like. The school visit is the best time to find out the following:

Find Out How The Charter School Will Adress Special or Unique Needs

Charter schools are a type of public school. They must comply with the same state and federal disability laws that traditional public schools follow. 

This does not mean that the charter school will handle all disabilities in the same way as your traditional neighborhood public school. Find out what to look for in a charter school when your child has special needs.

Find Out If the Charter School Is Facing Any Struggles

Charter schools may struggle to maintain their charter, especially in the first few years of operation. Depending on how strict your state's charter law are, the school may risk being closed if the school is unable to meet certain guidelines or the terms of the school's charter with the state. If the school is closed it could leave your family suddenly looking for another school on short notice. While it is important to be aware of any struggles, keep in mind the majority of charter schools are successful in meeting the terms of their charters.

When charters do struggle it is usually related to lack of financial support. According to a 2011 report by the Center for Education Reform, about 15% of charter schools close, and this happens within the first five years.

Charters typically do not receive state or federal funding to cover building and maintenance. This leaves charter schools to find space that is already available. Most charter schools will do ongoing fundraising to pay for schools costs that are not covered by public provided funding.

Find Out What Services and Supports Are Available

Charter schools are not always required to have the same services and supports that most traditional public schools provide. Some charter schools may not provide school lunches, have a school nurse, have a school library, or provide bus transportation. 

These services may require you to plan ahead or coordinate with other parents. If your child requires medication to be administered at school, check with the staff to make sure that the school will be able to meet your child's needs for medication. 

Find Out About the School's Approach to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

STEM skills are increasingly in demand in the workplace. It is also likely that your child will need a solid understanding of STEM principles regardless of what career they enter in the future. Find out if the school teaches STEM topics in a way that encourages curiosity and critical thinking over rote memorization. Check that STEM subjects and related extracurriculars are offered to all students.

Find Out About Extracurricular Opportunities

While you may have found some information about extracurriculars on the school website, the school visit is a good time to learn more about clubs and activities. You can see where the clubs meet, talk to coaches or advisors, and ask questions. You can also see if there are more opportunities that were not mentioned on the website.

Deciding to Apply

You will have a tremendous amount of information about a charter school after covering the suggested steps above. Most of all, you have knowledge of your child, and what you know works best for them. With this information, you should be ready to choose the best school for your child that is available to them.

Sources:

Consoletti, Alison. The State of Charter Schools: What We Know - and What We Do Not-About Performance and Accountability. Publication. Washington, DC: Center for Education Reform, 2011. Print.

"Just the FAQs-Charter Schools." The Center for Education Reform. The Center for Education Reform, n.d.

Mulligan, Elaine. "The Facts On Charter Schools." Center for Parent Information and Resources. Center for Parent Information and Resources, May 2013.

Continue Reading