Choosing the Best Classroom Environment for Your Child
When Julie Boyd was preparing to send her oldest child to school, her biggest concern was how her shy daughter would fare in a large, bustling classroom.
“We looked at our public school and felt it was too big,” said Boyd. “[She] does better in smaller, calmer environments.”
With Common Core legislation a hot topic at the time, Boyd didn’t want to send her daughter into what felt like an uncertain future.
“I feel like there are so many unknowns with public school, but with King’s Gate (Christian School), we know what we are getting,” Boyd said of their decision to select a private school.
As public schools across Oklahoma have faced budget cuts to the tune of $110 million, parental concerns about the quality and effectiveness of public education are mounting. Despite cuts, Norman Public Schools principal Jonathan Atchley said his students are benefitting from enhanced programs and activities.
“The one thing that hasn't changed in light of budget cuts and low teacher salaries is the quality of work and the effort behind it,” Atchley said. “There is no doubt in my mind that teachers may be more frustrated with current issues than ever, but it has not deterred their ability to care and advocate for students.”
Parents and educators agree that a child’s individual personality, learning style and developmental stage should guide the process of selecting their school. With all the options available to families in the Oklahoma City metro, that process can feel daunting but Boyd said it also means parents can adjust educational environments as kids change and grow. Charter school mom Casey Delaney adds that despite the pressure parents may feel to get it “right,” when it comes to school choice, there isn’t a right or wrong answer.
“Our children are going to thrive in the environment we choose for them,” said Delaney.
Public school fosters collaboration, appreciation for diversity
Despite public school woes like budget cuts, low teacher salaries, limited materials and growing classroom sizes, Alan Cook, an English teacher and coach at Deer Creek High School, said the greatest benefit of public schools is their ability to mirror the society students are destined to join, preparing them to function positively and cooperatively.
“I don't think there is any doubt that the more a person can spend time with people of different backgrounds, with different ideas and views, the better it will prepare them to do that as adults,” said Cook.
About 88 percent of American students attend public schools. Free to attend and required to accept every child housed in their districts, public schools must follow state guidelines on what they teach and how children are evaluated. Supported by tax dollars, funding can be cut when budgets fall short, as has become so evident in Oklahoma.
“I have found by simply giving students the opportunity to interact with different cultures, backgrounds and approaches to life in general, we are preparing them for success in the real world,” said Atchley.
While Norman Public Schools has been affected by budget cuts, Atchley echoes Cook’s sentiments about public schools’ ability to prepare students to succeed in the real world by exposing them to varied cultures and backgrounds. He credits Norman Public Schools with continuing rich, diverse experiences for students by maintaining the arts, athletics and academic clubs. Thanks to community-supported bonds, Norman schools are adding new classrooms and athletics facilities and embarking on a significant student technology program.
Though Cook has seen other schools’ athletic programs suffer due to budget cuts, he attests there is still less financial burden placed on students who want to play sports in public schools. He believes the facilities and coaching in public schools are, in most cases, unmatched, and he’s a staunch advocate of school athletics over club sports because he can incorporate character and team-building lessons, helping students grow not just athletically but personally. He believes that dedication to the whole child, shared by so many of his colleagues, is what makes public education unique.
“It really doesn't matter what the pay is, what the available technology is, what book we have, how many kids show up, teachers are going to show up every day and teach,” said Cook. “If a student wants to learn, they are going to. In many cases, they are going to if they want to or not.”
Private schools’ smaller classes ensure individualized instruction
One of the biggest advantages Boyd notes of private schools is their ability to offer religious education or curriculum not governed by state standards.
“Part of the challenge public schools have is they have lost their ability to talk about God,” said Boyd, who values her kids’ science lessons from a creation standpoint. “Teachers are so influential in children’s moral compasses. We choose to have our kids spend their school time with someone who can point their lessons to a higher power.”
Private schools also offer smaller class sizes, resulting in more individualized lessons for each child.
Casady School in Oklahoma City boasts a 17:1 ratio of students to teachers in first through fourth grades, compared to public school elementary classes of 25 or more in the Oklahoma City metro.
“Casady educators know each student as an individual and can focus on each student’s unique strengths, encourage academic growth and guide each student to pursue his or her passions,” said teacher Aimee Hanneman, who develops curriculum to meet the specific needs of her students.
Hanneman has taught in public and private schools. At Casady, she said, she enjoys the freedom to incorporate lessons in ethical decision-making, compassion and making a difference in the community. Especially considering the plight of public school teachers, she’s grateful for ongoing professional development grants and pay raises.
The benefits of private schools come at a price. Potential students typically undergo an extensive application, interview and testing process, and schools can be highly selective about the students they accept, often prioritizing based on academic performance, religion, ethnicity and gender. Tuition is another major consideration; according to the National Association of Independent Schools, the annual tuition average for day schools in the United States is about $19,000. Casady’s annual tuition ranges from $14,430 to $18,990, depending on students’ grade. King’s Gate Christian School, another local option, has tuition ranging from $6,300 to $6,800.
Tuition costs don’t completely cover operations, so many private schools host fundraisers and solicit additional donations from parents and alumni. Casady and King’s Gate both offer tuition assistance.
“Casady provides a substantial amount of financial aid every year to assure this type of education is available to families within various economic situations,” said Hanneman, whose daughter is a beneficiary.
Because private schools aren’t governed by state educational standards, parents are advised to seek an accredited school, which means their administration and academics are subject to regular review by a board of peers who ensure they meet regional or national standards.
In addition to greater liberties in curriculum and many opportunities for parents to participate, Boyd most appreciates the small community feel of private school. While stereotypes abound about private school kids, Boyd believes they are actually more disciplined, kind and well-rounded.
“Private schools have more opportunities and freedom to raise this type of child,” said Boyd.
Charter schools offer specialized curriculum, unique student benefits
Delaney, daughter of a public school superintendent and longtime champion of public schools, wasn’t specifically seeking a charter school for daughter Kate. She did want a culturally-diverse environment, supported by parents and community and a focus on science, arts, technology, engineering and math.
“John Rex appeared to be the perfect hybrid between public and private education,” said Delaney of the downtown Oklahoma City charter school.
Charter schools began appearing in the 1990s, started by parents, teachers, community organizations or for-profit companies seeking freedom from conventional school regulations. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, there are 33 charter schools in the state and more than 3,000 across the United States. They are independently-run, often backed by a for-profit company and free to attend. The state or a funder must approve a school’s charter, which describes the school’s mission, achievement goals and methods of assessment. A charter generally lasts three to five years, at which time school and student performance are assessed to keep the charter.
Some, like Stanley Hupfeld Academy, require no application and simply serve the children within their geographic boundaries. Others, like John Rex, have a tiered application and admission system, taking into consideration a child’s home address, school system and proximity of parents’ workplaces to the school. Delaney and her husband sold their home in Norman and leased an apartment downtown to better guarantee Kate’s admission. Like public schools, Oklahoma’s charter schools cannot discriminate, and they do receive some tax dollars, though less per pupil than public schools. Like private schools, they must raise private funds to operate. Oftentimes charter schools specialize in a particular area, like science or arts and offer smaller class sizes than a public school.
“As a charter school, we have the autonomy to limit our class size and enrollment, which helps teachers provide more individualized instruction and attention,” said Tobi Campbell, director of Stanley Hupfeld Academy at Western Village.
The same is noted at Santa Fe South, where Speech Language Pathologist Meghan Thompson values an environment of genuine relationships and open, consistent communication among parents of students with special needs or who need more individualized attention.
Stanley Hupfeld’s partnership with INTEGRIS and John Rex’s sponsorship by the Inasmuch Foundation and Devon mean advantages like on-site healthcare, a mentoring program for all students and access to topnotch technology in the classroom. Unique to John Rex’s location is the school’s ability to make use of downtown Oklahoma City as an extension of student learning. Kate and her classmates frequently visit the Metropolitan Library System's downtown location and Myriad Gardens.
Delaney said the entire downtown community acts as adjunct faculty to John Rex with community leaders coming to speak, Thunder players coming to read and the mayor just dropping by to say hello.
Learning from home means autonomy, flexibility
Stacey Danielson continually re-evaluates educational options for her three boys, making use of online and public school and also homeschooling them for a time.
“The beauty of so many options these days is that you can always make a change,” said Danielson.
Parents often choose homeschool or online school to use academic approaches other than those found in traditional schools, tailor learning to individual children’s needs, enhance family relationships or impart a particular set of values. Students who are struggling with, or not challenged by, a traditional school setting could be a good fit for learning at home. According to the Oklahoma Christian Home Educators' Consociation, the home-educated student typically scores 15 to 30 percentage points above public school students on standardized achievement tests.
“There is all the freedom you need to uniquely tailor your children’s education to them and your family,” said Paul Rose, president of OCHEC and dad to six homeschooled children.
When Eleanor Borchert’s granddaughter’s grades and confidence in school began to plummet, she agreed to homeschool her. After a comprehensive evaluation determined her granddaughter Isis had dyslexia, with the help of learning specialists and tutors, Borchert can tailor lessons accordingly and remain flexible with curriculum, creating an environment that fits her learning style.
“We are able to adjust the learning pace to Isis’ needs and discover her learning gaps that have been overlooked in public school,” Borchert said. “We have the time and resources to go back and reteach important concepts she missed in the fast-paced public school environment.”
Isis can listen to music or sit outdoors while studying, both of which help her concentrate. Using oral exams and discussions allow her to demonstrate the thinking skills and vocabulary she struggles to translate on paper.
“Her confidence has returned, her willingness to learn is strong, and she has become much more self-reliant,” said Borchert, who enjoys the flexibility to use the Oklahoma City Zoo for biology lessons and walks at Martin Park Nature Center for physical education.
Public school law applies to homeschool students, which requires children from ages 5 to 18 attend 1,080 hours of school per year. Parents don’t have to be certified teachers or use state-approved curricula, seek approval from or register with any state or local officials, or test their children. They must teach the same basic courses as public school but the methods and resources are up to the parent.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are more than 20,000 homeschooled students in Oklahoma. Thanks to online resources, support groups and coalitions dedicated to connecting Oklahoma home school families, they don’t have to operate in isolation. OCHEC offers field trips, sports teams, clubs, choir and band. Because these activities often span over several age groups, they allow siblings and families more opportunities to be together.
When Danielson struggled to homeschool her youngest with dyslexia and older two boys with Asperger’s, enrolling in Epic Online Charter School provided her support provided her support and teacher insights, as well as map testing that proved her work was not in vain.
“I loved getting that reassurance that they were learning,” said Danielson. “I love the flexibility of curriculums and supplementals to meet the specific needs and strengths of each child.”
With online school, students can go at their own pace, oftentimes resulting in a greater understanding of subject matter or earning their diploma faster, and they aren’t bound to the timeline of a typical school day or year. When researching online schools, parents should look for those recognized by state departments of education, public school districts or regional or national accreditors. Ensure the school has certified teachers who offer regular support, curriculum meets national standards and students can earn an accredited diploma that meets core standards and is transferable to colleges and universities.
Rebecca Bailey appreciates the one-on-one help her three kids get from Epic teachers, as well as the variety of curriculum offered. Her kids no longer struggle with the anxiety and drama they faced in traditional school. Because students have to complete a percentage of work weekly in each class, parents should consider their child’s ability to manage their work.
“Can your child guide themselves through a school day without having a teacher right there?” said Bailey.
Danielson’s oldest and youngest sons are now back in public school, with her middle continuing with online school and another program called Excel, where he attends school once a week and completes work at home the rest of the week.
“Every year of school looks different as a whole, but I love that we can meet the needs of each child and our family that way,” Danielson said.
Making the choice
As Borchert notes, a child’s educational experience sets the course for his or her whole life. As such, parents have a big job in deciding which route to take.
“Our kids deserve parents who ask the questions and do the research,” Thompson said. “Ultimately, the decision should be what works best for your child.”
Thompson advises parents to cheek the State Department of Education’s website to review school report cards. While these reports aren’t entirely indicative of a school’s performance and the system of A-F grades is soon changing, it can be. Visit district and school websites or call administrative offices to research class sizes, curriculum, education philosophies, district and school policies and procedures and extra-curricular activities. Tour schools or set up calls with online schools to see the educational process in action. Boyd advocates bringing your kids along to ask their own questions. For parents considering homeschooling due to performance issues, Borchert recommends educational counseling and evaluation to select appropriate curricula.
Finally, seek insight from other parents and teachers in schools of interest, or who homeschool, about the educational experience, weighing research against your unparalleled understanding of your child.
Cook added that parents shouldn’t get bogged down by how school choice will impact a child’s GPA, class rank or even potential scholarship opportunities. Consider instead the child’s longterm ability to learn and become a productive member of society.
“Don't confuse what is best for your child with what is easiest for your child,” said Cook.