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The School Choice

Public school, private school or homeschool? How to find the right fit for your child

"Tom and I really need to decide about school," Jennifer sighed as our 4-year-olds took turns on the slide and we took turns bouncing Jen's new baby. "We've been discussing it since Megan started walking, but still don't have an answer we feel good about."

Despite Jennifer's anxiety, she and Tom were actually at just the right place: gathering information, weighing their options and talking to other parents who'd already been down the same road.

Parents like me. Our 11 children have, at one time or another, been involved in just about every educational option available: homeschool, public school, Christian school, special education, independent study programs. I've been making school choices for more than 20 years.

Jennifer's question is the same question I pray over each year for each of my children.

"What is the best school option for Joshua and Benjamin and Zachary and Madeleine and ? ?"

Jennifer and Tom still have more than a year before Megan starts school. But if your child is 5 or older, you need to make your decision in early January. While public schools welcome new students throughout the year, it's wise to enroll your kindergartner well in advance to give you and your child time to prepare for this new experience. Private schools often have waiting lists even before enrollment begins?usually in the spring. Families who decide to homeschool need time to choose and order curriculum.

Even if your children are already in school, it's a good idea to re-evaluate their needs from year to year. We've found that each of our children needs something a little different from his or her education and so we have to be willing to make changes that suit those needs. That might mean we homeschool a couple of them, others are at a Christian school and still others are in our public school. A few years from now, the picture might look a bit different.

To help you weed through all your schooling options, here's a brief look at the pluses and minuses of each choice, along with tips for making the most of your decision?wherever it takes you.

Public School

Plus: "Our family's experience, while not always smooth, has been very positive," says Robin, mother of two sons in public high school. "The sports program is very important to my boys, and we've had so many opportunities to meet people and have an impact on our community."

For all the bad press they get, public schools have a lot going for them. They are convenient, close, and free (well, subsidized by your taxes). Teachers must meet specific certification requirements, which sets up a standard of accountability for the way they teach and how well their students perform. Class size, governed by federal regulations, is relatively small. Children with special needs have access to speech therapy, counseling and other specialized services.

Children who need transportation may qualify for bus service?free or on a sliding scale. To accommodate working parents, many schools have on-site daycare programs before and after school. Some students may qualify for free lunches. The elementary school my children attended gave them everything they needed, including paper, pencils, and art supplies.

Then there's the diversity factor. If you want your child to meet people of different races, economic backgrounds, ethnicities and religions, public school is the place.

Minus: Public schools, targeted for inclusiveness, teach to the level of the average student. Unfortunately, "average" only gets worse when parents of above-average children pull their kids out of the public schools. Also, there is a dramatic range in quality among different school districts. Most real estate agents can give you an idea of how the school districts in your area compare.

There's also the discipline problem. Because public schools cannot select who gets in and who doesn't, teachers must deal with students who have behavioral issues, learning disabilities or any number of other problems that make them act out in class. These disruptions can add up to lost time for the other students?one reason why public schools tend to dole out so much homework.

While teachers are certified, the tenure system makes it difficult to get rid of poor teachers who have been part of the system for several years.

But even more worrisome than how much or how well public students learn is what they're learning. The elimination of public school prayer in 1963 signaled the beginning of a concerted effort to remove all Christian influence from public schools. Today's history books no longer include information about the Christian heritage of our country and many science books now present the theory of evolution as fact. Parents are often discouraged to find that although Christianity and the Bible have been eliminated from classroom discussions, studying other religious traditions and practices seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Making the Most of It: Parents opting for public school need to take extra steps to ensure that their children's faith can hold up under the influences they'll face. Supplement your child's curriculum with a history book published by a Christian press or before 1965. Set aside time for daily devotions and Bible-reading. Discuss issues that come up in the classroom. Teach your child to discern what's true and what isn't.

Christian families in public schools also need to work toward building sincere, respectful relationships with administrators, teachers and other parents. Volunteer in the classroom as much as possible. Be available for meetings with teachers and make it a point to attend school board meetings where policies are being discussed.

Stay well-informed about the curriculum your child is using. Ask to review sex education, science or history materials. If you find something offensive, ask what alternative classes your child can take to earn the equivalent credit.

Most of all, be familiar with current laws protecting free speech in schools. Christians usually have more freedoms than you might think. For example, if the upcoming "Winter Program" lacks Christmas carols, let the principal know, as I once did, that it's legal to sing about Jesus's birth when other religions are also represented.

Private School

Plus: "I'm so grateful Timmy's in a good Christian school," Samantha told me after her son finished kindergarten. "Even with a class of 28, his teacher had them reading by the end of the year. And I know I can trust what he's learning."

For many parents, finding a good Christian school may feel like heaven on earth. As parents browse through the textbooks, they can be sure their children are studying subjects in the context of God's sovereignty. The classroom becomes a vital element of the children's spiritual growth.

Catholic schools, which often boast excellent academic records, are also an option for Evangelical Protestant parents willing to discuss doctrinal differences with their children.

Ideally, the school's Christian world-view and objectives will complement your family's and provide a strong educational and spiritual foundation for your child.

Minus: The solid education offered by many private schools does come with a cost. Monthly tuition is just the beginning. There are usually requirements for parental involvement such as a certain number of volunteer hours in the classroom and fund-raising duties.

Christian schools closely associated with a particular church or denomination may be intolerant of doctrinal differences or promote a Christian perspective you're simply not comfortable with.

While Christian schools are often known for their strict discipline, some schools never live up to that reputation because they accept too many kids with behavior problems either as a ministry or to keep up their cash flow. That can mean your child will face the same disruptions found in a public school classroom.

Private schools are free to hire teachers who lack certification or special training in educational methods, which means your child might get a teacher who really doesn't know how to teach.

It's also important that the school be the right fit for the child. Many private schools have high academic expectations of their students. A child who doesn't like a challenge, a child who learns more slowly than other kids his age or a child who is hard to motivate might have a very hard time dealing with the academic stresses of private school.

Finally, sending your child to a Christian school is no guarantee he or she won't be faced with the same negative influences found in public schools. Using a Christian school as a shield from the outside world will leave parents frustrated and discouraged.

Making the Most of It: As with public schools, your involvement in your child's private school education is crucial. If your child is enrolled in a school with a world-view that is compatible with your own, you'll be able to relax a little. You won't need to be as vigilant in overseeing curriculum, and you'll probably see the benefits of better discipline. But you'll still need to be open to talking about what your child is learning and how it ties in with your family's values.

You'll also need to oversee your child's homework?and there will probably be plenty?unless he works well independently.

Get to know your child's classmates and their parents. Build a rapport with all the teachers so they are aware of your child as he progresses. Serve on a board or help choose curriculum. Your whole family will benefit greatly from your involvement in the life of the school.

Homeschool

Plus: "The most wonderful thing about homeschool for me is getting to spend so much time with my kids," says Mimi, a mother of five who has homeschooled for seven years. Mimi echoes the sentiments of many who've found that homeschooling strengthens the bond between parents and their children and among siblings as well.

Homeschooling flows naturally out of a child's early learning at home, which can be a more natural process than adapting to a more formal school setting. The curriculum can also conform to your child's needs, meaning he won't be frustrated by work that's way over his head or bored by lessons that are far below his level.

Because homeschool curriculums typically cover the core skills in half the time it takes public and private schools, there is more time for field trips, art, music and dance, classic literature, good movies, and sports, as well as time to help with household chores and time to just be a kid.

Then there are the results. Studies show homeschoolers' standardized achievement test scores average between 80 and 87 percent, compared with 50 percent in the average public school. And the results are the same whether the parents are certified teachers or never attended college.

Minus: Homeschooling demands a major time commitment from parents, making it a difficult prospect for parents whose work would leave children alone for much of the day. Aside from teaching time, parents need time to review curriculum, plan lessons, and check their child's progress. They also need the get-up-and-go to put together meaningful field trips and social activities for their children?preferably with other homeschoolers.

Some expense is required as you'll have to purchase your curriculum and supplies. Homeschooling requires good organizational skills or at least the willingness to develop them. Most importantly, parents need to overcome their own likes, dislikes and academic weaknesses.

Some parents are concerned about the social development of homeschooled children. If your child has very little access to other children because of where you live, homeschooling might make him feel even more isolated. While you can counteract that by getting your child involved in other activities like sports or music classes, these efforts will add significantly to your time commitment.

You'll also need to consider your relationship with your child. Some parents and children simply don't do well in a teacher/student relationship. Their personality types clash, the teaching parent has a hard time motivating the child or neither parent nor child has the discipline to stay focused on the material. While these factors can be overcome, it's worthwhile to take a good look at how well you and your child work together before you take on the pressures of homeschooling.

Making the Most of It: If you decide to homeschool, get your bearings with Mary Pride's Big Book of Home Learning (Crossway). Then, start exploring other resources that can enhance your child's education.

Some public schools have developed a more give-and-take attitude toward homeschoolers. Even if you're homeschooling completely on you own, your children may be welcome to participate in band, drama or sports.

And be creative about your curriculum. A day in a museum?art, science, or history?can be a great source of inspiration, note-taking, report-writing and family discussion. Take your children to workplaces where they can see how things are made or done?a post office, a jellybean factory, an automobile plant.

To keep feelings of isolation at bay, hook up with a local homeschooling group (or start one if none is available). These groups can plan field trips, science fairs, speech meets, art exhibits, and social events. Groups of parents often hire a teacher for a special series in art, drama, singing, or creative writing.

How to Decide

One thing's certain?when it comes to your child's education, there is no "perfect" answer, only the perfect question: What's best for our child and our family?

Regardless of where your child learns, you can broaden his horizons by helping him connect with and explore the wider world. After all, you will always be his most important teacher!

Barbara Curtis is a former Montessori teacher and the mother of 11. She is the author of Small Beginnings: First Steps to Prepare Your Child for Lifelong Learning (Broadman & Holman). See her website at www.barbaracurtis.com.

NOTE: For your convenience, the following products, which were mentioned above, are available for purchase from the ChristianityToday.com Shopping Channel:

  1. Big Book of Home Learning Set, by Mary Pride
  2. Small Beginnings: First Steps to Prepare Your Child for Lifelong Learning, by Barbara Curtis

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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