So you’ve decided to enroll your child in cyber school. But which one? The websites all promise the best education, so how do you choose? What do you look for? Does it even matter which cyber school you choose?
Yes. It matters.
Our family has had two separate cyber school experiences—two different schools and two different kids. One was a great experience. The other, well, not so much. Looking back, I believe that research and planning made all the difference.
To narrow your choices and choose a cyber school that is the best match for your child, you’ll need to do research and ask questions. There’s not necessarily any right or wrong answers. But the differences between cyber schools are important to consider with regard to your child’s learning style, abilities and goals.
There’s much to consider but don’t get discouraged! Probably not every factor on the following list will pertain to your family so just decide which are most important to you and start there. You will find answers to most of your questions on cyber schools’ websites.
Factors to Consider when Choosing a Cyber School
Availability. Start off by making a list of cyber schools available in your state, what grades they teach and their websites for further research. You may also want to make a quick note of whether they are public or private. Most public cyber schools do not charge tuition—they are state funded—but make sure of the details regarding cost.
Profit or Non-Profit. Some cyber schools are operated on a for-profit basis. Whether or not you believe it’s a good idea is a personal decision but one which, at the very least, requires some research and consideration. Look for articles, reviews and statistics on the internet to help you decide.
Accreditation. Schools need to meet minimum quality standards in order to receive accreditation from their state or regional accrediting commission. This means that a team of objective outsiders evaluates the school to determine if it meets certain academic and administrative standards. For more information, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s Accreditation and Quality Assurance page. For college-bound high school students, graduating from an accredited school is important—some colleges, universities and scholarship programs only accept applications from students who have graduated from an accredited school.
Quality. Look for statistics on your state’s department of education website. Although test scores don’t measure every aspect of success, they can give you some idea of how cyber schools you’re considering compare to your local schools. You can also find demographics of the student population, state rankings, student-teacher ratios, etc. A helpful source for basic research is SchoolDigger.com.
Teacher Certification. What percentage of teachers are certified in the subject they teach? Ideally, this number should be 100%.
Location. Even virtual schools host certain events such as orientation, standardized testing, science fairs, etc. which may involve traveling—either to the school’s main office or a regional center. Find out if cyber schools you’re considering have any offices near you and what activities take place there.
Curriculum and Classes. What curriculum is used and does it comply with state standards? Is the curriculum augmented with additional items such as reading materials, websites or teacher-created handouts? Are honors and/or AP classes offered? What classes are offered beyond the basic requirements? Many cyber schools’ websites list classes that are offered (although not always each grading period). Browsing the lists, especially the electives, can be exciting for students because there are often many classes offered that simply aren’t available in traditional schools.
Live Classes. Cyber schools often offer live classes. Basically, teachers present lessons in real time, via the internet, while students follow along and interact on their own computers. Find out which subjects have live classes, how often are they scheduled and if the live classes are mandatory. Are live classes archived so students can access them at any time? (Archived classes can be very helpful, especially with difficult lessons.) Because live classes are handled differently from school to school, ask if students can see and hear each other or just the teacher. Keep in mind that some subjects, such as languages, lend themselves to the necessity of taking place live.
Teacher Availability. Just like at traditional school, students will have questions. Find out when and how often teachers are available, outside of live class times, to answer questions, explain concepts, clarify assignments, etc.
Guidance. Who at the school will help guide your child’s educational progress? Some schools employ “learning coaches” who track students’ attendance, grades and progress through lessons. Other schools fulfill this role, to varying degrees, with “counselors,” “homeroom coaches,” etc. At some cyber schools, this person will change from year to year, while at others the same guidance person follows students from grade to grade.
Education Support. Many cyber schools offer online tutoring and/or self-paced classes to help students who may be struggling to reach their educational goals. Find out if such services are available in case your student needs some additional help.
Equipment. Find out if the school supplies the required computer, software and accessories. Ask what tech support is offered, the hours it’s available and what happens if the computer needs to be repaired (it happens.) Will you be required to provide any supplies for science labs, physical education classes or access to a printer/scanner?
Attendance Policy. Although students attend classes virtually, attendance is still required. Not all schools measure attendance in the same manner, however, so you should find out what would be expected of your child. Attendance might be measured by logging in on school days, turning in assignments or reporting hours spent doing school work each week.
Parental Involvement. Just like with a traditional brick and mortar schools, parents are required to ensure their child’s attendance at cyber school. So you’ll need to understand and comply with the attendance policy. Find out what is expected from parents at each cyber school you’re considering. Find out if there is a parental monitoring system for assignments, which parents can use to check their children’s progress. Ask if there are any specific requirements for parents such as regular phone calls with your child’s educational coach, signing off on reports, verifying attendance, etc.
Academic Schedule. Look up the school’s calendar online. Does it follow a fall-through spring schedule? Are there winter and spring breaks? Does the school operate on semesters, quarters or some other term and how will the schedule fit your lifestyle? Cyber schools often allow students to work ahead in their lessons if they choose, which gives them more control over their schedules. Find out the school’s policy regarding working ahead. It may be acceptable to work straight through the material for a year, or only a quarter or lesson unit.
College Prep. At some cyber schools, students can earn college credits for certain classes or take part in college dual enrollment programs. This could be an important factor for high school students. Additionally it can be helpful to check out some related statistics such as the average SAT scores for the school’s students and the percentage of students who attend college after graduation. This information can help you access if a school is geared toward college-bound students.
Special Needs. Most, if not all, cyber schools offer educational and related services for students with special needs and/or an IEP. Find out how schools conduct IEP assessment and how they monitor IEPs (meetings, re-evaluations, etc.). Are the instructors certified special education teachers? How is the educational program structured, paced and customized? What special software and assistive technology is available? What related support services does the school offer, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, behavioral analysis, physical therapy, etc. Ask how these services are provided (it seems common practice for cyber schools to contract with local providers).
Clubs. Cyber schools offer all sorts of clubs, just like traditional schools. They are usually listed on the school’s website. Look to see if there are groups dedicated to your child’s interests.
Sports and Extracurricular Activities. In some states, cyber school students are permitted to try out for and take part in after-school sports and extracurricular activities at their home school district (provided they meet requirements such as attendance and grade level). In other states it’s not allowed. And in some cases, cyber schools reimburse school districts for expenses associated with the activities. So besides researching what’s allowable, you’ll need to ask about the policies of both your home school district and the cyber school you’re considering.
Field Trips and Social Events. Socialization is usually a main concern for parents looking for a cyber school for their children. Find out what types of social events a cyber school you’re considering offers and how often they take place. Browse around a school’s website to find information on past events or a calendar for the upcoming year. Some schools host events at a variety of locations. How will the location of events affect your child’s ability to attend? For high school students, it may be important for your family to know if there is a prom and traditional graduation ceremony. Of course, you can brainstorm and research other ways to make sure your child has adequate social interaction with his peers outside of school.
After you’ve done your research, call or email the schools with your remaining questions or concerns. Sometimes the information on the websites just doesn’t quite cover an issue you’re wondering about, or you need further clarification. You may also find it helpful to post some specific questions in the parents’ area of schools’ websites—parents can give insight on a plethora of subjects.
The different nuances of cyber schools can affect how well your child adjusts to and progresses through his virtual education. Researching your choices will take some work. But your child’s success is worth it, right?