By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.

Parents who’re looking for a school for their kids for the first time can be forgiven if they’re confused. There are many different kinds of schools, and it can be difficult to know the difference between them. Here, I provide an overview of the dozen most common school choices, so that parents can make informed decisions that best serve their particular needs.

Boarding Schools

Boarding schools are private schools where students live and learn together on a campus. You can send your kids to a boarding school from kindergarten right up through high school, or for a single school year. They attract kids from across the globe, have high academic standards, offer lots of extra-curricular activities, foster close relationships between teachers and students, and are great if you want your kid to develop their independence and become more mature.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are a specific kind of public schools. Like regular public schools, they receive public funding. However, they’re independently operated and have more autonomy than most public schools when it comes to curriculum and instruction. They tend to have a specific educational focus like performing arts or math and science. Students are often selected through a lottery rather than on their academic merit or other factors like demographics.

Distance-Learning Schools

Distance-learning schools, also known as online or virtual schools, are schools where students receive instruction from home, similar to what’s happening during the pandemic but on a permanent basis. They can be public or private, and they often abide by the same educational regulations and standards as brick-and-mortar schools. Parents often choose distance-learning schools because they like their convenience and flexibility.

District-Zoned Schools

District-zoned schools, or neighborhood schools as they’re also known, are the formal name of the regular public schools in your area. These are publicly funded, follow state guidelines for curriculum and instruction, and are open to all kids living within their catchment area (or zone). Most parents send their kids to district-zoned schools because they’re conveniently located and their kids are virtually guaranteed to have their neighborhood friends as classmates.

International Baccalaureate Schools

International baccalaureate schools are schools that are members of the International Baccalaureate Association, an international educational foundation founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968. They include both private and public elementary, middle, and high schools.  Students who graduate from these academically-rigorous high school programs are highly competitive when they apply for admission to colleges and universities around the world.

Language Immersion Schools

Language immersion schools are private and public schools in which all or most of the instruction is delivered in a language other than English. The teachers are often fluent in two or more languages. The educational programs are typically designed for students whose native language is English, and they’re great if you want your kids to become fluent in another language. Common languages of instruction include Chinese, French, Japanese, and Spanish.

Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are public schools that are open to kids from multiple districts. Like charter schools, they operate alongside regular public schools, have a particular educational focus, and their instruction often emphasizes hands-on learning. Unlike charter schools, however, magnet schools don’t admit students via a lottery but instead try to promote a diverse student body in terms of demographics, while at the same time factoring in the academic merit of students.

Montessori Schools

Montessori schools are private schools that follow the educational philosophy of the Italian physician Maria Montessori who promoted a child-centered approach that includes lots of hands-on exploration. Instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum, Montessori schools appeal to each individual student’s interests and abilities. Another feature that distinguishes Montessori schools from traditional schools is that teachers stay with the same group of students for several years.

Parochial Schools

Parochial schools are private Christian schools that operate under the auspices of local parish churches (hence the name). Parochial schools teach regular academic subjects like language arts, math, science, and social studies in addition to offering religious instruction and prayer services. Parents often choose a parochial school because they want their kids’ education to be grounded in particular religious values.

Reggio Emilia Schools

Reggio Emilia schools are private schools that follow a specific educational philosophy that was developed by parents living in the Italian city of Reggio Emilia in the 1940s. These schools assume that kids form their own personality and therefore have a student-centered curriculum that includes experiential learning, play, and self-expression. Teachers focus on the interests of individual students, ask lots of questions, and engage in activities alongside their students.

Special Education Schools

Special education schools are private and public schools that serve students with special needs. Some focus on multiple needs, others on specific learning differences. These can include communicative, physical, and social learning differences like ADHD, autism, and hearing impairment. Teachers are educated to meet the specialized learning needs of students. They often have an extensive support staff of guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

Waldorf Schools

Waldorf schools, also known as Steiner schools, are private schools that follow the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and social reformer who promoted a specific kind of holistic learning that emphasizes practical skills, imagination, and intellectual development. Like Montessori schools, teachers stay with the same group of students for several years to foster a close and intimate mentor – mentee relationship.

Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences & Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.

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