By Nora Heston Tarte

The decisions you make about your child’s education early on will have a lasting impact. The school they attend will dictate not only the programs they participate in and the education they receive but also the extracurricular activities with which they will engage and the friends they will keep.

“Everything from how a teacher inspires to what friends a child makes can determine how a child fares in adulthood, which makes choosing a school an especially stressful event for a parent,” says Pearl Esau, President and CEO of Expect More Arizona.

Parents, start by arming yourself with knowledge. Learn the differences between Arizona’s three main types of educational institutions—private, public and charter—to find the right place for your young student.

Understanding the difference

Many differences between these institutions lay in funding and cost. For example, traditional public schools are free and funded by the state government, while charter schools are also free and either funded by the state government or by a for-profit business. Private schools, however, can be for-profit or not-for-profit and are primarily funded by tuition dollars, fundraising efforts, donations and occasionally endowments. Parents looking at private schools are often concerned with cost, Becca Oberfield, director of the lower school at Tesseract School in Paradise Valley says, however, financial aid, scholarships and the Arizona State Tuition Tax Credit can offset costs.

“Of the 1.1 million children in Arizona schools today, more than 170,000 are being served by charter schools,” Esau says. In fact, during the 2012-2013 school year, Arizona had the second highest percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools at 14 percent. But public charter schools are not as different from traditional public schools as parents may think.

“Charter schools have a contract with the state to innovate in order to support student achievement,” Esau says. “However, most of the differences between charter and traditional schools happen behind the scenes.” For example, the governing board of each is selected differently, as are the teachers that work there.

Making the right choice

A universal “best choice” does not exist when it comes to selecting a school. It’s your job as a parent to determine at which institution your child will thrive.
“The most effective way to get a feel for a school is to see it in-person. Visiting the campus, speaking with teachers and administrators and learning more about the school’s goals and approach to learning will provide a good idea of whether it will be a good fit,” Esau says.

Ask yourself and school staff questions during your visit to get a better feel for its potential. Consider your child’s interests and whether the classroom or extracurricular activities offered will allow them to explore those interests. Also think about your child’s learning needs and if the school has the programs your child requires to be successful or can adapt to meet their learning style.

Perhaps most important is how instructors educate at these different institutions, and how curriculum is chosen.

“When creating and designing curriculum private school educators are not bound to curriculum guides or pacing schedules,” Oberfield explains. Whether or not this is a positive depends on your personal education philosophies.

“Selecting a school that will meet the needs of an individual student is a key goal, but it’s just as important that parents are actively involved in the education process,” Esau says. “Communicating regularly with the child’s teacher, volunteering in the classroom, becoming active in school parent groups and understanding how your local school board works are all great ways to ensure that your child has the best educational experience possible.”

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