If you’re considering a non-traditional education for your child, you likely know first hand that “default” models of schooling aren’t right for everyone. That’s why new charters, co-ops, microschools, self-directed learning centers are popping up everywhere. But how do you decide which alternative setting is right for your kid?

We talk to a lot of people who’ve decided to do school differently. Most families consider cost, location, hours, and day-to-day learning experience, but there’s more to choosing the right environment than just logistical details. The philosophy, approach, and values embodied by the school and the staff will be crucial in shaping your child’s experience. Below, you’ll find a short list of questions that can help you decide if a school is a good fit for your kid..

If you’re able to, we recommend asking in person. Getting a feel for the school environment (and the individuals in it) will help add color and context to the answers you receive. If you can’t, choose a few questions that feel most important and send an email, or ask the parent of a current student.

School staff might not have answers to these questions right away. That’s okay. Just by asking, you communicate what is important to you and your child, and get a feel for the culture of the school by opening a conversation.

Key Questions to Ask Staff at a New School

  1. What educational philosophies, mission, and methods does this school employ? What constitutes success for each child?
  2. How do we know these methods of engaging children create healthy outcomes? Are there any research studies you can share with me?
  3. What is the adult-to-child ratio (or class size)? Who will be directly working with or supervising my child? Can I meet with that person?
  4. What are the expectations of student attendance? Can I take my child out for learning opportunities? If students are ill, are doctor’s notes or other evidence required?
  5. What will my child do at school? What percentage of school hours are teacher-led, vs. student-led, learning? What opportunities are there for rest, play, extracurricular activities, movement, and downtime during the school day? How much of the day can be spent outdoors?
  6. How are each child’s needs addressed? How much of the curriculum or learning opportunities are general to all students? How much is personalized?
  7. What is your homework policy? How much homework is typically assigned for students my child’s age? What research do you rely on to ensure expectations are developmentally appropriate and useful?
  8. How do kids learn what is expected of them in the school setting? How do staff ensure that kids understand these expectations? If a child is unable to meet those expectations, how is that addressed?
  9. How do you know if a particular teacher, facilitator, or member of staff is effective? How much time do teachers get to plan and collaborate? What kind of training or professional development is offered?
  10. How do you keep parents informed about what’s happening at school? What are the opportunities for parents to be involved? Are there service obligations for parents?
  11. How can parents provide feedback to school staff? How are concerns addressed?
  12. Are students taught social and emotional skills like conflict resolution, empathy, and emotional awareness? How is problem-solving or conflict managed?
  13. How much time will my child spend preparing for and taking state or district tests? What happens to those results? May my child opt out of these tests?
  14. Is your school affiliated with any broader network of schools? Do you have a board, or other governing structure?
  15. What outside resources are available to students who are struggling to meet expectations, or who have a conflict with another student or member of staff?
  16. Is there an open house, visitor week, trial period, summer session, or some other way for my kid to try the school and see if it’s a good fit?

Compare the answers to your vision for your child’s well-being, and to your own intuitions about what’s best for your kid and your family. Do you favor maximum freedom, or will structure serve your kid well? Are you comfortable with how both kids and caregivers are treated in this community? Are you willing to do what the program requires of you, whether that’s ensuring homework is done, attending events, serving on a committee, or getting documentation each time your child has the sniffles? Does the way the community treats your child match with how you treat them at home, does it provide a useful counterpoint, or will it cause conflict?

(As you might guess, we’re passionate about learning environments where children’s natural desire for learning is celebrated. A playful approach to learning, and the freedom to choose what they study and when, are among the best ways to equip kids for lifelong success.)

Do as much research as you can about the models you’re considering. Talk to your child about the options available, and your hopes for their schooling (or unschooling) experience. Encourage them to reflect not just on what they want, but what would empower them to learn. The research process can be a great opportunity to teach your kids about everything from weighing tradeoffs weighing different options, to reflecting on their own needs and values wants.

Listen and consider what your young person is telling you, and help them find words if they struggle. Work together to determine what’s important. Having your young person’s buy-in can make or break the experience, so even if you overrule them, help them understand the decision you make.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is actually important to me?
    Every school will have trade offs. No school setting will be a perfect match with your vision (unless you start your own). Maybe a microschool that allows constant access to outdoor play doesn’t offer music lessons. Maybe the co-op with the in-house vegan chef gives more homework than you’d prefer, or requires more parent involvement than you can manage. Only you can decide the balance of priorities for your family.
  2. Which bundled services do I need?
    Public schools, and many large private ones, bundle services that families often need, like serving lunch, offering afterschool care, and running buses to transport students. Smaller schools and alternative ed settings often “unbundle” these services, leaving more of the work to families. Are you willing to pack lunch every day? Are you available to pick up at 3, or able to make other arrangements? Find out what each school offers and whether it matches your needs.
  3. What are my child’s unique needs?
    There is an alternative education option for absolutely every child. But not every setting will be right for every kid. Ensure the building and programming are accessible to your child’s abilities. Discuss any ongoing challenges, support needs, or relevant diagnoses with school staff early in your search to ensure the program you fall in love with can give you what you need.

If you’re taking a proactive interest in your child’s education and considering these questions, you’re well on your way to making a choice that will make a lifetime of positive difference. No school will be perfect, but one will be right for you. Weigh your pros and cons, listen to your instincts, then trust your choice — and your child.

Laura Williams

Laura Williams

Laura Williams is a communication strategist, writer, educator, and mom to a self-directed learner based in Atlanta, GA. She is a passionate advocate for critical thinking, individual liberties, and the Oxford Comma.

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