How to Choose the Right Charter School

Thanks to charter schools, Michigan families have more excellent school choices than ever. Here’s some expert advice on how to choose the right school for your child and family.

Since 1994, when charter school legislation was first signed into Michigan law, families have benefitted from the expanded choice that charter public schools have provided. Now there are about 300 charter schools in Michigan that serve more than 150,000 students. That’s a good thing for families in metro Detroit and across Michigan — but parents are also tasked with figuring out how to choose the right school for their child.

“Every charter school is different. Some look similar to traditional public schools, while others might seem more like a private or a magnet school that is focused on an educational theme,” says Andrew Campanella, President of National School Choice Week and author of the book The School Choice Roadmap: 7 Steps to Finding the Right School for Your Child

Campanella says that parents aren’t always aware of the basics about charter schools, including the fact that as public schools, charter schools are free of charge, are open to all students regardless of previous academic experience and follow the same standards as traditional public schools. 

“What really makes charter schools unique is that they are able to come up with new, innovative and tailored ways to present education to students,” he says. “This might be a theme, a specific instructional strategy, smaller class sizes, even different types of extracurricular activities.”

Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office, Michigan’s largest charter school authorizer, supports 80 charter schools in metro Detroit, Grand Rapids and across Michigan, impacting public K-12 education by providing quality educational choices for families. GVSU charter schools can provide a flexible approach to instruction, helping students focus on areas of interest, including STEM, art and design, college prep and more. 

When it comes to making your choice, Campanella suggests taking a broad view. Start by looking around and determining what is available to your family. “Don’t box yourself in,” he says. “A parent might say they want to send their child to a charter school without even taking a look at the charter public schools and the traditional public schools in the area, or considering virtual options, homeschooling or private education.” 

Choosing a school can be an exciting adventure. Here, we share Campanella’s top tips for how to choose the right school for your child and your whole family.

Follow these seven steps

In his book, Campanella offers seven steps to help parents choose the right school for their child, and the steps have helpful worksheets to use throughout the process. Find downloadable versions at schoolchoiceroadmap.com and other helpful resources at the National School Choice Week site. 

For many parents, their only experience with K-12 education is their own, and for better or worse, that is valuable information when you’re making a choice for your own child. That’s why examining your own experience is the first step in choosing the right school. 

Photo credit: National School Choice Week

“Think about the teachers who made a difference in your life, the most important things you learned, the skills you discovered that you now use every day, the classes that inspired you and the clubs and activities that helped you discover your interests,” he writes. This exercise helps parents understand why they have instinctive reactions to certain types of learning environments. 

Other steps include identifying your goals for your child and deciding what you need and want from a school — where you’ll really prioritize what your child needs in a learning environment. Campanella encourages parents to think about big, broad values that “reflect your goals, dreams and aspirations for your child.”

Then, identify the different programs and make a big list. After researching these schools, you’ll narrow your list with the help of the priorities worksheet you completed in the previous step. Consider this list to be a work in progress. The more you research — including websites, third-party sources, even social media — the more well-defined your list will become.

Now it’s time to visit schools. Campanella has suggestions to make this a productive exercise and even tips for getting ready for the visit. Finally, you’ll evaluate schools based on what is right for your own child and your own family. “When you are considering K-12 education, remember that every child is unique and all kids learn differently, and have different interests, challenges and talents,” Campanella says. “One child might react really well to a neighborhood school and have a great experience, but the student next door might not have the same positive experience.” Here’s where school choice — including charter schools — makes so much sense.

Your final step is to choose the school that meets your child’s needs. This is a very personal decision and, after careful consideration and evaluation, Campanella suggests that you trust your intuition. 

Timing is very important

The process of selecting a school can be lengthy, but don’t be tempted to wait until summer when you have more time and headspace to devote to it. “If you are looking to make a change for the next school year, it’s so important to start in the winter. Don’t wait until the summer,” Campanella urges.

Photo credit: National School Choice Week

Families that start early may fill available seats, but there’s a “great feedback loop that happens between supply and demand. If a school leader sees incredible demand, the school can hire more teachers,” he explains. “You are helping yourself and other families to give the school a chance to grow if there is demand early. You also have the maximum chance of finding your best options and the maximum chance that even if they don’t have a seat available, they might create one.”

If you’re brand new to the school choice experience

When you’re making school choices for the very first time, the task can be daunting and you may worry you’ll make the wrong decision. “My recommendation would be to follow the process but know that you won’t have information about the types of schools your child succeeded in before,” Campanella says.

Still, you do know your child’s interests, he says. “You know what inspires them and what gets them excited about learning. Use that information and look at a lot of different options, as many as you can. Go on tours and ask lots of questions.”

Bring your child, if possible, to gauge their reaction, but know that you are the one who will make the final choice. “Don’t let your child make the decision solely,” he says. 

Finally, Campanella says, don’t get tangled in education jargon. “Education impacts everyone’s life and it often appears overly complicated,” he says. “When it comes to a child’s education, parents are the experts. You know more about your child than anyone else and you are in the driver’s seat.” 

National School Choice Week is always the last week of January. In 2022, look for awareness-raising events during National School Choice Week, Jan. 23-29. 

Content sponsored by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office. Learn more at gvsu.edu/cso.

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