Originally Published on AccreditedSchoolsOnline.org
The sheer diversity of online high school instruction means there are different approaches to curriculum, student development and academic instruction. The first step in making a decision about a prospective online high school program is evaluating the needs and future goals of the student and then researching the types of programs that would help the student achieve his or her goals. In order to do so, parents should review a list of criteria, a set of factors that influence the overall quality of schools offering online programs. Below are a few points parents should consider before enrolling their son or daughter in a non-traditional high school.
- Accreditation. The goal of accreditation is to make sure schools are meeting an acceptable level of quality recognized nationally or regionally. Accreditation also means the online accredited high school is held accountable to an outside agency for academic performance and graduation rates. Most colleges accept only students who have graduated from accredited institutions. Currently, there’s no single nationwide set of accreditation standards in place, which means accreditation is handled on a state and regional basis. Parents should ask the school about their accreditation standing, the accrediting body, and how often accreditation is reviewed and renewed. A starting point to finding accredited schools is AdvancED.org.
- Credit Transfers. For students both transferring into and out of online high school programs, credit transfers are important. Most secondary institutions will not accept credits from an unaccredited school. Parents should discuss the transfer process with both the school in question and the local school district to ensure credits to be transferred are recognized at other high schools. For parents seeking a peace of mind, some schools offer an enrollment agreement, an agreement that recognizes which credits and completed courses will be honored.
- Support Services. Student support is vital to positive academic outcomes, especially for online students. Parents should review the different types of services available to both students and the parents themselves. Are tutoring services provided by the school? Are students assigned a learning coach to help with the learning process? Are students able to access school counselors? Is a parent network or community available for parents? Does the school have a dedicated staff for student and parent support services?
- Socialization Opportunities. For online students, particularly those in grades 9–12, social opportunities are especially important when preparing to continue into a college environment. Online instruction requires creative alternatives to socialization as students study independently. Parents should check the socialization opportunities through the prospective school, asking about the types of activities offered (e.g., field trips, clubs), how online instruction can support socialization (e.g., group projects, online collaboration), etc.
- Quality Instructors. Just as in a traditional setting, the quality of the instruction is determined by the teachers and instructors. Prior to making a decision, parents should review the basic qualifications required for teachers to be employed at the school, as well as the hiring practices and trends of the institution (e.g., the teacher turnover rate). Next, parents should ask about the educational and professional backgrounds of the teachers. What types of degrees do they hold? Do they have professional experience in their areas of study? How long have they been teaching? Are teachers required to undergo training or orientation to teach online?
- Instructional Quality. Parents should understand the type of curriculum offered at each grade level and how that curriculum is delivered. Keeping students engaged at the high school learning level is critical and curriculum plays a major role in engagement. Parents should review how each school develops its curriculum, how it aligns to state and national standardized testing processes, how courses are assessed, and how instructors interact and communicate with students.
- School Performance. Colleges consider the quality of the student’s high school when making a determination about acceptance. Some states grade the performance of its high schools (traditional and online), issuing a report card based on graduation rates, student and parent satisfaction, and student outcomes. Other areas to review include graduation rates (compared against traditional school rates in the area) and retention rates (the percentage of students that enroll in the following school year). Taking collectively, each of those items can provide parents with a general understanding of the online school’s academic quality and performance.
- College Planning. Typically, the ultimate goal of a high school program is to prepare students academically and socially to be accepted to a post-secondary institution and to succeed at that institution. College planning entails several factors including the following: 1) Availability of honor, AP, and college preparatory classes; 2) College advisement and counseling; 3) Standardized testing preparation, including ACT and SAT. Students should ask prospective high schools about the various college planning services available and the percentage of students who graduate and are accepted into college programs.