Traditional school alternatives: Is one right for your child?

Learn about different types of schools, with distinctive philosophies and curriculum, including Montessori, Waldorf, Core Knowledge, KIPP, and IB.

By GreatSchools Staff

Does your daughter learn effectively when given freedom to go at her own pace, or is she more likely to thrive in a highly structured setting? Should your son learn a standardized curriculum, or one based on his personal areas of interest?

Some schools across the nation are taking dramatically different approaches to these and other important questions, and many offer alternatives to traditional education settings.

Here's a look at some of the options, ranging from rigorous college prep programs to more flexible learning formats. Note that not all these options are available in every community. If one doesn't exist where you live, check the school organization's Web site to find out more about how to bring one of these schools to your area.

Montessori

This teaching method is based on educator Maria Montessori's philosophy that it's important for children to discover and learn in their own ways. Montessori teachers encourage independence and individuality, and will even provide lesson plans based on your child's progress.

Montessori classrooms are "child-centric" — filled with hands-on materials designed to stimulate children's senses and motor skills, and to promote self-directed learning. Additionally, students within a three-year age range often share a classroom, creating a flexible, non-competitive environment where older children can teach younger students.

Nearly 8,000 private schools and several hundred public schools in the United States include Montessori programs, mostly at the elementary level. Most schools have a primary program (from 3-6 years) and often a lower elementary (6-9 years). Upper elementary programs (9-12 years) are less common, although about one school in eight will have this program. There are no grades, rewards or punishments at Montessori schools and although some parents worry about the lack of traditional homework and letter-grade report cards, a 2006 study found that Montessori students tend to show advanced social skills and creativity, and perform better on standardized tests than their peers in traditional programs.

Read our article "The inside scoop on Montessori schools".

Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP)

This network of free college preparatory charter public schools emphasizes academic rigor in order to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds attend top boarding schools and universities. KIPP, known for its strong focus on achievement, has long school days, mandatory three-week summer school and two to three hours of homework each night. Students, parents and teachers are asked to sign a Commitment to Excellence pledge to confirm their shared goal of student success.

Students are encouraged by a reward system in which they receive "KIPP dollars" for academic achievement and good behavior that may be spent on important items like books and laptops. KIPP students participate in extracurricular activities including martial arts, chess and music, and take annual field trips to national landmarks and college campuses. As of 2011, more than 90 percent of KIPP's eighth grade grads had graduated from high school, and more than 80 percent of KIPP alumni have gone to college.

Waldorf

The Waldorf philosophy emphasizes imagination and creativity. The Waldorf classroom is meant to feel like home, with plenty of space and materials for free play. Teachers encourage students' creativity in all aspects of learning, and stress music, art and language along with traditional academic subjects.

At Waldorf schools, the same teacher often stays with a group of students for up to eight grades, and may focus on a single subject for as long as a month. Teachers introduce concepts gradually in order to help children slowly discover the world around them.

Waldorf education is currently practiced in 60 countries throughout the world, including 124 member schools in the United States, with 20 in California alone. Waldorf schools are generally private schools but there are several Waldorf-oriented charter schools around the country. You can find a list of these public charter schools here.

Read our article "Is a Waldorf school right for my child?"

Core Knowledge

This very specific curriculum provides students with the information they need to develop "cultural literacy," or familiarity with important, nationally-shared knowledge and concepts. According to the Core Knowledge Foundation, an independent non-profit founded in 1986, this course of study promotes academic excellence and greater fairness in schools.

As of 2010, there were 770 official Core Knowledge schools and 414 preschools in the United States, many of which are public charter schools. Students in these schools use approved supplies and textbooks to learn the Core Knowledge sequence, gradually building on what they learn and completing academic goals as they move from grade to grade.

While it may seem that such specific instruction could leave out important information or prevent parental participation and teacher creativity, supporters argue that the consistency of the Core Knowledge curriculum motivates students, teachers and parents alike to get involved in education.

Read our article "Core Knowledge schools".

International Baccalaureate (IB)

The IB academic program, taught in 125 countries worldwide, is a pre-university curriculum known for high academic standards and an emphasis on international understanding and citizenship. The Primary Years Programme, for students up to the age of 12, focuses on language, communication and reflective thinking. Students in the Middle Years Programme learn eight subjects, participate in community service and other extracurricular requirements, and complete long-term personal projects each year.

These earlier programs are designed to prepare students for the final IB curriculum, which begins at age 16. The Diploma Programme may be right for your high-schooler if she seeks a challenging college prep program with greater opportunities for critical thinking. The program can be found at 1,389 (and counting) schools nationwide, including many magnet schools in less affluent areas.

Read our article "What is International Baccalaureate?"