Does your teenager feel hampered by the limited educational opportunities at your high school? Does she have trouble fitting in? There are alternatives to high school that may appeal to your teen.

Independent study, college or online courses, virtual high schools, and special summer programs are just some of the ways to engage your restless high school student.

Independent study

Does your teenager have a burning desire to study psychology, women’s authors, or computer science? Many high schools will allow students to pursue independent study for high school credit.

At Berkeley High School in California, for example, independent study is an option for any student. Tali Biale, now 21 years old and a student at Wesleyan University, followed an independent study program during her senior year at Berkeley High. She took some regular courses, some AP courses, and created her own comparative religion course, all as part of independent study. “As a senior, I was interested in something different from a regular high school schedule and I had a lot of other interests I wanted to pursue. I heard rumors that independent study was for slackers who didn’t want to be in school. But it was an amazing program for a whole range of kids. I took the same number of courses as regular high school students but instead of meeting in class every day, I met once a week with each teacher one-on-one for a half-hour or an hour and did my work independently. It was much more self-directed. It really prepared me well for college and got me used to managing my time.”

Often high schools will offer regular classes in an independent study format if a student has a schedule conflict and a teacher is willing to meet with the student one-on-one. Some schools will allow students to pursue a particular subject they are interested in as an independent study, if the course is not offered at the school. Check with your high school to find out what independent study options are offered.

Advanced Placement

Many high schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which are college-level courses offered at high schools. These courses are taught by AP-trained high school teachers who follow course guidelines and curriculum developed by the College Board. Students can also take AP courses through independent study, and some states sponsor online AP courses. Courses are available through high schools at no cost, but students who want to receive college credit must take and pass an AP exam, which costs $94. Fee reductions (to $32) are available in some states for students who qualify. There are 38 AP courses available in a variety of subjects. Currently, more than 22,000 schools offer AP courses. For information on AP, check the AP section of the College Board website.

International Baccalaureate

Some high schools offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which is a rigorous two-year pre-university program. Students who successfully complete the IB exams at the end of the program receive an IB diploma, which is accepted by universities in more than 100 countries.

Online options

Online high schools

A variety of options exist online for high school students seeking advancement or courses not offered at their school. Students can participate individually, or, in the case of Virtual High School (VHS), a regular high school may participate and provide multiple course options for its students.

Virtual High School was created in 1996 through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Its goal was to form a consortium of high schools working together to offer online courses. Today, VHS is a nonprofit organization that offers 321 courses to 18,000 students. Schools pay an annual membership fee and at least one teacher from their school signs on to be an online instructor. That teacher participates in professional development online through VHS before teaching a course and teaches a group of no more than 25 students who may sign on from any VHS-affiliated school anywhere in the world.

Students can select from the course catalog and might take such courses as pre-veterinary medicine, Advanced Placement statistics or calculus, or screenwriting fundamentals. The regular high school the student attends covers the cost of class materials and online instruction. Students typically participate in their online course — listening to lectures, conversing in online discussions, and doing group projects — at their regular high school during a class period in the school day.

Students who participate learn to manage their time and take control of the learning process. “High school can be incredibly cliquish,” says former VHS CEO Liz Pape. “Here, no one has any preconceived notions of who you are. Here it’s OK for a football player to take contemporary poetry.” The online classes are also effective in reaching kids who might sleep in the back of a regular classroom or English language learners who have the opportunity to work at their own pace. In the online classroom, every student participates, and the instructor can easily see what the level of participation is.

Students can also take classes at VHS on their own, without being affiliated with a regular high school during the school year or during the summer by paying a fee.

Stanford Online High School at Stanford University was launched in 2006 as an outgrowth of the Education Program for the Gifted at Stanford. It’s a diploma-granting program, a complete online middle school and high school that provides an opportunity for gifted students to be challenged in an online environment. “We are looking for a certain kind of student,” says Jan Keating, the school’s headmaster. “We want students who show academic excellence in testing or school performance.” Students must apply for admission and pay tuition. Some students are enrolled full time while others take some courses at their local high school and some classes through Stanford OHS. Classes have up to 15 students and are convened over an advanced video conferencing system that allows the teacher to share materials via a whiteboard. The teacher and students can interact during class, have discussions, and they can see when someone raises their hand or marks up class materials on their screen. The school even has clubs, a student government, and a parent association, all online.

Maya Lewis enrolled because she wanted a challenge and the opportunity to take a risk. An avid musician and a gifted student, she typically spends the first part of her day at home in Ft. Worth, TX, practicing the piano. Then she might listen to the lecture for one of her core classes, “Democracy, Freedom and the Rule of Law,” do the assigned reading, and participate in an online discussion. She’s a member of the student government and is working on organizing a buddy program for next year, so new students will have experienced students to lean on for advice. Maya says she definitely misses the social aspects of regular high school, but she and her online classmates organized an on-the-ground get-together in Chicago during spring break, and some students plan to take courses at Stanford University this summer. On the plus side, she says “Learning how to learn on my own has been valuable; most regular high schools don’t help you do that and it’s preparing me well to make the transition to college.”

Online courses

Online courses work best for self-disciplined, independent learners. Some have an interactive component where others involve just the student and the printed study materials. There are multiple online options available. Here’s a sampling.

Duke University e-Studies Program (grades 8-12) includes online, interactive courses as distance learning programs. Students connect with instructors, course material and 10 to 15 classmates from around the world in virtual “classrooms.” Courses run in the fall and spring (16-week sessions), as well as in the summer (8-week session). Students are admitted based on SAT or ACT test scores. Courses cost $750, which includes all text materials. There is an additional $20 application fee. Financial aid is available.

The University of Missouri-Columbia High School (MU High School), part of The University of Missouri Center for Distance and Independent Study, is a self-directed program where high school students can sign up at any time for the course, and receive print materials (a study guide and text) and take up to nine months to complete the course. Each course for high school students costs $135, plus varying fees for the print materials, depending on the course selected. Students write papers, do projects and take two proctored exams. (Generally, they find someone in their community or school to act as an authorized proctor.)

Summer Programs

Another option for your advanced student is to find appropriate, challenging programs she can attend during the summer. Many programs located on college campuses provide high school students with challenging academics and a taste of college life.

Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University offers three-week courses in both Chicago and Cleveland (Case Western Reserve University). Fourth through 12th-grade classes are offered in Chicago while 7th to 12th-grade classes are offered in Cleveland. Residential and commuter options are available.

The National High School Institute at Northwestern University is the nation’s oldest and largest university-based summer program for outstanding high school students. Programs are offered in journalism, debate, theatre arts, music, film and video production, at the Evanston, Illinois campus. Students gain practical college-level experience in their chosen field and live in college dorms.

Duke TIP (Duke University Talent Identification Program) includes residential, educational summer programs designed to meet the intellectual and social needs of gifted students in grades 7-12. Programs are held on college campuses across the country and in field locations around the world. Financial aid is available for most programs. Students learn highly challenging material at a rate suited to their advanced abilities. Students enroll in a single course for three weeks of in-depth study. Classes of approximately 16 students are taught by highly qualified instructor/teaching assistant teams. Outside the classroom, a carefully selected residential staff supervises students during meals, free time, and social and recreational activities. Program participants experience college classroom instruction and residence hall living. Campuses include Duke University, Duke Marine Lab, Appalachian State University, Davidson College, University of Kansas and Texas A&M.

Duke TIP also offers a summer field study program with challenging adventures in science and the humanities for motivated students in grades 9 to 12. Each field study involves travel to a location that is ideal for research and creative exploration. In each field study, 16 to 20 students participate, with a minimum of three staff members who remain with the students throughout the entire course. Courses include: “Astronomy, Physics, and Astrobiology” at the PARI Observatory in North Carolina; “Field Ecology and Mountain Geology” at the Mountain Lake Biological Station in Virginia; “China: A Leader in the Global Economy,”in Beijing; “Tropical Medicine and Ethnobiology” in Costa Rica.

The Great Books Summer Program offers students in grades 6 to 12 the opportunity to read and discuss selections from classic and contemporary literature in one- or two-week residential programs with college professors and top faculty at Amherst College and Stanford University. College and graduate students serve as counselors. There is ample time for recreation, too, and students have access to the college pool and other facilities during their stay.

Harvard University Summer Secondary School Program grants high school students the opportunity to take college-level classes at Harvard as well as college-prep workshops in writing the college application essay, financial aid, time management and taking effective notes. Although attending this summer program certainly does not guarantee admission to Harvard, students do have the opportunity to meet admissions staff and attend a talk by a Harvard admissions officer. There’s also ample time for exploring Cambridge, engaging in athletic and cultural activities, and visiting nearby colleges.

College courses

Motivated students often have the option to take courses at the local community college, or in some cases, at local universities. The University of California Extension offers its High School Scholars Program at UC Santa Cruz, Davis, and Berkeley. Students who attend high schools near these UC campuses and meet the grade-point and SAT-score requirements can apply to this program to take a limited number of courses at UC during their senior year. High school students may also enroll in lower-division, undergraduate college-level courses (numbered 1-99) through UC Extension with prior approval of their counselor or principal, to earn honors-level and/or transferable college credit.

Early/middle college programs

Many community colleges have coordinated with high schools and high school districts to form “early” or “middle colleges.” Early College High Schools (ECHS) are small high schools, usually located on college campuses, from which all students graduate in either four or five years with both a high school diploma and an associate of arts degree. Middle College High Schools (MCHS) are secondary schools, usually grades 10-12, located on college campuses. Some, but not all students, in this program are eligible to take college-level work, but they benefit from attending school on a college campus.

These programs are designed for high school students who are not fitting in at their high school, have good basic skills in reading, writing and math, and are ready for the challenge of doing college-level work. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has sponsored the Early College High School Initiative to provide funding to these programs where students can earn both a high school degree and earn credits toward a college degree at the same time. As of September 2006, 16,420 students have been enrolled in these programs in 26 states across the country.

A few states have statewide initiatives to create early or middle colleges. The California Early College High School is a partnership between the California Department of Education and the Chancellor’s Office for the California Community Colleges to support the Early College High School Initiative of the Foundation for California Community Colleges. Both the California and Texas programs are also part of the Gates Foundation initiative.

At Canada College, a public community college in Redwood City, California, for example, Middle College has been so successful that it plans to double its size from serving 60 to 120 students over the next two years. “Students who might not achieve in a regular high school are achieving here,” says Tom Mohr, interim president at Canada College. “I have yet to meet a student or parent who wasn’t pleased. And our college professors appreciate the program; they like having these young people in classes.”

Students take both high school and college-level courses at the college as part of this Middle College program. Many of the courses they take allow them to receive both credit toward a high school diploma and college credit. As a result, many students graduate from Middle College with a high school diploma and a significant number of college credits. The added bonus is that since they are enrolled as high school students, they aren’t required to pay tuition for the college courses.

Sarah Aires, a recent graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, attended Middle College at the College of San Mateo in California. She entered UC Santa Cruz with 28 college credits. “It was a great program. It allowed me to get done with high school quickly and it showed the colleges that I applied to that I could do college-level work,” she says. “Once I entered UC Santa Cruz, I didn’t have to take lots of prerequisite undergraduate courses where there were 500 students in a class.”

Gap year programs

For high school graduates who may not be ready to go straight to college, a gap year program is becoming an increasingly popular option. These programs allow students to take a year to gain some travel and/or practical experience and to find a focus before moving on to college. Many students on gap year programs have already been accepted to college but defer their acceptance for a year.

Dynamy, the oldest gap year program in the United States, is geared for students ages 17 to 22. Most of their students take the gap year between high school and college. A year-long academic program, its theme is career exploration and helping young adults find a focus. Each semester begins with an outdoor challenge, such as a kayaking or hiking trip. Students are placed in three non-paid internships during the year, suited to their interests, where they work with a mentor. A variety of options are available including working at a food bank, a theater company or with a political official. They also have the option to take a college-level seminar taught by a college professor each semester and receive college credit. They live in a house together with other gap year students and also perform 30 hours of community service. “Dynamy fits for kids who are itching to get out in the world and get some real-world experience,” says Carolie Sly, the Dynamy western-region admissions representative. “More and more colleges are recommending kids defer a year,” she adds. “They are finding kids are more mature after a year off.”

Nativ, a college leadership program based in Israel, provides an opportunity for students to travel, attend Hebrew University, learn leadership skills and experience Israeli life. Zach Roseman, now a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, took part in this gap year program after graduating from high school. “School can wait a year until you figure out who you are and look at the world around you,” says Zach. “For this year, you are not worrying about your GPA, and you can take into account the big picture.” Zach says once he started college after his gap year he was really excited to get back to school. “I approached learning eagerly and I was really motivated.”

The Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) offers high school graduates an opportunity to explore the world by spending a year or a semester living with a family abroad, studying a foreign language and volunteering in the community or teaching English. Gap year programs are offered in China, Japan, Chile, the Dominican Republic, France and Spain.

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