Public Independent Study Programs and Charter Schools

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By Stephanie Hood

Raising gifted children can be challenging and tremendously rewarding. One challenge comes in our effort to find an educational setting that meets the needs, and respects the unique gifts and talents of each child. Oftentimes parents must look outside the traditional school system in order to provide well for their children. Homeschooling in its various forms is becoming an increasingly popular choice for the education of gifted students. The California Association for the Gifted recently published a position paper on Homeschooling the Gifted Learner, explaining some of the various methods and benefits of this educational choice.

In California, we are fortunate to have a variety of legal options to homeschool our children.One of these options is to enroll in a public Independent Study Program or charter school that offers independent study (as opposed to site-based charter schools). Charters and ISPs may enroll students who reside in the county where the program is located or any county adjacent to the county where the program is located

What are public charter schools and ISPs?

Charter Schools and Independent Study Programs (ISPs) are publicly funded alternative education programs established by public school districts. Children in charter schools and public ISPs are legally public school students. The school district receives state money (ADA) for students enrolled in the program. Enrolled students receive free curriculum, classes, tutoring, or other services, which vary from program to program. Districts may offer GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) programs that Independent Study Students may also participate in.

What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of enrolling in public programs?

  •  CURRICULUM: Most ISPs have a resource library of curriculum and supplemental learning material that parents may check out and use with their children; including textbooks, novels, flashcards, videos, manipulative, musical instruments, and learning software. Consumables such as workbooks are often provided. Charter schools may have a similar resource library, or allow parents to order materials from a list of approved vendors. A typical spending allowance is $2500 per student per year. Some charters provide a set curriculum for all students, such as the K12 curriculum used by California Virtual Academies (CAVA). A few public programs work with unschoolers to help document learning that has been done without using traditional curriculum.
  • ACCELERATION: Acceleration is an educational practice that allows students to move through an educational program at a pace based on content mastery rather usual rate or typical age. The benefits of acceleration are strongly supported by decades of research, yet the practice of acceleration is rarely allowed in traditional schools. Adapting the level or pace of curriculum is much easier in an ISP or homeschool charter than in a typical classroom where a teacher must manage dozens of students simultaneously. Gifted students benefit by being allowed to work on above-grade level materials and by progressing at a faster than typical rate, without unneeded repetition, through the curriculum.
  • CLASSES: Some ISPs and charter schools offer classes that may include art, science, computer, music, history, or Lego Robotics. Many programs also offer field trips. Students enrolled in a public district ISP may be able to participate in recess, PE, sports, band, choir, GATE, science camp, Family Life Education, assemblies, foreign language lab, or other district offerings - although the specific guidelines for accessibility will vary from district to district.
  • SPECIAL SERVICES: Charters and ISPs are under the same requirements as other public schools to provide special services for students with physical or learning disabilities. This might include adaptive PE, speech therapy, academic help from a resource teacher, etc.
  • GUIDANCE: Some parents appreciate the guidance of their supervising teacher in assessing student needs and planning appropriate learning activities.
  • RECORD-KEEPING: Some parents feel more secure having a school create and keep transcripts. For students hoping to enter a prestigious university having transcripts from an accredited school may be helpful.

Drawbacks

 

  • CURRICULUM: Some programs are not flexible in curriculum choices. You may be asked to choose from what the district uses at its schools. Other programs may be flexible as to acceptable curriculum, but may not pay for the outside materials. Profoundly gifted students will have a more difficult time finding a public program that is willing to accommodate their needs. These families would do well to explore the Private School Option for homeschooling independently
  •  CONFERENCES: Enrollment in a public program requires a willingness to be overseen by a credentialed teacher and a commitment to attending periodic parent/teacher/student conferences. Most programs require weekly, monthly, or quarterly conferences with parent and student. At these meetings, the supervising teacher and parent may develop lesson plans and talk about student progress. The parent will sign forms documenting time/days spent “in school” as well as PE minutes required by the state.
  •  PAPERWORK: Parents are often required to turn in written learning logs or several paragraphs describing that month’s accomplishments. The supervising teacher will often collect samples of student work. The teacher may want to go over these work samples with the student at the conference to verify learning.
  •  TESTING: Some programs ask parents to sign a promise that their children will take the standardized tests in the spring. Parents who decline testing often receive unsolicited phone calls from program directors and other parents requesting them to submit to testing. All public school programs are required to administer the tests, but parents also have the right to opt out according to the CDE Charter web site: “Charter schools are required to administer [statewide] tests following the same procedures and requirements for test-administration as required of non-charter schools…Charter schools are required to follow the same testing requirements as non-charter schools. This would include the right of a parent, under specified conditions, to waive the state testing requirement. A charter school cannot disregard of abridge a parent’s right under this law for any reason, including requiring testing as a condition of enrollment in the charter school.”

How will you know if this is a good option for your family?

ISPs and charter schools seek to balance accountability with flexibility and autonomy. Since these programs must report to the state, enrolled students are under the oversight of a credentialed teacher, to whom parents must make regular reports and submit student work samples. If you have homeschooled independently, or your child has never attended school, the requirements imposed by a public program may feel too burdensome. However, if your child has attended school, the requirements of an ISP or charter will probably seem light by comparison. Since each program is different, you’ll want to determine what you are looking for, then interview several program directors in your county. Since each gifted child is unique in his/her abilities, sensitivities, and needs, you’ll also want to bring specific examples of these to the interviews. Some questions to ask are:

  • What are my curriculum options?
  • Can my child work at a more (or less) challenging level if appropriate?
  • Can my child do fewer practice problems or skip lessons if they already demonstrate mastery?
  • What classes and services does the program/district provide?
  • How often will we meet with our overseeing teacher?
  • Where will we meet?
  • What paperwork must be submitted at those conferences?
  • Is standardized testing required?

Final Thoughts

All students deserve an educational environment that respects their individual differences. Gifted students, in particular, may have learning demands and interests that cannot be adequately met in the classroom. If your child’s needs are not being met at school, you might consider joining the growing number of families who are homeschooling. Among the alternatives are a variety of options in California for teaching our children at home, one option being enrollment in a public charter school or Independent Study Program. By considering the benefits and drawbacks to this homeschooling option and by conducting interviews of the public programs available in your area, you can determine if homeschooling through a charter school or ISP is right for your family.

Resources

If you would like to investigate this public homeschool option for your gifted child, a good way to locate charter schools and ISPs in your area would be to ask on state homeschool discussion boards:

Gifted Homeschoolers Forum

Homeschool Association of California

A list of California Charter Schools by county


GHF Ambassador Stephanie Hood homeschooled her two children through middle school and high school. She now teaches math classes to homeschoolers through Live Oak Academy and is the Director of Peach Blossom School, a support program for homeschoolers in California. Stephanie has worked as a district GATE administrator and a classroom teacher in both public and Christian schools. She has also served as a county contact for the HomeSchool Association of California, and sat on the Board of Directors for California Association for the Gifted (CAG) and Gifted Homeschoolers Forum (GHF).

You can find Stephanie on LinkedIn.

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