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Deciding on the right school

B2Sfinding-the-right-schoolDeciding on the right school

Students and parents may feel overwhelmed with the large amount of school options available to them.

By Andrew Gilbert

“Finding the right path for high school is like finding a new car.”

This analogy is a favorite of Dr. Larry Feldman of the Miami-Dade County School Board.

While school buses are being readied for the new school year a few weeks away, many parents and students are already thinking about the next step in their educational paths. Or if they made the right choice.

Like never before, the decisions being made by many families and students on where to go for the best possible education is one that requires immeasurable thought and consideration.

Every parent at some point wonders if they are sending their child to the right school.

“Am I being a good parent? Have I done my homework? Do I really have options?”

This is where the confusion begins. Confusion brought on by huge amounts of information given to parents. An overload of information that can be daunting to parents and students.

For example, while the choice between public and private schools may seem like a simple one, the complexities run deeper than the obvious.

Look further into the internal debate and even more questions arise.

“What’s this new academy at Campbell Drive Middle? How can I get my child in that new school on 11th street? Do I have to pay for a Charter School?  What’s so special about that school that is at the old James Archer Smith Hospital?” These are just a sample of questions parents in our area ask every day. Now that we are immersed in the information age, sorting through the haze of terms and conditions can be a tedious task, to put it mildly.

Over the next few weeks, the News Leader will explore each of the options that are presented to prospective high school students and their parents and explore why each choice presents different opportunities.

Going back to Dr. Feldman’s analogy, looking for your student’s perfect fit is something that requires doing some leg-work.

“When you go to a dealership to get a new car, you don’t just go up to the first car you find and say ‘this is the one I want,’” said Feldman. “In-stead, you do your research, look up which features you want to have, and sometimes even take a car out for a test drive. Finding the right high school is no different.”

The proliferation of new schools, public, private and charter, in our area, after many years of no new schools built in South Dade, has created a competitive educational jungle, students and parents are no longer faced with one option. It used to be your kids went to school closest to where you live. End of story.

The notion of being required to attend one’s “home school” is no longer something parents and students are restricted to when choosing the next step. Public schools now offer choices. Choices brought about by com-petition. Competition many see as having a direct impact on how our local schools have im-proved their ratings and performance levels and even graduation rates.

While each student in Miami-Dade County continues to be assigned a school designated as their ‘home school’ based on their address, a student’s options extend beyond the traditional norm.

Students and parents now find themselves submitting applications to various CharterSchools and magnet programs, public schools all, also known as schools of choice.

At these schools, curriculum flexibility granted by Miami-Dade Schools, allows students to study specific educational topics and potential career paths as opposed to the traditional generalized high school education.

Even with these options, numerous ‘home schools’ are now offering academies and career-oriented classes within their curriculum as well.

Within the alternatives available in public schools also lie online courses as well as collegiate coursework that allow students to get a head start on their degrees.

iPrep Academies are one such option that aim to provide students with a “technology-rich environment and opportunities for internships and community-based projects.”

This option delivers coursework to students through a mixture of online and face-to-face honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses while integrating internship opportunities within the private and public sectors, into the curriculum.

In essence, students learn through engagement that encourages creativity and technological advancement to help prepare them for the ever-changing world of today.

Another option lies in school partnerships with institutions of higher education.

Both private and public schools have formed partnerships with colleges and universities to help bring students into the world of post-secondary education with varying degrees of experience.

The School for Advanced Studies (SAS) uses a unique partnership with Miami Dade College to deliver high school education to students while simultaneously exposing them to college-level coursework, all while attending classes on a college campus on a daily basis.

Put plainly, students can graduate from SAS at Miami Dade College Homestead Campus with both a high school diploma and an Associate’s Degree.

The same goal can be attained through dual enrollment, an option offered at numerous high schools throughout our region.

Through this program, students enroll in college and high school classes, earning college credits through online, summer, and evening classes while at the same time finishing their high school education.

In recent years charter schools have been built across the county. What makes them different is the most common question asked.

“Charter schools are required to follow federal guidelines but are not required to follow all district guidelines,” said Melissa Aguilar, area director of Charter School Associates, which includes Palm Glades Academy, Everglades Preparatory Academy, The Charter School at Waterstone and Summerville Advantage Academy.

“We have a lot more autonomy when it comes to program offerings, curriculum, and professional development of teachers.”

Schools like Everglades Preparatory Academy and Keys Gate Charter High School are able to use this openness to formulate a more specific plan for teaching students in a way that more directly engages their interests.

In addition, teachers are contracted on a yearly basis, allowing for a charter school to be more selective about which educators are employed to teach students.

“We are not required to retain teachers if they are not the best of the best or fit for what our charter schools are,” said Aguilar.

Teacher-to-student ratios are also vastly different at charter and traditional public schools. This is due to the formula in which the ratio is established.

With this autonomy comes increased scrutiny, however, from the school district, as all charter schools are audited yearly by each school district.

While a school such as Homestead or Southridge Senior High is required to meet a student-to-teacher ratio as a whole school, a charter school such as PalmGladesAcademy sets its sights on a ratio measured in individual classrooms.

Yet another choice is an academy school, which provides a viable option for students with more specific interests.

One example, the M.A.S.T. Academy of Homestead, located at the former James Archer Smith Homestead Hospital, is an academy high school that focuses on education in various fields of medicine and medical technology. In its first four years, this school has won academic accolades locally and nationally.

“Students here can literally watch a live surgery,” said Lisa Noffo, principal at M.A.S.T. at Homestead. “They get to talk with the surgeons during live surgery. And through our partnership with FIU, they get to use some of the labs and talk with the professors there as well.”

While an academy based school specializes in subject-specific educations, the rigor of the curriculum is higher than other institutions, something that Noffo says some parents and students many not realize.

“The commitment required is something you have to realize,” Noffo stated. “Schools of choice are a great place for students who know for sure or have a general interest in a certain area or academy, and get a taste of it while still in high school.”

Yet another long standing alternative choice to a public school education is that of a private school.

Private schools require tuition, much like colleges, and many are centered on an education based upon religious foundations.

Palmer Trinity School is one such institution, offering classes for students in elementary, middle and high schools.

“Palmer Trinity embraces the Episcopal tradition,” said Patrick Roberts, Head of School at Palmer Trinity. “[We are] encouraging each student to nurture his or her talents not only for personal gain, but in the service of others.”

Private schools also offer a stable educational basis from which to begin their path in life.

For example, while a student in public school will traditionally attend three separate schools from kindergarten through high school graduation, a student at Colonial Christian School will remain in the same environment, learning from the same professors and growing with classmates they have known their whole lives.

Additionally, private schools such as Westminster Christian School sport an enrollment just over 1,000 students through all levels of education, resulting in average class sizes no larger than 20 students per class, a statistic many public schools are unable to attain.

The oldest traditional educational choice that has been around as long as America has had families, and in recent years has seen a resurgence in popularity, is home schooling.

Katheryn Gates, a home school parent of two in Homestead, got started with educating her children while they were in their early years.

“Someone told me that I should stop by South Dade Park because there was a home schooling group that would meet up there,” said Gates. “I started talking with the moms and I started to realize that this was an option that works. There were children who were three or four at the time all the way up to high schoolers.”

From there, Gates did her research into how to home school her own kids and began a process that has lead her two children to become the successful high school students they are today.

Indeed, the multitude of options for your child’s education can overwhelm even the most prepared and research filled parent.

On August 18, parents and school buses will be dropping off children at their home school or at a school of choice, while some parents may decide to commit to home-schooling or virtual school for the first time.

Still, questions will remain.

“I live in Miami, but work in Homestead. Can my child go to school near my work? What’s the difference between magnet schools and these academies that are popping up? I heard big changes are coming to my local senior high school. What’s happening? I’m thinking about home schooling my child.  How do I find out more information about it?”




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