IMG_1394_editBy Sara Hassani


The changing landscape of educational options for junior high and high school students has opened exciting new vistas to students and their parents. Greater opportunities than ever before exist for students to enjoy an alternative, personalized learning experience that inspires passion and – at the same time – offers uncompromising rigor tailored to a student’s learning style, strengths, and weaknesses.


Yet it is also true that alternative educational options, which offer students greater freedom to explore their interests, tend to suffer from the stigma that they are “soft” on core skills. Parents are often worried that while their children may be happier in such programs, it comes at the expense of preparation for the future. Fortunately, it is not necessarily the case that inspiring passion is inconsistent with rigor in core areas. Alternative educational programs, properly designed, can inspire passion in students to delve deeply beyond their pre-existing interests and into the knowledge that is most important for their future success. Alternative schools should never sacrifice rigor, and should be able to make education even more rigorous than traditional programs – since they have greater flexibility to structure learning individually for each child.


Evaluating the quality of alternative educational opportunities can challenge parents who are unfamiliar with options beyond conventional public or private school. The usual printed sources for school information often omit small, innovative, personalized  education programs. Also, small programs that are focused on providing every enrolled student with the best education possible, at a price families can afford, are not necessarily equipped to run a glossy marketing campaign. Small programs may be highly committed to demonstrating results, since their survival and growth depends on it, but may not have established widespread name recognition.


In light of these challenges, how can parents assess the quality of personalized alternative education programs?


  1. Educational programs, including traditional schools, should be able to
    provide references to parents whose children are attending or have attended
    the school.
  2. Faculty should be available for interviews. Their credentials should be
    made explicit.
  3. How well students have done after they have graduated from the school, in
    terms of college placement, should be made transparent.
  4. Schools should be able to offer a trial enrollment period with no long-term
    commitment. The best way for parents and students alike to evaluate how a
    program works and whether a program is a good fit is by actually trying it.
  5. Seek out the advice of an experienced educational consultant who is
    knowledgeable about a wide array of school choices, including alternative


Choosing a school for your child is a weighty decision. No amount of research will completely remove the anxiety inherent in the choice. But do some research, and perhaps try a program or two. It should become clearer which school offers your child an enjoyable learning environment, curricular rigor, and a mission that reflects the core values you as a parent want to impart.


Sara Nephew Hassani, PhD is Executive Director of Carmel Institute. Carmel Institute provides junior high and high school students a fully individualized, project-based, and expertly guided alternative to traditional public and private school.