Nina Rees

Educational innovation and technology have blossomed as school choice has taken root in most states over the past two decades. Today’s students have many more opportunities to learn in schools that are optimized for our modern, tech-driven world. At the same time, the wealth of choices available can sometimes seem overwhelming for parents.

Public charter schools in particular have fueled this growth in innovation and choice. Freed from many of the restrictions that stifle innovation in traditional public schools, charters have greater flexibility to adopt new technology, new curricula, and even whole new school models as students’ needs change. And since they are open to all students, charter schools make these innovations more widely accessible.

Given the variety of options and innovations out there, what should parents look for when choosing the best school for their child? As a mom and a leader in the charter school movement, I’d consider the following three factors.

First, take a close look at school culture and mission. While it may be harder to gauge than more concrete metrics like students per teacher or achievement test scores, culture goes a long way in determining how schools operate. For instance, if a school says its goal is to get every student ready for college, how is it innovating to reach that goal?

Leaders at California’s Summit Public Schools made a big decision several years ago when alumni came to them and said that as great as their high-school education was, they felt unprepared for the challenge of managing their time and academic choices in college. So Summit introduced an innovative pilot program that gave students time for projects, technology-aided individual learning, and mentoring to prepare for the next step in their lives. The pilot soon expanded to all Summit schools, and now this commitment to student-directed learning shapes everything else that happens at each school.

Second, ask about the school’s technology priorities, and how those priorities shape its work. While just about every school uses technology to some extent, and some programs and platforms are ubiquitous – does any school not incorporate Khan Academy lessons at this point? – each school will emphasize investments in certain areas that coincide with other pedagogical goals.

At Venture Academy in Minneapolis, school leaders decided that high-speed broadband was the most important technology investment they needed to make so that students could reliably access outside resources; recycled hardware could be purchased more affordably. Rocketship Education has been a pioneer in blended learning, in which computer learning and traditional lectures work hand-in-hand. They rely on software that allows students to move through lessons at their own pace and also gives teachers data they can use to make on-the-fly changes to adjust to students’ needs.

Third, find out how a school’s view of innovation goes beyond technology. Giving students their own Chromebooks and iPads, and providing access to the latest educational software and apps is common in many schools. Yet it’s just as important to determine how technology makes other innovative learning goals achievable.

Da Vinci Communications Academy, a charter school in Hawthorne, California, allows high school students to participate in projects with local business leaders to gain real-world training. Students can also earn early college credits. Computer-based learning and other innovations, such as rethinking time in class, support the curriculum’s larger goal of helping students build their own bridge from high school to college and careers.

When culture, technology, and innovative curriculum design align, school becomes a truly 21st century life-building experience for students. They get excited about learning, deepen their engagement with material, and see the connection between classroom instruction and their long-term aspirations. All parents want their children to be inspired at school, and technology – properly deployed – is making that a reality for more students than ever before.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents Series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject “Smart Parents.” For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Nina Rees-75x75Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Nina currently serves on the boards of advisers of the Education Policy and Governance Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Follow her @ninacharters

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