The growing number of educational options for students in Northwest Arkansas can be mind-boggling for parents. How do they decide which school is right for them?
The decision is one of the most important a parent or student can make, said Martin Schoppmeyer, superintendent and founder of the charter school Haas Hall Academy, which has campuses in Fayetteville and Bentonville.
“When looking at a school for your child, it comes down to personal choice,” Schoppmeyer wrote in an email. “The size of the school. The social and academic environments. Does the school accommodate a child’s educational needs and complement their abilities and desires? What kind of academic support network does the school provide?”
Schoppmeyer launched Northwest Arkansas School Choice. The organization’s mission is to educate the community about the region’s various educational options. The goal is to place students in an environment that caters to their individual needs and, in the end, increase the state’s high school graduation rates.
Schoppmeyer recommends students shadow a current student at a school so they can better understand what that particular school is like.
“After those questions have been considered, and the student has spent a day there, the difficult decision frequently becomes easier,” he said.
The following are tales from three Northwest Arkansas families about how the students or their parents made the school choices they did.
New Tech, new choice
Edgar Fraire, a senior at Rogers New Technology High School, thought he would go to Rogers High School like his cousins and older sister. His plan changed after attending some after-school meetings as a student at Kirksey Middle School, he said.
“They told us about how it was really different from a regular high school,” he said.
The idea of learning through solving problems and working on group projects interested him.
“Most of the time we’re going to be collaborating with learners,” Fraire said. “I liked that idea. I think it’s better to work with other people.”
His parents Gerardo Fraire and Guadalupe Fraire left the choice to him between going to the traditional public high school and the district’s new charter school, he said.
Fraire thought he would spend two years at New Tech and then go to Rogers High School, but his grades improved, and he noticed the impact New Tech had on his presentation and communication skills. He made lots of friends and was an active student.
“My mom and dad both told me to stay at New Tech,” Fraire said. “It had better opportunities for me.”
Fraire is set to graduate in May from New Tech. His next step is to attend Northwest Arkansas Community College and then transfer to the University of Arkansas to prepare for a career in industrial engineering.
Star and Tom Scott moved to Bentonville from North Carolina in the spring of 2013. Their son was in kindergarten at the time and had been in a Montessori school.
The Scotts looked at a couple of private options — a Montessori school and a Christian school — in the region but decided against them. The Montessori school wasn’t accredited, as their son’s last one had been, and they didn’t like its layout. The other school was just a little too expensive for them, Star Scott said.
Their son finished kindergarten and did first grade in the Bentonville School District. Star Scott said she felt her son wasn’t being challenged enough, at least not like he was during his Montessori kindergarten days.
“I think he became bored,” she said. “I knew he needed something else.”
The Scotts decided to enroll him in Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy, a public charter school in Bentonville. They missed the enrollment lottery that year but received a call during the summer of 2014 that a spot was available. Their son is now in the fourth grade, his third year at the school. His sister is a first-grader there, Scott said.
The curriculum at Northwest Arkansas Classical Academy attracted the Scott family. Classical education is based on the teachings of philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Grammar, logic and rhetoric play a large part in the students’ education. There is an emphasis on learning Greek and Latin root words. Historical, literary and artistic studies focus on the classics, according to the school’s website.
The Scotts also liked the requirement students wear uniforms.
“The distractions aren’t there with the uniform, the trends and all that,” Scott said.
Flocking to Fayetteville
The reputation of public schools in east Fayetteville helped Miriam Smith and her husband make the decision on which house to buy 14 years ago. They spent the first two years of their marriage in Springdale but wanted to move to the country.
They didn’t have children then but planned to start a family. They were aware of the reputations of Vandergriff Elementary and McNair Middle School and had friends with children attending the schools, she said.
“My family always has been big supporters of public school education,” Smith said.
Smith and her husband now have two sons: a sixth-grader at McNair and a fourth-grader at Vandergriff. Dropping her children off at school is like leaving her children with extended family, she said.
Smith considers the expansion of options for a child’s education in Northwest Arkansas as having a positive impact on parents.
“I think in Fayetteville, in particular, especially when you get to the high school level, that’s a huge school,” Smith said.
Some parents may feel like their children will fit better in a smaller environment, and Haas Hall Academy ranks high for academics and can meet that need, she said. She has friends who kept one child in the traditional public school but sought a different setting for another child.
“It’s about the individual child and their needs,” she said.
Do your homework
Almost all parents want a school that has a strong academic foundation, is disciplined and is safe, said Patrick Wolf, distinguished professor and 21st century endowed chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas.
Beyond that, some parents want a school that stresses the arts, core academics or vocational education, he said.
“Parents want a solid and safe school that has a distinctive character. That’s a lot easier in charter and private school space,” Wolf said.
Some seek a religious environment, too. There are numerous private options in Northwest Arkansas for those parents.
“I have great confidence parents know their child really well. Parents are the experts regarding their children’s needs,” he said. The key is for them to get information about the choices so they can make a good decision, he said.
Katie Clifford is executive director of The Reform Alliance, a Little Rock-based nonprofit organization that oversees the state’s Succeed Scholarship program. The program represents Arkansas’ first voucher system, opening a new avenue of school choice in the state. Parents of special-needs students may apply for thousands of dollars in state money per year toward tuition and fees at certain private schools.
Seventeen private schools have been approved to participate, including four in Northwest Arkansas: Shiloh Christian School, Fayetteville Christian School, Prism Education Center and St. Joseph Catholic School.
Clifford said parents sometimes ask her for a recommendation on the best school in their area.
“That’s not my job to tell people where to send their children. It’s their job to look at it,” she said.
Parents can’t have too much information when making that decision, she said.
“It’s the same thing we tell seniors to do when they’re trying to choose a college. It’s a very similar process,” she said. “Go visit the school, get a feel for it. Talk to the registrar, admissions person, an administrator. Walk around. Some schools offer days where you can walk around and shadow a student.”
Then, of course, there’s information online. School websites provide information. The state also maintains a website — MySchoolInfo.Arkansas.gov — which allows the public to search and compare public schools and districts across the state, Clifford said.
Finally, she said, talk to people who go to the schools under consideration.
“You’re going to hear great things. You’re going to hear not-so-great things,” she said.
Some may question whether the type of school matters to a child as much as the teacher in the classroom and the support that child receives at home. Clifford said both the classroom teacher and family support are very important factors, but there is something to be said about school environment as well.
“Sometimes there’s an extra factor that will make all the difference in the world for that student,” she said.