Public School Explainer: Which type should you choose?

Gone are the days of just one curriculum to rule them all. Now, there are various types of public schools that were created to better address the needs or strengths of each student.

Photo by: john.murden

There’s a lot of different types of schools, even within the parameters of public schools, and you’re bound to hear a lot of parental chatter about how one is just soooo much better than others and how you really should look into X or Y. As always, while it’s good to listen to glowing reviews, every child is different, and different families need different things.

We’ve not defined “traditional, regular old school” here, because we figure you’re familiar with the benchmark. If you’re not, picture rows of desks, recess, pop quizzes, lunchtime milk cartons, lab partners, etc.

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Virginia Preschool Initiative

Back to the idea of Europe again, there are plenty of countries who have state-sponsored preschool programs just like they do elementary schools. Virginia now dabbles in providing similar services via the Virginia Preschool Initiative. The City of Richmond’s VPI program gets kids ready for kindergarten with the help of a bunch of schools and preschool centers (that link also walks you through the process of getting registered, which can be confusing).

SpringBoard and the “Arts-Based Curriculum” at Binford Middle

The Floyd avenue RPS school is taking on an ambitious project and adopting the College Board’s SpringBoard® program. The program will make English and math courses more challenging and basically get everyone very equipped to take the SATs and Advanced Placement (AP) tests. College Board is the organization who comes up with those tests, by the way. An “arts-based curriculum” decouples knowledge from test-taking and let teachers get more creative with how they teach and assess skills. This article by the Zachary Reid at the RTD breaks down what’s going on at Binford Middle this year.

International Baccalaureate (IB) at Chimborazo Elementary, Lucille M. Brown Middle School, and others

The IB programme is a global thing (which is why they don’t use our embarrassing, gauche, American”program” spelling), and the authorization process that turns your school into an IB school is lengthy. With a reputation for giving students an independent and worldly outlook, IB programs are beneficial in plenty of ways. Within RPS, Chimborazo Elementary, Lucille M. Brown Middle, and Thomas Jefferson High all offer IB programs (whoops, I mean “programme”), which, theoretically using the Open Enrollment option (or just moving around a lot), means you can keep your child in the program for the duration.

Community-based education at Open High

Technically an “alternative” high school, this Richmond mainstay has produced all sorts of interesting and creative adults. Open High sits grandly on S. Pine Street and offers AP courses and the like, but focuses heavily on community-based education with a great student-teacher ratio. This means that students are required to do 120 hours of community service during their time at Open, and teachers weave hands-on community experience into their curriculum more than you’d find at a traditional school. The result is less “learning things from a book” and more “learning by seeing, hearing, and doing.”

Charter Schools

Charter schools are usually the result of a concerted community effort and a commitment to agreed-upon educational goals, methodology, and terms. This “charter” gets approved by a local authority, and the school must live up to expectations and meet goals, otherwise the charter could be yoinked out from under them. This setup gives you a sort of combination between private and public: the focus and concentration of the former combined with the open access and the $0 tuition of the latter. Many charter schools focus on one particular academic area, such as the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts.

Governor’s Schools

Funded at least in part by the General Assembly, governor’s schools are usually meant to provide more challenges to kids who need them (i.e. those who are killing it, academically speaking). These tend to have a focus too, like Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies or Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts & Technology. Usually there’s some type of transportation available, because these also serve as…

Magnet Schools

Magnet schools offer souped-up programs in one or two areas, which serve as a “magnet” for students from other locales, and enrollment is usually open. A governor’s school could be a magnet school (as are both referred to above), a charter school could be a magnet school, etc. etc. Chesterfield County has organized its resources in order to provide several magnet schools in varying subjects.

Technical centers or vocational schools

Learning a trade is often a good (and lucrative) option for a young adult who may be interested in a full range of specific skills.

For others who want to try their hands at a particular trade, there’s the Tech Center. Despite the narrowness of its name, the Richmond Technical Center (2020 Westwood Avenue) offers instruction in technology and communication, automotive and manufacturing, medical services, construction services, business services, and personal services. Since 2008, it’s been home to the Governor’s Career & Technical Academy for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), which leads us to…

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)

Basically, the U.S. Department of Education has defined these areas as the areas that will bring us the most useful adult Americans in the 21st century. There’s a whole site about it, and various programs are popping up that emphasize those disciplines, sometimes in hopes that they’ll receive a grant from the U.S. of A. to do so. You’ll notice STEM programs are spelled in the more succinct, efficient American way, because that’s what STEM will boost, in the long term! The American dream!

Cognitive Disabilities

There’s the relatively new Richmond Career Education and Employment Academy, which gives practical and functional life skill lessons to students with cognitive disabilities between ages 14 and 21. The focus here is on getting a job and thriving within that job.

Emotional/behavioral disorders

Richmond Educational Alternative for Learning (a.k.a. REAL School), a part of Thomas H. Henderson Middle School (4319 Old Brook Road), has a mission to “aggressively teach behavioral, social, and academic proficiencies to students with emotional/behavioral disorders.” The idea is that staff with specialized training comes up with individual plans for each student in order to craft an educational curriculum that works for them. REAL School also incorporates counseling.

Amelia Street School, located on 1821 Amelia Street (you guessed it!), specializes in literacy, ASOLs, community-based instruction, and vocational/employment training, and lots of therapy. Kids ages 2-21 benefit from large and small group settings as well as individualized instruction.

Likewise, Thirteen Acres School at George Washington Carver gives students with emotional disabilities access to an education focusing on a low student:teacher ratio and a custom learning track based on individualized education plans and behavioral intervention plans. Students who go to Thirteen Acres have the goal of going back to their zone home schools.

Richmond Behavioral Health Authority helps out with all of the above schools.

Military Academies

Franklin Military Academy looms way, way back in Church Hill on 37th Street. The tradition of military academies is long and interesting. Franklin has been around since 1980, giving kids from the community the chance to school in the military fashion–JROTC along with humanities, business, IT, the arts, the sciences, and some AP opportunities. Graduates will be primed to seek out a military career.

Focus on academically gifted students from low income families at Richmond Community High School

With a focus on identifying gifted kids among low-income and minority families and giving them a leg-up via individualized attention and challenging curriculum, Richmond Community High School is the first of its kind. Like, in the entire nation. Students are admitted on an application basis and a very high percentage of them go to college. You must live within city limits, you must be pretty sharp academically, and you’re more likely to get in if your family has significant financial challenges. Here’s the now out-of-date 2015-2016 application packet (PDF)–but keep an eye out for the new one, which your middle schooler will need to start working on this fall in order to submit to his or her high school counselor in January.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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