Is a ‘Lab School’ Right for Your Child?

In many parts of the country, parents looking for alternatives to their local public school have an option they might not be familiar with — lab schools.

What is a lab school? It’s a school — usually affiliated with a college or university — designed to test and develop new educational models, incubate new ideas, and allow young teachers to train in a live classroom environment.

Laboratory schools, also known as demonstration schools, came to the United States more than a hundred years ago, as a way for young teachers to obtain field experience. While most are connected to universities or teacher training institutes, some are run by private educational companies.

Perhaps more importantly, lab schools continue to intrigue parents looking for alternatives to traditional schools.

“The concept is that we are creating new schools that themselves are laboratories of innovation,” says Brian Greenberg, chief executive officer of the Silicon Schools Fund, a nonprofit that funds lab schools. These schools “pilot new approaches to teaching, create new curriculum and work on increasing students’ autonomy and agency of their own education,” he says.

[READ: Taking a Break From School Stress.]

Focusing on Innovation

The concept of lab schools dates to the 17th century in Europe and Japan, where they were originally known as “attached schools,” indicating their close physical association with colleges or universities, according to the International Association of Laboratory Schools.

The first U.S. lab school was founded at the University of Chicago by renowned philosopher and education reformer John Dewey, in 1896. The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools continue to operate 125 years later, focused on teaching children to “ask questions, develop paths of inquiry, and challenge conventional thinking in pursuit of original ideas.”

Today’s lab schools are often trying new things. At Khan Lab School — established in California’s Silicon Valley in 2014 by Salman “Sal” Khan, founder of the online learning giant Khan Academy — children in grades K-12 are folded into seven mixed-age “independence levels.” It also runs 12 months a year and offers extended days.

Other lab schools focus more tightly on certain groups of students, such as those with special needs.

The Lab School, for example, is a small independent school in Washington, D.C., that was established in 1967 for students with reading- and language-based learning differences like dyslexia. It is affiliated with the School of Education at American University.

The Baltimore Lab School was also developed for students with learning disabilities, and though not directly affiliated with a university, it has prominent collegiate neighbors, including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.

[READ: Looking at Private Middle Schools in Washington, D.C.]

The Pros and Cons of Lab Schools

Ronald Snodgrass, interim director at Missouri State University’s Greenwood Laboratory School, says small school environments with niche learning specialties make lab schools a good choice for some children.

Greenwood touts its high average ACT scores and a 100 percent college attendance rate for graduates. But schools draw families for many different reasons.

Education experts say the strength of most lab schools lies in a focus on academics, smaller teacher-to-student ratios and the enhanced resources and equipment that often come with ongoing research. And the emphasis on new approaches can be attractive to some parents.

“I think for many years we optimized a single model for education,” Greenberg says. “For the most part, we did a good job creating large, comprehensive high schools with smaller elementary schools that all followed a curriculum that got results for most kids. But over the years, the education world woke up to the fact that there has to be a better way to deliver education in innovative ways.”

Common drawbacks are that lab schools may not provide the structure some students need; parents and students may have to adjust to nontraditional teaching methods; and students often spend more time with novice teachers than they might in a traditional school.

Exploring Lab Schools

Tuition costs in some lab schools are on par with private schools. At Khan Lab School, for example, tuition ranges from about $30,000 a year at the lower-level school to roughly $33,600 for the upper level school. Though most lab schools offer financial aid, tuition costs can pose a barrier to some families.

However, there are lab schools that are publicly supported, such as Design Tech High School in Redwood City, California. Design Tech, supported by Stanford University, is a public charter school that is supplemented with philanthropic donations.

“The lab school concept is one that is willing to take chances and be open to new ideas,” Greenberg says. “The conventional system isn’t as nimble. Lab schools know their purpose, and that is to create schools where new ideas are being born, developed and spread.”

For parents interested in lab schools, here’s a sample of schools from around the country:

Baltimore Lab School in Baltimore, Maryland, serves children with learning disabilities in grades 1-12.

Design Tech High School in Redwood City, California, is a tuition-free charter school that focuses on the applied practice and problem solving method developed at the Stanford Design School (and shared through its K-12 lab program).

Khan Lab School, with campuses in Palo Alto and Mountain View, California, serves grades K-12. It was created by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy.

The Lab School in Washington, D.C., serves grades 1-12 with a focus on students with learning differences. It is affiliated with American University.

Mills College Children’s School in Oakland, California, serves children from infancy through fifth grade as part of the Mills College School of Education. It offers four developmentally-appropriate programs: infant/toddler, preschool, transitional kindergarten and K-5 elementary.

The Preuss School in San Diego, California, is a charter school serving grades 6-12. Located on the campus of the University of California–San Diego, it specializes in serving low-income students.

UCLA Lab School in Los Angeles, California, serves children ages 4-12 on the campus of the University of California–Los Angeles.

University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Chicago, Illinois, serves grades PK-12. Founded by the progressive education reformer John Dewey, it celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2021.

University Laboratory Schools in Illinois serve grades PK-12 as part of Illinois State University. The Thomas Metcalf School serves grades PK-8, and University High School serves grades 9-12.

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