Attending an Online High School: What to Consider

Recent technological advancements and a growing desire for flexibility have increased the popularity of online learning, experts say. While colleges have offered online degree pathways for decades, there are also various options for students to earn their high school diploma online.

Many local public school districts offer an online version of their curriculum, and students can also choose from private and independently run public options. Some offer students the ability to attend full time or part time.

“It’s really nice that there are more options, especially for students with health issues,” says Nellie Brennan Hall, a senior private counselor at education consulting firm Top Tier Admissions. “I would say a lot of students go into it thinking, ‘This is going to be great. I’m going to be at home and I can sit in my pajamas and do online school.’ But there are a lot of things to be aware of before you select that route.”

[Consider these 10 Things to Consider When Choosing a High School]

Experts say students should ensure any program is accredited and awards a legitimate diploma. Beyond that, students should take time to research and find the program that best fits them and consider the trade-offs of attending high school remotely versus in person, experts say.

“This online environment is not for everybody, but it is for some,” says Richard Savage, superintendent of California Online Public Schools, a network of six tuition-free online charter high schools. “And for some, they thrive in this environment.”

Here are some questions students should ask when deciding whether to attend an online high school.

Does Online High School Match My Learning Style?

Students who tend to do best in an online learning environment are independent learners and self-starters, experts say. Online instruction offers more autonomy than traditional school settings, but with that comes more responsibility for students to maintain their own schedule, keep track of deadlines and practice self-advocacy.

Some students may struggle without a live, in-person instructor in front of them, Brennan Hall says. “It takes a little bit more self-awareness and ability to sit down and do things on your own.”

Students who are prone to procrastination, struggle with organization or have a learning difference may not fare as well in an online setting, experts say.

“The kids that we find that are successful in our program do really well in college because they know what needs to be done, they understand deadlines and they meet those deadlines,” Savage says.

One misconception about online programs, Savage says, is that the relationship between teacher and student is diminished in an online setting. In many cases it’s the opposite, he says, because online teachers aren’t bound to a bell schedule like those in traditional settings, allowing them to have more flexibility to meet one on one with students who need extra help.

Does My Lifestyle Require a Flexible School Schedule?

Many students choose the online high school path because it allows them to create a schedule that fits with the demands of sports or other activities that they’ve chosen to pursue and potentially make a career out of, Brennan Hall says. For these students, being in school during traditional school hours isn’t feasible.

[READ: How to Involve Your Child in Choosing a High School.]

For example, when she was associate director of admissions at Brown University in Rhode Island, Brennan Hall says she often screened applications from tennis recruits who earned their high school diploma online. An online pathway allowed them to spend the majority of their days training at an elite level while completing school work on their own time.

Similarly, Savage says some of the students at CALOPS schools are television actors, so completing their school work online allows them to attend casting calls, rehearsals or recordings without having to miss instructional time or feel stressed about completing schoolwork.

“If you want to do all your math for the whole semester in the month of January and you want to focus on English in December, that can be done,” he says. “We don’t encourage it. We’d really prefer that you do the work along the path that your teacher is going to be helping you.”

What Are Social Trade-offs of High School Online?

One of the biggest differences in attending high school online versus in person is the social interaction aspect, experts say. Online courses are often completed independently rather than in a class of peers, and attending school online often precludes students from experiencing traditional high school activities like lunch room conversations, pep assemblies, field trips and school-based extracurricular activities.

Students who have been bullied or harassed may find the online setting preferable from a social standpoint. But others may find it isolating and feel like they’re missing out on experiences with classmates and friends.

Students training for a sport are likely socializing with other students they train with, Brennan Hall says, and religious groups, community organizations or jobs also provide avenues for students to interact with friends and peers.

Online students may also be able to play sports for their resident high school, and policies often vary by state, district and individual school.

If the social aspect is an important factor, students should research opportunities a prospective online school provides. For example, CALOPS provides a prom for their students, with one for Northern California-based students and another in Southern California. It also organizes field trips, a winter formal dance, college visits and two in-person graduations, Savage says.

Attending high school online doesn’t have to spell the end of a student’s social life — it just might look a little different and take a little more effort, Brennan Hall says.

“They have to be careful to schedule things in, almost like a homeschooler, making sure they’re finding other outlets where they can connect with peers their age,” she says.

How Much Does an Online High School Cost?

Online high school programs vary in cost. CALOPS is public and tuition-free, and some other local district online offerings are also free of charge.

But private online high schools may have price tags anywhere between $20,000 and $40,000 per year, says Sasha Chada, founder and CEO of admissions consulting firm Ivy Scholars. He often recommends students research whether their local district is compatible with Florida Virtual School, which would provide another free option.

“If that’s not an option, it’s worth it to explore local district options,” he says. “Really try to talk to parents and students who participate, and even then you’re getting very myopic views of it.”

In addition to tuition costs, students need to consider the cost of technology used and any software necessary to complete schoolwork. Students may be able to find scholarships to help reduce costs.

“The other thing you might want to consider is you might need to hire outside tutors, like an in-person tutor, so that would add to expenses as well,” Brennan Hall says.

What Is the Curriculum and Instruction Like?

A high school education is intended to prepare students for their next steps, whether that’s college, a career or military service. Those considering an online high school should ensure the curriculum is rigorous and will help them achieve their long-term goals.

[READ: Private School vs. Public School.]

One potential benefit of online high schools is a wide variety of career pathway elective courses, Savage says. At CALOPS, students can choose from several computer programming electives, such as video game design and HTML, as well as introductory courses on law enforcement, tourism and emergency medical services.

“We have a wide variety because we’re not tied to a bell schedule where that one course, we’re having to pay a teacher to teach that one course and it’s taking up space on a traditional setting,” Savage says. “A lot of times, those electives kind of run themselves and the teacher needs to make sure the students are making progress and help them out with any specific concepts, but for the most part it just doesn’t cost us as much money.”

Many online high schools use tools like Zoom or Google Meet to hold some class sessions and small group breakouts, and use virtual discussion board assignments to foster classroom discussions. Chada says he’s seen good and bad programs, and the good ones tend to simulate the in-person classroom experience as much as possible.

“I think it’s pretty important to maintain that class coherency for having students discuss in a peer setting,” he says. “The best programs I’ve seen take advantage of the online modality by having students use collaborative tools to work together.”

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

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