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June/July 2007

Beyond Public or Private
Exploring Atlanta’s Educational Options
by Carrie Whitney

  Waldorf School of Atlanta
While Atlanta abounds with top-notch public and private schools, finding the one that will be the right fit for your child and family usually involves a little legwork. With research, you’ll quickly realize that your decision extends beyond choosing between public and private. Indeed, the differences between schools go much deeper than that. There are numerous ways in which schools differ from one another—educational philosophy, curriculum and teaching methods, to name just a few. In order to navigate your way through Atlanta’s educational landscape to find the best school for your child, you must first understand the various distinctions that exist, particularly how they relate to your child’s day-to-day educational experience.

Although accreditation and nationally mandated norms ensure that schools offer students a minimum standard of education, different educational philosophies determine the types of schools available. Does your student learn best in a small classroom? One-on-one? How about with a hands-on approach? Is your child particularly interested in one subject? Is he or she particularly shy? For schools in Atlanta, a one-size-fits-all mentality does not apply, and many students benefit from non-traditional and innovative educational approaches. Determine what is important to you and your child, and then explore the host of options that exist for both public and private school students.

Two terms that seem to arise more and more frequently in Georgia’s educational landscape are charter schools and magnet schools. With these terms also comes a bit of confusion. Both charter schools and magnet schools are public programs and appear in school systems throughout the Metro area. According to the Georgia Department of Education, a charter school operates according to the terms of a charter—or contract— that has been approved by the local and state boards of education. A school community will seek charter status if it feels that its students and parents would benefit from greater autonomy from state governance. Students, parents and the school itself enjoy more decision-making freedom, but the school is still held accountable by the state for meeting the performance-based objectives laid out in the charter, as well as state curriculum standards. The only requirement for attending a charter school is to live within the neighborhood or in another allowable area—a charter school cannot have admission criteria or charge tuition.

A magnet school or theme school, however, often does feature admission criteria because it focuses on a particular instructional strategy that may not be suited to all students. For example, some magnet schools feature a curriculum with a heavy focus on one particular discipline, such as performing arts, technology, or math and science. A variety of magnet programs are available in the Metro Atlanta area—visit the Georgia Department of Education Web site ( to search for local programs.

Arbor Montessori School
Many children, particularly young ones, learn best through experience. With this in mind, many parents choose a Montessori program for their children. Following the ideas of Dr. Maria Montessori, who established this pedagogy in the 1900s based on the idea that children learn best through hands-on exploration, Montessori schools have sprung up around the country—there are hundreds of Montessori schools in the Metro Atlanta area alone. Although you might find a charter school that integrates some methods of a Montessori school, most Montessori schools are private. These schools have strong academics but are also concerned with the development of the whole child, and the curriculum often includes practical and community-based components. Montessori schools provide multi-age classes, and schools include preschool through middle school education. Some also have infant and toddler rooms.

A Waldorf school is another non-traditional option with a long history—the first Waldorf school was founded in Germany in 1919. Waldorf schools are designed to instill a life-long love of learning in students through a curriculum balancing academic, artistic and practical life skills. Rather than simply absorb information, Waldorf students create their own textbooks, learn the challenges of handiwork and stewardship of the earth, and study music and fine arts as integral to the academic curriculum. Currently, the only primary Waldorf school in the Metro area is the Waldorf School of Atlanta. The school offers preschool through middle school, but students who wish to continue this style of education may matriculate to Academe of the Oaks, a school for students in grades nine through 12.

As the world becomes increasingly globalized, many parents hope to better prepare their children with an education that’s international in scope, so many turn to schools that offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. An international perspective forms the crux of this program, which encourages students to not only be engaged learners, but to also be interested and involved “world citizens.” Founded in Switzerland in 1968, the program was originally designed for older students, but it has since developed a curriculum to suit younger students as well.

Atlanta International School
The IB Primary Years Programme focuses on the total growth of the child, while the Middle Years Programme concentrates on enhancing critical thinking skills. Students aged 16 to 19 complete the Diploma Programme, in which they are taught to ask challenging questions, to develop a strong sense of their own cultural identity and to learn how to communicate successfully with people from other cultures. At one IB school in Atlanta, the Atlanta International School, students take external exams during the last year, which can grant them up to a year of college credit, and all students take a second modern language beginning with their first year in the school. They add another language during their middle school years.

For students who excel with individualized instruction, a school that implements a tutorial approach may be best. In these schools, most learning is one-to-one, and students attend few, if any, classes. Students are able to work at their own pace. However, self-discipline and a desire to attend the school are essential to succeeding in a tutorial-based environment, because for individualized schooling to work, a student must be an active participant in his or her own education. At Ben Franklin Academy, an individualized-instruction school in Atlanta for students aged 15 through 18, students attend either a morning or afternoon learning session, which lasts 3 1/2 hours. They then spend the remainder of the day at a paid or volunteer job. Students plan each week’s lessons with a faculty advisor, who is responsible for mapping the student’s progress toward graduation.

Children with learning disabilities can also find a school that meets their needs. If your child has difficulty in school because of problems with concentration, learning, language or behavior, he or she may benefit from attending a special needs school. Most special needs schools have fewer students in each class and a student-to-teacher ratio that allows for more one-on-one instruction. For example, at the Bedford School in Fairburn, a private school for students with learning disabilities, 12 students or fewer are in each class and the student-to-faculty ratio is 7-to-1.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) suggests that parents meet with their child’s teacher if they suspect their child has special needs. Parents can ask for an evaluation by the school, or they may seek an independent professional evaluation. Recently, legislation has been passed in Georgia that gives students with special needs greater choice—parents can apply to use state money, or receive a voucher, to send their special needs children to private schools if they feel their children’s needs aren’t being met in public schools.

One educational debate concerns the question of whether boys and girls learn differently. Many students argue that single-gender schools help them stay focused on their studies and often foster confidence. Research has shown that attending single-gender schools can improve academic achievement for some students, and many advocate that single-gender schools break down gender stereotypes. One single gender school in Atlanta, the Atlanta Girls’ School, welcomes girls in grades six through 12 and strives to develop them into well-educated, self-reliant and successful young women. The AGS staff says the all-girl environment encourages students to develop intellectual, leadership and service skills as well as creative and athletic capabilities, free from some of the social concerns that many students face in their formative middle and high school years.

Ben Franklin Academy
With so many educational options in Atlanta, you’ll want to take the time to explore all of the opportunities that exist. Consider it an adventure, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and get to know the nontraditional options. Because although many schools would “work” for your child, you want to find the one that would work the best.


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