Elite schools shifting to a homeschool model

The top private k-12 schools in the U.S. charge just under $40,000 per year in tuition. They are important to watch because they are not constrained by budget or standards in public schools or even typical private schools. Instead, they are geared toward getting students into top colleges.

The problem is that in any given year, the school can only send two kids to each Ivy League school. Which means that half the graduating class will have to get some other value from the school. This requirement for another source of value is interesting. These private schools have the ability to look at what works to raise happy, productive adults, and they can do exactly what the research says.

The newest school in this bunch, Avenues, launched this fall with a program that basically mimics what upscale homeschoolers are offering to their kids. I am fascinated that the school is essentially an endorsement of homeschooling over public school:

Parents spend the day with their kids.
The school has a coffee area where the parents can hang out for as much or as little time as they want. The school is set up so kids can bounce back to their parent’s coffee area whenever they want.

There’s no set schedule.
Katie Holmes is sending her daughter there because of the flexible schedule, according to Radar Online. The school does not adhere to strict schedules and vacations and kids are expected to come and go whenever their parents want to take them.

Classrooms are not the focus.
The school is full of individual seating in cubicles and group seating on big squishy chairs so that kids can learn and explore however they want to. Sure, there are classroom-looking rooms tricked out with smart-boards and iPads at each desk. But there is a sense that kids need to walk around and make their own daily rhythms for learning.

Kids do apprenticeships instead of curriculum.
Kids are expected to do a year abroad. New York magazine points out that this is not actually even exceptional among private NYC high schools. What is exceptional is that the Avenues school aims to have five campuses in five cities (including London, Beijing and Mumbai) to make studying abroad a frictionless endeavor.

Focus is on specialization rather than well-roundedness.
The school talks about allowing kids to follow their passions. Which seems consistent with the emphatic disdain for standard curriculum. But after digging into the literature, New York magazine concludes that the school is really set up to brand your kid in a way that will differentiate him or her enough to get into a top college.

Which actually seems okay to me. I mean, if you can get yourself into a top college, and your parents can pay cash for the experience, it seems like a fun place to be.

And this, actually, is why I really like the school. Because it is so unabashadly running kids’ lives according to what research says parents should do. Kids have self-directed learning, they spend their days with their parents, their parents are not pretending to be teachers, and kids are becoming experts at an early age.

Every parent should want this stuff for their kids because the research absolutely says it is best for kids. It’s easier to pay someone else $40,000 a year to do this for your kid. But you can create that same experience with homeschooling.


30 replies
  1. Jana
    Jana says:

    “Focus is on specialization rather than well-roundedness.”
    I’m convinced this is where public schools fail our kids. They try to get all kids up to a basic standard…now it’s called the common core instead of letting kids fly where they have the most interest and talent.

    I would love to see a school where kids could choose to work on math or writing or social studies or computers. Even if it were arranged by grade level. It would be fun to see where the kids ended up.

    When I home schooled (my sons are in college now), I did the minimum in the basics and let them spend time on the areas they enjoyed the most. While it wasn’t unschooling, it definitely went against the grain of public schooling.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jana, I like how you isolate the part about doing what you’re interested in. This is actually the most fundamental part of effective learning — to do what the kid cares about. Yet it is also the most cost-prohibitive part of learning for a school-based program.

      I’m starting to think that the whole discussion comes down to this. Letting kids direct their own learning is necessary. And the only way to do it is to pay a huge amount of money or do it yourself.


      • Tzipporah
        Tzipporah says:

        I think more than learning what they’re interested in, the important piece is learning HOW to be self-directed. If they have an interest, the kid is the one seeking out the resources s/he needs to follow it. That’s the piece that will make them a successful adult who doesn’t wait for someone else to choose for them.

        Although with my kid, he’d end up with a PhD in Legos.

  2. Bird
    Bird says:

    It’s week 3 of homeschooling for me. I’m learning that choosing something you want to read and something you want to write, at age 7 and 8, is a skill to develop in itself. (Choosing as a group something all 4 kids want to make themselves for lunch turns out to be rather easier. Surprised me.)

  3. Albert Okagbue
    Albert Okagbue says:

    Penelope I have researched personal finance and wealth over the past three years on my own. I can tell you that I have learned things that many CPAs and financial advisors don’t know because they all rely on continuing education from people who are out of date.

    It’s not just children who benefit from self-directed learning….but I guess we already knew adults did, but doubted the same for kids?

    Either way, I’m loving this school. I’d go for the home-schooling option though. My biggest problem with private schools is having my kids raised out of touch with “regular life”.

  4. CJ
    CJ says:

    In Hartford CT, there is a pilot high school program in the progress.mCT in general has been on a major revamp and what I like is that at least when interviewed the powersthatbe are trying to think outside the box on improving the lives of children across the state. The crux of the program is giving children goals of completion in different learning areas but the kids get to pick their own pace, they choose their own homework assignments, and get to select when they are ready to be evaluated via testing. It isn’t relaxed unschooling by any means, but it is a better avenue to allow more and more children to direct their own pace and readiness because who the blank is better at knowing when you r ready than yourself? These kids will at least learn to trust their own instincts on their own abilities in a public school enviro.

  5. CJ
    CJ says:

    After re reading the article, the more I think of it, if you take out the bells and whistles (studying abroad, price tag, etc) it really seems like the democratic schools: come and go as please, parents involved daily, classroom not the focus. Wonder what Dr. Grey would think of it?

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    It’s interesting to read what you can buy with what I consider to be a lot of money. These elite schools are still teaching curriculum although not in the same sense and to the same degree as traditional schools that basically concentrate on subject material. I believe as long as the end goal is to prepare the child for college that some curriculum will be necessary. The other end of the spectrum in my estimation is a program such as Outward Bound. It’s focus is on developing skills and in the process learning values that they can use for the rest of their lives. I didn’t attend their program but I remember wanting to when I was a teenager. Here’s a post by a woman recalling her experience with them – http://blog.outwardbound.org/?p=699 – so she can explain it better than me. I’m sure there’s other programs available with similar objectives.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s interesting. I remember wanting to do Outward Bound as a high schooler as well. And I remember thinking, I could never do that. I could never miss a year of high school.

      I had forgotten about it until I read your comment. It seems like a great alternative to a year abroad in high school – which I am surprised to find out is very common now.


      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        We’re on the same page. The conventional wisdom and path doesn’t work for everyone. One size doesn’t fit all. I don’t remember asking my parents if I could attend Outward Bound (which means I probably didn’t) and I don’t remember them encouraging it or something like it. Conventional thinking … it seems like such a rut sometimes … and it sucks to think I don’t even have to be there!

      • Jennifer
        Jennifer says:

        I desperately wanted to go out and see the world when I was in high school and it was not encouraged probably more due to an economic and a “follow the rules” points of view.

        • Melissa
          Melissa says:

          I was allowed a lot of freedom to go out into the world…when school was not in session. From age 10 I saved enough money to travel x-country to stay with my uncles and aunts where I also had great freedom to travel downtown with my cousins, etc. But my parents not only never considered homeschooling or unschooling (this was the 80s), they also strongly discouraged me from taking a gap year after high school. They thought I would never return to college.

          My 13 year old is graduating from a private school that I thought was serving him well. I have just pulled my 8 year old out of school and will homeschool him as the nonstop worksheets were mind numbing for him. I hope my 13 yo will agree to part-time homeschool after he sees what public high school is like.

  7. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I was excited when I saw this then felt defeated when I saw the cost. I’m a single mom who pretty much has to work.

    My child is just under two years old and in a horrible daycare/preschool which I’m paying a small fortune for (I’m on the eternal waiting lists for smaller and surprisingly cheaper places).

    I most desperately want to find another alternative to public schools but am not and don’t see myself being in the position to be able to homeschool or stop working.

    Any suggestions?

      • Jennifer
        Jennifer says:

        Thanks for the info – hadn’t heard of this group/school. I’m in Brooklyn but if I can still get into work in Manhattan would consider moving for something like this.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer says:

      Wow, my geography way waaaay off there. Wasn’t thinking correctly – I have a co-worker who lives in MA but she has a hellish commute. But there is one in Kingston, NY – Hudson Valley – telecommute may be an option.

  8. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    I actually think the tuition and the proliferation of OERs (open educational resources) and MOOCs (massive open online courses) and digital learning will have a tremendous impact on the elite schools. Already in the gifted community many parents are questioning paying the money when they can provide the access to MIT Open Course Ware for free. Thus with OERs and MOOCs a homeschool parent today can provide a child with a distant advantage in terms of a superior education than an elite school can provide simply because they can cater the learning to the child’s needs.

    Even the private schools still adhere to a curriculum, standards, and framework – which may be fine if you’re child is typically developing but is often not ok if they’re not. So what you’re saying is particularly true for gifted kids who are often being denied learning to their individual needs, even at gifted private schools!

  9. navleen
    navleen says:

    With more families and schools going for/advising Home Schooling, certain technological tools are being developed to help such families. There is a white paper available http://bit.ly/TG0fiW that talks about how WizIQ (a web based application for online learning) can help facilitate homw schooling!!

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