Non-Classroom-Based (NCB) charter schools emerged within a year after the passing of the (California) Charter Schools Act of 1992. NCB charter schools are just as the name implies – not based in a classroom, but rather location agnostic and typically offered in an online, asynchronous learning format. By 2003, 36 percent of California charter schools claimed a portion of their revenue, or Average Daily Attendance (ADA), was non-classroom based and by 2004, nearly 160 charter schools in California offered some version of non-classroom based instruction. Today, there are nearly 200,000 California public school students enrolled in NCB charter schools.
NCB charter schools and programs appeal to a distinct population with a variety of needs, including but not limited to:
- Medical or temporary condition that prohibits in-person attendance
- Difference of opinion or position on traditional public-school curriculum or other facets of traditional model
- Students invested in activity outside of school such as acting, specialized sport, work, etc.
- Families that move frequently due to military service or other commitment
- Students with challenging or non-traditional needs, whether academic, social or behavioral
- Desire for a small and safe community
- Escape from bullying
- A more personalized school experience
Because of the flexible learning environment, including pacing and personalized support, the NCB model can be a good fit for students who are either struggling or advanced, or really anything in between. In California alone, there are just under 300 NCB charter schools operating today. These schools operate differently than the traditional public school model in that students are not required to be on-site each day and state funding is based on each student’s completed work or participation in educational activities. Students are required to complete work each day and systems are in place to support their daily attendance. NCB programs can vary greatly in implementation and may have few to multiple functions and components that are in common.
I personally entered the NCB charter school space in 1999, shortly after completing both my single and multiple subject teaching credentials. Upon completion of my credentials I came to the realization that teaching or even working in a traditional seat-based model was not for me. Based on my background and interests, I was in pursuit of a more personalized approach to connect with and help students grow. As a result, I began working as a curriculum writer and part-time Supervisory Teacher for an NCB charter school in Oceanside, CA, and was instantly intrigued by how the model was supporting students who were unsuccessful in traditional programs.
During one of my first meetings with a student and his mother, I realized how critical our program was for many of our students and their families. I’ll name this particular student Jeremy and his mother Michelle. They had just enrolled Jeremy in our program. During our first meeting, we went over the basic expectations and selected courses Jeremy needed to get back on track to graduate from high school on time, as he had fallen behind during his freshman year at his previous (traditional) high school. Throughout our 90-minute meeting, Jeremy looked up only twice and neither time was he able to make eye contact with me while we spoke. His mom, on the other hand, wore an expression of deep worry and pain and her gaze seemed to be desperately pleading for any help or relief I could offer to both her and her son.
As we finished up our meeting, Jeremy went to check out books that he needed to take with him and that is when Michelle provided me some deep insight into their situation. Jeremy’s dad was an abusive alcoholic and was regularly violent with both Jeremy and his mom. Jeremy’s dad had recently passed away and ever since then, Jeremy had fallen into a deep depression and had stopped communicating with others all together. He refused to go to school and was about to drop out. Michelle was grappling with the loss of her husband and the serious issues Jeremy started to face. He was receiving professional counseling, but progress was slow and his counselor had heard of our program and referred the family to us as a possible option for Jeremy to finish high school. Michelle cried her way through her story and hoped we could help them both.
As I listened, I felt myself connecting to everything she was saying. I too, grew up in a violent and abusive home, pervaded with mental illness, volatility and uncertainty. My younger brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 18 years old and he too refused to go to school once he was a freshman in high school. My mom tried everything to get him to go, but it was impossible. To save him from the abuse he’d endure from my dad, she kept it from him, until he eventually found out and the fall out was quite devastating. My brother was one of the smartest people I knew and I’ve often wondered what a program such as this one might have done for him and how it may have provided a solution and a less volatile journey through high school.
As I sat there with Jeremy’s mom, I felt overwhelmed with compassion and empathy for any students and their families in need of a different modality from which to learn and get through school. As I continued my week of student meetings, each one came with a unique scenario in need of our program. From teen pregnancy to professional ice skating to emotionally or socially challenged; they were all were grateful for a different way to learn and accomplish their particular goals. It was during this first week that I became wholeheartedly devoted to this type of educational program and the families it served. That week, I committed to helping make independent study a first choice and not just a last option for those students who aren’t quite a fit for the traditional model. I felt a deep sense of purpose and commitment to these often misunderstood students and parents. After meeting with some of these families, including Jeremy and his mom, I was hooked on non-traditional public education options.
I’ve spent the past 2+ decades building and running school programs that cater to students and families who want a more flexible and personal learning experience. And to this day, I continue to advocate for students such as Jeremy – those who need the extra attention and expanded personal benefits that good non-classroom based charter schools can provide.