Diverse optional schools offer parents greater education choices

By Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell

What are Optional Schools? Well, the Optional Schools program was first initiated in 1976 with four schools.

“The basic idea was to create high caliber schools that would specialize in either [sic] academic, artistic, or vocational subject areas,” states Marcus Pohlman in his book, Opportunity Lost.

The Optional program required student applicants to meet pre-determined standards. After in-district students were enrolled and space was still available, qualified students were then admitted into an Optional School. Pohlman further states that Optional Schools provide “attractive educational alternatives and have allowed the city’s public schools to compete with area private schools for some of the most talented students available.”

Today, the Optional program has evolved into an award winning, nationally recognized system of 47 schools that offer an amazing range of programs. Some choices include enriched academics, college preparatory, creative and performing arts, STEAM, International Baccalaureate, environmental science, and technology. Despite the growth in numbers and models, the mission of the Optional School program remains the same: To provide unique, rigorous educational opportunities for all of its students.

Philosophically, most Optional Schools are designed to go beyond the norm to address learning for specifically identified students whose proclivities tend toward higher cognitive levels. These programs incorporate more in-depth explorations of subject matter that encourages intellectual inquiry extending what is found in traditional instructional approaches. Optional Schools challenge students to take risks, to exceed the expected and strive toward the exceptional.

Students in Optional Schools are producers rather than merely responders. They demonstrate what they have learned. While different for each model and school, all Optional Schools exemplify curricular rigor. Topics are expanded and studied more deeply and broadly. Further, explorations are not just of the topic itself but instead follow related tangents and interweaving threads through questioning and research to discover where these may lead. Students engage in open-ended tasks utilizing methods such as Shared Inquiry where more than one correct or valid answer is possible. The students do this through analyzing and evaluating data which they then use to brainstorm ideas and develop theories to create presentations and demonstrative evidence of their newly acquired skill sets and knowledge. In short, the methodology is to challenge and engage Optional students at the outer limits of their abilities in order to trigger innovation and push them toward greater achievement.

The Optional teacher’s role is to make sure students are challenged intellectually. Curriculum and lessons are presented at an accelerated pace that qualified students can handle. Project based learning experiences are the centerpiece of these classrooms. The design actively involves students in the learning process by having them do. Utilizing this high order, differentiated instructional style allows students to better synthesize what they have learned. They demonstrate by applying their newly acquired skills and knowledge through the creation process. Some of the student creations manifest themselves as science projects, dramatic presentations, computer programs, music performances, publications, and so on.

To summarize, Optional teachers start with a subject-based standard. They teach this concept at an accelerated pace matching students’ ability to comprehend it. Students quickly move beyond this directed instructional phase into the realm of discovery. Here they demonstrate understanding and mastery through application. Utilizing imagination and creativity, Optional students expand upon traditional curriculum and practice by engaging in hands-on activities and intellectual explorations.

That said, while academics play a key role, the underlying rigor also applies to Optional Schools whose focus is different such as creative arts, performing arts, Montessori, or public service. For all models, the end results are tangible products and presentations that exceed the norm to measurably show what these exceptional students can achieve. So parents, I encourage you to do some research, give the Optional program a look, take a tour, and then make an informed decision on if one of these schools is the right choice for your child.

Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell is a freelance writer, a parent of two Optional students, and educator with over 30 years of experience. Please forward questions or comments to: djacksonmaxwell@gmail.com

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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