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Image: Sandy Chasteen and her daughter, Alex
Courtesy of Sandy Chasteen
Sandy Chasteen, right, has chosen a combination of online school and traditional public school for her 13-year-old daughter Alex, left. Alex is excited that she'll be able to focus on core academic subjects without distractions and still spend time at school with her friends.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 8/17/2011 1:55:56 PM ET 2011-08-17T17:55:56

Ask any adult you know: Which school years were hardest for you? Then brace yourself for a grimace, followed by one of these responses:

a) Middle school.
b) Ninth grade.
c) All of the above.

Why are those years so harrowing for so many, decade after decade? Well, besides the raging hormones, acne, peer pressure, impersonal schools, cliques, bullying and, these days, the potential for kids to destroy their reputations for life on Facebook, there’s also this: the birth throes of an adult brain.

“Whoever you were in the ninth grade you probably still are as an adult,” said Howard Gradet of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools. “You don’t change all that much. We cover it up for a lot of reasons as adults, but that ninth-grader is still recognizable today.

“This is why you have to help a young person to see: ‘Why do I need to learn this from you? Why do I need to know this?’ ”

Reducing drama and trauma
Growing numbers of parents are deciding that traditional public schools aren’t doing enough to answer those questions for their kids. They’re hungry for alternatives during this difficult chapter of their children’s lives. And, as it turns out, alternatives abound.

Some parents yank their kids out of public school and opt for private school or home-schooling instead. Others turn to charter schools for tuition-free options. Still others, whose kids may be having a hard time focusing in large, chaotic classrooms, seek out online classes. In fact, online learning programs are becoming so popular that more than 4 million students participated in them in 2010, according to the International Association of K-12 Online Learning.

Sandy Chasteen, 41, a mother of two in Bellingham, Wash., has chosen a combination of online school and traditional public school for her 13-year-old daughter Alex, who will enter eighth grade in the fall.

Slideshow: Happy Back-to-School Moms

“We’re going to do a partial day,” Chasteen said. “She’ll do an online academy for four classes in the mornings, then go to lunch at school with her friends and go to regular middle school for the rest of the day. And she can stay after school for clubs and stuff. But all day was just too much for her.”

Alex, who is on an advanced track in school, will take math, science, language arts and physical education online next year. (Yes, that’s right: phys ed. Online P.E. classes give students individual exercise plans and approximate what it’s like to work with a personal trainer — and no one whips a dodgeball at anyone’s head.)

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Alex said she’s especially excited about being able to tackle her core academic subjects at her own pace. “Having 38 kids in a classroom is very challenging,” she said, noting how long it can take the teacher to get the room under control. “This way I’ll really be able to focus on learning well without being distracted by other kids ... I usually get the information the first time, so having to go over it again and again can be a source of frustration for me.”

Alex’s mom said she’s relieved that her daughter will be spared at least some of the “puberty and dramas” of middle school.

“We get this whacked-out notion that middle school is ‘training for life,’ ” Chasteen said. “But please tell me, when is life like this? When else in your life are you surrounded by 30 other kids your exact same age who are catty, gossiping, with hormones raging? But we have this idea that it’s a rite of passage. A rite of passage for what? Trauma?”

Online school for your 13-year-old? It depends

Invisible — and lost
Kathleen Aguilar, 48, of Mahnomen, Minn., grew weary of watching her children struggle in middle and high school. One of her daughters dealt with serious depression and anxiety in ninth grade. “There was a lot of drug activity and drinking in her school ... and she was too shy to ask for help — especially to ask for help from the teachers,” Aguilar said.

Meanwhile, right around the same time, Aguilar’s youngest son was floundering in middle school. When elementary school ended, he transferred to a large school that had middle school students mingling in the hallways with high school students.

Image: Kathleen Aguilar with her son, Alex Aguilar
Courtesy of Kathleen Aguilar
Alex Aguilar studies at home for his GEDs. His mom, Kathleen Aguilar, stands behind him. She said her son began falling “through the cracks” in middle school, so she researched and found online educational programs for him.

“I thought they’d work with him to help him get used to the middle-school/high-school side, but he was so confused,” Aguilar said. “He just fell through the cracks.”

In sheer frustration, Aguilar began researching online school programs for her son and daughter. When they left public school and enrolled in online classes instead, they didn’t look back.

Aguilar’s son Alex, now 17, is about to take his GEDs (General Educational Development tests, which certify that those who pass them have academic skills equivalent to graduating high school). Once that’s accomplished, he’s considering going to welding school. He said the GED route made the most sense for him because it’s saving him so much time and allowing him to get on with his life.

Slideshow: Best and worst teachers of TV and film

“No matter how much your kids don’t want you to, know what’s going on in their school,” Aguilar advised. “Go to the school if you have to. Find out why they’re depressed. Maybe they’re being picked on, or maybe there’s a teacher who’s making them miserable. Something’s not right.”

Gradet of Johns Hopkins University wholeheartedly agrees with Aguilar’s advice. An expert on educating ninth-graders, Gradet said it’s all too common for parents to take an excessively hands-off approach once their kids reach high school. Parents do this with good motives, thinking their teenagers need to learn how to go it alone as they get older.

Trapeze? LEGO building? 6 unusual after-school classes

“You do have to back off to an extent, that’s true, but it’s not an all-or-nothing thing,” Gradet said. “It’s easy to think, ‘Whew, I got him to this point and now he’s safe.’ No, he’s not safe. Stay involved. Check his notebook. Show an interest. That really says something to a kid. He thinks, ‘My parents are still interested in what I’m doing, and I still have to answer to them.’ ”

Gradet said the problem encountered by Aguilar's son Alex — getting overwhelmed in a new, huge school — is alarmingly typical. Large, impersonal settings can make it easy for a student to feel invisible, and that sense of invisibility can put a student at risk of dropping out.

“In a typical high school, where the ninth-grade kids are all over the building, their first-period class may be on the first floor of C wing and their second-period class may be on the third floor of A wing,” Gradet said. “There’s a lot of space in between where you can find something to do that’s more fun than going to that next class.”

Gradet and his colleagues have helped to pioneer a “talent development” model for ninth grade that has been implemented in hundreds of public schools around the country — in part to counteract the more than 1,600 large high schools they’ve identified as “dropout factories” because they graduate 60 percent or less of their students. About 2.1 million students attend such beleaguered schools across the United States.

1 in 10 schools is a ‘dropout factory’

In the talent development model, all the ninth-graders stay together all day in the same section of the school, and all the students and teachers get to know each other well. “The kids aren’t invisible — they can’t be invisible — because if they can be, then they can disappear,” Gradet explained.

“Dropping out of school is not an option anymore. Graduating from high school doesn’t really get you much. It’s been years — decades — since anyone said a high school diploma is enough. We’re just trying to get kids to the point where they can pursue whatever post-secondary education they need.”

Bill Gates says high school diploma no longer enough

Home-schooling and private school
Heather L. Sanders, 39, a web designer in Huntsville, Texas, decided to home-school her oldest daughter Emelie after she completed her fifth-grade year.

“We were losing her and knew she would not thrive in her sixth-grade year,” Sanders said. “She kind of went into a shell and disappeared. Girls made fun of her because she wasn’t wearing short shorts and spaghetti straps to school. She got bullied for reading. ... Then we learned that Emelie’s teacher used fear-based teaching, humiliating kids in front of the classroom. That was it — we pulled her out.”

Image: Emelie Sanders
Heather L. Sanders / omsh.com
Emelie Sanders has been home-schooled by her mom, Heather Sanders, since the sixth grade. Emelie will start ninth grade in the fall.

That was four years ago. Emelie will begin the ninth grade this fall; her two younger siblings will start third and sixth grades. Their mom blogs about home-schooling at ThePioneerWoman.com and OMSH.com, and her posts reveal that, like many home-schooling parents, she throws herself into the job of educating her kids with incredible energy.

As home-schooling moves to mainstream, stigma fades

Sanders’ children aren’t sitting around at home; they’re out and about, taking American sign language and Spanish lessons, learning how to play golf, teaching younger kids about geography and writing book reviews for National Geographic’s website. The family spent May traveling through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, using national parks and salt mines as launch points for lesson plans.

A movable feast: For some, the world is a classroom

Emelie Sanders has blogged about what it’s like to be a home-schooled teenager. She addressed one of the biggest questions that enters people’s minds: What kind of a social life do you have?

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“Home-schooling hasn’t changed my ‘social life.’ At all,” Emelie wrote. “In fact, it may have increased the amount of time spent on things I enjoy doing, as well as time spent with the people I love ... Beyond the spontaneous entertainment — movie dates with girlfriends, field trips and church youth events — I get about five whole days of social activity a week.”

All school, no play? Kids’ learning suffers without recess

Emelie’s mom knows plenty of other parents who have opted for private school for their kids — regardless of cost. Many parents choose this route because they’re deeply affected by private schools’ results. A Department of Education study of students who attended private schools affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools revealed that 99 percent graduated from high school, and more than 90 percent went on to four-year colleges.

“I considered private school, too, but it’s a huge income dilemma,” Sanders said. “Tuition would cost us $1,250 each month for all three kids, and that didn’t include curriculum or food or uniforms. Do I want to work to pay for that? Or, if I home-school, I can spend $2,500 on their curriculum for the whole year. We can spend rest of that money on going places, buying books and other supplemental things.

“I work from home, so I’m able to home-school my kids and work full-time hours. A lot of the moms I know who do private school end up working for that private school in some capacity to get some discounts. Or they teach courses or work in the office there and make significantly less money just so their kids can be there. A lot of parents are sacrificing because public schools just aren’t what they used to be.”

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

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