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Eight Types of High Schools...and Here They Are, Explained

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

How do you choose a high school? Wait, you didn’t even know you could?? I’m here to help.

Inspired by National School Choice Week, I thought it timely to bring to the forefront that not only are there options outside your public high school, but also what those options are. It also feels pertinent because I am going through this very thing with my own daughter as I write this.

We are fortunate to live in an area with excellent schools and access to education. Should my daughter go to our public high school, she would end up right where she needs to be. But, at this point, a greater majority of her life was spent on the campus of the independent boarding school at which I taught for 12 years, Blair Academy. That is where she’s set her sights on going to school. While I understand boarding school is not always the first consideration for our students, there are myriad options both “public” or “private” that are out there to consider.

There is public in-person, public online, charter, and magnet, which all fall under the umbrella of public high schools.

Then, you have parochial, religious, private online, private day, and private boarding which are all, you guessed it, private, or independent high schools.

Types of Private and Public High Schools


Of course the first difference that comes to mind is that public school is free and private school is tuition-based. However, it’s not as simple as that, and you might be (pleasantly) surprised to find out that you have a lot more options than you think you did.


I don’t think I need to explain public, in-person high school, but here are some important touchpoints:

  • Public schools are operated by local, state, and federal funds, but only 9% of funding comes from federal funds.

  • The state mandates licensure, and state and local governments decide curriculum and governance.

It is worth it to look into this second bullet point in regard to your local school district in order to make sure that their educational philosophy and standards line up with your goals for your student. More on this later when we cover parochial and religious schools.


Online public school is where you begin to have options. Find a list of online public school options for each state here. Online public schools run the gamut of offering just a few classes in order to supplement an in-person or homeschooling education to full degree programs online.

The next two options are maybe less-known in the field of public education, but oftentimes provide an independent school-type education at no cost to a family.


Charter schools are free, but typically application-based and offer limited spaces for students. The National Center for Education gives an overview of charter schools in the US and the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools in each state.

Here’s what you need to know about charter schools:

  • Charter schools have a specialization or mission statement that meets community needs. Think STEM, Performing Arts, Maths and Sciences, etc. An excellent example of this is ChARTer Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point, NJ offering an alternative option to Atlantic City and Pleasantville High Schools

  • Charter schools exist outside of the public school system so they are not subject to the same kind of dictates that local and state governments can impose on public schools. In other words, charter schools are publically funded (typically from the local school district) but privately operated. However…

  • Because charter schools operate outside of the public school system, they have the benefit of flexibility, but in exchange they have to continually prove that they are fulfilling their charter and demonstrating accountability and financial stability. Otherwise, they can lose their funding and close. About 15% of charter school nationally have lost their charters for failing to do this.

  • Therefore, when looking for a charter school, look for longevity. It is a good indicator of the success of the school.

  • Check out US News & World Report's 2021’s most successful charter schools.

  • More on Charter Schools here.


Magnet schools also specialize in certain areas and are free, but they are operated by the sending district or a group of districts. Magnet schools are typically identified in two ways, by enrollment. There are Talented and Gifted magnet schools, which are highly competitive and usually require testing, applications, auditions, etc. in order to gain acceptance and other magnet schools, which conduct enrollment via a lottery. See a best of list, including Julia R. Masterman Lab in Philadelphia, consistently ranked #1 in PA and #16 in the country, here.

  • Magnet schools champion community, socioeconomic and cultural diversity.

  • Only 1 out of 4 magnet schools require entrance criteria. 3 out of 4 are lottery-based.

  • Magnet schools serve all students, including students with learning differences. Transportation is typically provided at no cost.

  • Unlike charter schools, magnet schools are subject to the same accountability and standards as the local public school(s). This means that the schools are also under the purview of collaborations with teachers’ unions.

  • More on Magnet Schools here.

Take some time to explore your local, public school choices. Exercise your right to choose!


Now to visit the somewhat lesser-known world of tuition-based education.

Many of you might think this is not a viable option, cost-wise. However, tuition-based schools span the spectrum of affordability, and there are ways to make private school a reality if this is the best option for your student and your family.

Why do families choose independent schools? NAIS, the National Association of Independent Schools and the gold-standard professional organization associated with independent schools, offers research-based insight on why families choose independent schools. The reasoning is as much about students who need individualized attention due to academic struggles as it is about students who are emotionally and academically advanced and looking for continued growth and the most appropriate college placement.

Find more information and the results of the study here and the methodology behind it here.

Without further ado, let’s take a closer look!


Parochial schools are private schools that are religiously-affiliated and they receive funding from an overarching religious organization like a diocese. The word parochial essentially indicates a partnership with a religious institution.

Like public schools, this means that the school and its curriculum and governance are subject to the dictates of the funding organization, so it’s important to know what the priorities and goals of each particular school are. Some pros of a parochial school education are:

  • The tuition will remain relatively stable and unchanged because part of your tuition bill is being paid by the overarching institution.

  • Typically when we think of parochial schools, we think of Catholic schools, but remember the definition of parochial (it comes from the same root as “parish”.) A school run by a synagogue can be parochial as well, as long as it receives funding from the synagogue. The benefit of this is that your student will receive a non-secular education as well as an academic and intellectual one.

  • Parochial schools typically come with a significantly lower price tag than other types of independent schools, making them a viable option for many families.

  • In addition, financial aid and scholarships are available at most parochial schools, further enabling more families to take advantage of this educational opportunity. The first thing you want to do is contact the school to which your child is applying and speak directly to the financial aid officer.


What’s the difference between parochial and religious independent schools? The biggest difference is that religious schools are truly independent, which means they do not need to comply with or conform to a separate governing body because they do not receive any money from being affiliated with said organization. But it also means that as overhead goes up, so can tuition.

Another difference is that, while you might expect parochial school to have a more significant religious grounding, this is not always the case. Because parochial schools get more of their funding from an affiliated organization, sometimes they have to modify curriculum to make sure they can fill seats.

On the other hand, independent schools that have a religious affiliation can be as denominational or non-denominational as they wish. Make sure to do your due diligence when researching parochial or religiously affiliated independent schools. Read more about these schools here.


Another choice for secondary independent education is private, online schools. Especially since the advent of the pandemic, the options in this sector of private education have exploded.

Whereas online school prior to the pandemic might have suffered a less-than-elite pedigree, all that has changed in the past two years, with many top-notch private schools such as the Dwight School and even colleges like Stanford Online High School getting in on the act.

Find Niche’s list of 2022’s best online high schools here.


Private day or boarding schools can also be parochial, religious, or something entirely different. However, they are still completely fee based.

As the names indicate, day school students arrive for the duration of the school day and then head home after their last commitment. Boarding schools provide food and lodging and students go home for vacations and weekends, depending on geographical location. Some characteristics to look for in a day or boarding school include:

Small classes. Independent schools pride themselves on classes of 12-15 students, on average. The benefit of this of course is the teacher’s ability to focus individually on students’ needs.

  • Highly qualified teachers. This does not mean the same thing as it does in public school: highly qualified independent school teachers have a first degree in their discipline so it is not necessary for them to be certified. Additionally, most independent school teachers have advanced or terminal degrees. Furthermore, independent schools that are well-endowed make it a priority to have a healthy budget for professional development, so parents can rest assured that teachers have the most comprehensive and up-to-date training and information. Conversely, because independent school teachers are not unionized and most independent teaching employment is at-will, either party can walk away if the fit is not a good one. This ensures that families are getting what they pay for when it comes to highly qualified teachers.

  • Community. It is a hallmark of independent schools to go to great lengths to endow a sense of community through rituals such as Morning (or School or Community) Meeting, “Chapel”, Formal (or Family) dinner (if the school is boarding) where the entire school population comes together for a particular purpose. This sense of community is amplified in boarding schools, where students, faculty, and some staff live on campus and are completely immersed in every aspect of the school, such as academics, sports, arts, social life, etc. Students at boarding school often treat it as their home-away-from-home and forge lifelong relationships with members of the community.

  • Sports, Arts, and Extracurricular Activities. Most people balk when they look at the price tag of independent schools, which can range anywhere from $7,000 to $70,000 a year, with many touting tuitions that rival the most prestigious and selective colleges. However, you get what you pay for. While public schools extracurriculars are largely made or broken by budget considerations, private schools place these programs high on the list of importance. In fact, many students attend independent schools to increase their exposure to college athletic (or other) programs which can actually save families money in the long run through scholarship or recruitment programs.


One of the most important things to consider when looking at any private secondary school is accreditation.

A quick and easy way to check accreditation is by checking if the school you are interested in is a member school at NAIS since requires all of its member schools to hold the appropriate accreditation. When a school is accredited, you can rest assured that it continues to meet rigorous standards established by the accrediting organization.

Use this link to the National Center for Educational Statistics to search for private schools of all types and their accreditation status.


Finally, use an Independent Educational Consultant to help you! It is the job of these educational professionals to not only find the best fit independent school for your student and family, but also to make sure it stays that way. The relationship with an IEC doesn’t end with an acceptance. It continues throughout the student’s tenure at the school and even beyond, into college and secondary school applications, admission, and matriculation.

Happy Shopping!


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