Defining your product
There’s a good chance that curriculum is something you’ve already thought a lot about in the process of planning and conceptualizing your future school. Many curriculum decisions just come down to what you’d like to see your school look like – do you have a certain focus or specialty in mind already? Perhaps you want to be a STEM school, or have a focus on nature, or cultures of the world, or a particular religious affiliation. Any of these concepts from your mission statement and school values are going to help inform your curriculum.
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You’ll find that as a private school you have tremendous freedom to develop your educational approach and selection of courses. Depending on the state where you are operating and the grade levels you teach, there may be state-mandated subjects that must be taught (see our Legal and Operating Requirements section for your state’s requirements).
Regardless of regulatory requirements, there are a several standard courses that most families are going to expect that you offer.
Typically these courses are offered at every grade level, with most public schools requiring the courses through 12th grade. Of course, how you approach ELA courses and choose to incorporate writing, literature, and general literacy will probably depend on the grade level and your school’s focus, but a good balance of ELA skills is crucial to preparing students for higher education or transfer to another school (if you only teach primary grades, for example).
Math courses are typically required at least through 10th or 11th grade at the public-school level, though many colleges expect students have taken a math course each year they are in school. As a private school, you don’t have to follow what public schools do, of course, but it is good to keep in mind as you want your students to be on an even playing field (or even more prepared) with public school students. Most elementary schools offer courses based on grade level, while secondary schools offer courses that are subject-based (algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics) and students progress through them based on ability, rather than the grade they are in. How you approach this is flexible, but it is something that requires some thought.
Similar to math, science courses are typically required through 10th or 11th grade in public schools, but colleges look to see a rigorous selection of classes. At the elementary level, students typically take general science that covers the scientific method and a mixture of environmental science, biology, chemistry, and physics, while secondary students take courses in specific courses. Schools with the means to do so could even consider offering advanced courses in microbiology or anatomy if the lab space and materials exist.
Most students take some form of social studies through 9th or 10th grade. Much like the other subject areas, elementary students typically go through the basics of state and US history, world history, and civics. At the secondary level, those topics are typically offered as individual courses, with some schools expanding to cover psychology, sociology and other more specific social studies courses. Be sure to check your state requirements, as many states mandate civics and/or state history content.
The expectation of foreign language courses at the elementary level definitely is not like at the secondary level. It certainly is a great opportunity if you can offer it, but most students in the US don’t have regular foreign language instruction in elementary school. At the secondary level, it is highly recommended for students to take 2-3 years of a foreign language as college prep and is required for many scholarships. Therefore, it is a good idea to offer at least one foreign language. Most commonly this is Spanish or French, but many schools offer Latin or German, and depending on the cultural representation of the area your school is in, you might consider courses such as Mandarin or Arabic.
Many states require that certain classes are taught, or that daily schedules include time for students to be physically active, even at the private school level. Be sure to check out the applicable state resource page for your location to make sure you plan for these requirements.
Regardless of the type of school you’re opening or your specific academic focus, you’ll likely want to offer instruction in the four core subjects (math, English, science, social studies), as students typically need these courses to prepare for college and/or transferring to a different school after attending yours. Remember to check your state-specific requirements to ensure you're in compliance with regulations.
As far as electives or other courses outside of the academic core, there are several considerations:
What types of courses do you need to tie into your school’s mission? Are you focusing on fine arts, sports, foreign language, public service, theology, or accelerated STEM? Any of the courses you’ll need to support your school’s overall purpose should be offered to students from the start. You can’t recruit students to a fine arts school if you don’t offer any specialty arts courses, right?
Consider the teaching needs you’re creating. If you’re offering Japanese, computer programming, or concert piano, you’ll need teachers who are knowledgeable in these subject areas and are potentially certified in these subjects (more on that in the staffing section). Are these types of teachers available in your community?
Will your school be offering religious education and is it required for all students or an optional elective?
Is physical education going to be offered? Some states require this, particularly at the primary level, so check your state requirements for more information.
You’ll also need to put some thought into which grade levels you are going to serve. Ultimately, if your goal is to operate a K-12 school, it might be easiest for enrollment purposes to start with K-1 or K-2 and expand to new grades each year, bringing your current students forward and eliminating some of the pressure to hire and recruit at high volumes before opening. With this strategy, you can bring on new teachers and students each year at smaller, and more manageable, levels.
One other note on grade levels: if you're looking at serving high school students, pay special attention to typical college admissions requirements and consider pursuing curriculum accreditation through one of the regional accreditation organizations; having accreditation ensures students will be able to seamlessly go to college without running into roadblocks.
Are you going to use an already-existing curriculum or develop your own?
There many national education organizations and religious education organizations can provide curricula that are already developed. If you’re going to be affiliated with one of these groups, you can take advantage of the resources they have developed. Our associations section can point you in the right direction for many of these.
If you’re going to develop your own curriculum, it may be helpful to have an instructional designer lend a hand. Of course, this isn’t always possible. If you’re on your own, the following resources can help:
The University of Michigan has some great background information about curriculum design, mapping curriculum to particular courses, and using benchmarks and outcomes to guide your planning process.
Hunter College also has a guide aimed primarily at college departments working on getting curriculum approved, but the basics and theory are applicable to primary and secondary schools as well.
The great thing for you about choosing textbooks and other learning materials is that the selection process is an area where teachers are likely to want to have a lot of input. Having help is always great, right? You will probably need to decide whether your school is going to have physical textbooks or if you’re taking a digital stance. And, who will provide the books: your school or the students/families? Otherwise, you can appoint faculty members to make book recommendations or do some research yourself – just remember that subject area experts are going to have insight that you might not have into the usefulness of a book, so don’t be afraid to get help here!
Textbook publishers are usually enthusiastic about sending product information and offering discounts for schools who are purchasing in bulk, so entertaining a meeting with a book rep isn’t a bad idea as you’re doing preliminary research.
Another avenue to explore with publishers is ordering custom textbooks. This can consist of making modifications to already-existing texts, assembling your own text and having it printed or some combination thereof. If this is something you’re considering, reaching out to textbook company reps for general pricing and options is a good place to start.
A number of well-respected institutions have published guides on how to select quality materials for their area of study. These include:
Science: A Guide for K-12 Science by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
History & social studies: 6 Strategies to Guide your Adoption of New Textbooks in History-Social Science by Beth Slutsky, Ph.D., UC Davis
Mathematics: Influences on Mathematics Textbook Selection: What Really Matters? by scholars at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
English & language arts: Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs by the National Council of Teachers of English
Open Educational Resources
Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching and learning materials that you may freely use and reuse at no cost, and without needing to ask permission. Some good resources for OER include:
OER Commons website includes more than 50,000 resources, easily searchable by subject area, grade level and standard
CNX features free educational resources organized by module, allowing teachers or curriculum developers to build their own courses by assembling different modules.
CK-12 offers Flexbooks, which are free customizable digital textbooks that include videos and interactives for students to dive into.
One of the most exciting things about designing a new school curriculum in the internet age is the number of technological and interactive resources at hand. Teachers in every subject area can find a variety of resources to help enliven their daily lesson plans, help struggling students, or add interactive resources.
As one starting point, we’ve put together our own list of the best math sites for teachers. A quick google search will help turn up countless resources for other subject areas as well.
Learning management systems
Additionally, virtual classrooms and learning management systems (LMS) allow teachers to communicate with parents and students, share lessons, provide a place for students to ask questions and get help, and for teachers to provide additional resources and course content.
Such LMS functions are central to Twine, our turn-key school management software platform for independent and charter schools. For more information check out how Twine helps.