What Is a Microschool?

For parents and teachers frustrated with remote learning and school closures due to COVID-19, microschools have been an increasingly popular education alternative. But proponents say the schools — which typically serve 15 students or fewer — are more than just a pandemic fad.

“Lots of people are asking if small scale is the answer to our questions about the future of education,” says Anne Wintemute, the director of Highlands Micro School in Denver. “But the truth is, microschools have been around forever.”

Although similar to pandemic learning pods — where families banded together to enable kids to learn in small groups, sometimes with a private teacher — microschools are a unique entity, usually registered as an official school and a for-profit business.

“Microschools evolved out of homeschooling, and are in between private schools and homeschools,” says Tasha Ring, director of Meridian Learning, a Cincinnati organization that advocates for and organizes grassroots microschools.

They might best be described as the modern-day one-room schoolhouse.

[Read: What Is a Montessori School?]

Janelle Wood, founder of the Black Mothers Forum, a Phoenix-based parent advocacy group, has witnessed the success of the model firsthand. Her group launched a network of microschools in January 2021, seeing the model as the best way to achieve their goal of disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.

Within mixed-grade classrooms of no more than 10 students, the forum’s microschools are led by community members, many of them parents who are also former teachers. Students spend part of the day working on online curriculum platforms like Zearn and iReady. The rest of the time they collaborate on projects and research topics of their choosing. Some days they engage in electives, like debate or foreign language study.

“These kids get to move at their own pace,” Wood says. “We have an environment where students can keep on going until they hit a challenge, and that makes learning fun, because they have to figure out how to solve a problem.”

Others have taken notice of their success. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey recently pledged $3.5 million to develop 50 microschools in partnership with the forum.

New microschools are popping up all over the country, in homes and downtown storefronts and church basements. There are microschools for every grade level from kindergarten through high school. There are even microcolleges.

What to Know About Microschools

It’s tricky to know exactly how many microschools there are in the country since there is no one national accreditation body. Rules and regulations vary widely, although some states, including West Virginia and Wisconsin, are trying to define microschools through new legislation.

While all microschools look different, they generally share a number of traits, like personalized, student-centered learning and multiple age groups in the same classroom. Teachers can be parents or professional educators, and in general act as guides rather than lecturers.

Kelly Smith is the founder and CEO of Prenda, a microschool network based in Arizona. He says Prenda’s approach, like many microschools, is to implement practices that are well-known but not often used.

“COVID came along and the traditional classroom was brought into the living room, and most parents have had to ask, ‘Is my child learning?’ We saw a huge influx of families, maybe that didn’t see the value of the Socratic method or project-based learning” at first, says Smith, but now “there’s a transformation in the way people are thinking about education.”

[READ: Is a ‘Lab School’ Right for Your Child?]

What a Microschool Education Looks Like

Parents interested in microschools have a variety of options. Some microschools are hyperlocal and independent. Others are part of larger networks, like Acton Academy, which has more than 250 affiliate schools in 31 states and 25 countries, with an average annual tuition of about $10,000.

Then there is Prenda, which began in 2019 in Smith’s home with seven students from the neighborhood. Today, the company, in partnership with state-accredited institutions, operates a network of hundreds of tuition-free schools across six states.

The New Hampshire Department of Education recently partnered with Prenda as part of its Recovering Bright Futures Program to address the learning disruptions caused by COVID-19. Frank Edelblut, commissioner for the state’s education department, saw the small learning environments as a benefit for dealing with the many lingering effects of the pandemic on kids.

“A lot of students had some missed learning to catch up on, but some students were traumatized as a result of the pandemic as well, so we thought of it as a small environment to meet the individual needs of our students and families,” Edelblut says.

Utilizing COVID relief funds, New Hampshire’s program allows districts to open microschools (which it refers to as “Learning Pods”) for mixed-age groups of five to 10 children who meet in school buildings or community locations. Students learn through a mix of online, state standard-aligned curriculum and small-group projects, all led by a certified Prenda guide supported by a New Hampshire-certified teacher.

While only a few hundred students throughout the state are enrolled, Edelblut says the program will most likely remain an option for families for the foreseeable future.

For smaller, grassroots microschools, size is not a measurement of success. When Wintemute opened Highlands Micro School in 2016, 24 students was the school’s sweet spot. Today, that’s still the maximum student body, despite the increased demand during the pandemic.

[READ: Understanding Charter Schools vs. Public Schools.]

“We’re small on purpose because being small makes so many things possible,” Wintemute says. “We’re able to have really close relationships with every student. We can hop on the bus and go camping. It makes us nimble, so day to day, hour to hour, we really can bend what the kids are working on to them.”

The flexibility of microschools also allows them to take advantage of their local community in ways larger schools often can’t. Ring, of Meridian Learning, operates several microschools in Cincinnati and is preparing to launch a new “micro farm” for older students ages 12 to 18.

“We’re using the available land nearby and traveling throughout the city,” she says. The school is based on the Montessori theory of “Erdkinder,” a model of learning that emphasizes experience in nature, and mixes classroom time with work on the farm. “Essentially, it’s a school without walls,” Ring says.

Launching Your Own Microschool

Launching a microschool might sound like an attractive option both for frustrated parents and burned-out education professionals, but those in the field recommend approaching the endeavor with caution.

Carol Topp has worked for years as an accountant for homeschool groups, and began seeing interest in microschools even before COVID-19. She advises interested parties to realize that they aren’t just starting a school but a business. And while the schools’ small size might make them initially attractive, that can also be their downfall.

“Microschools aren’t cheap. There are fewer students to spread the overheard,” she says, adding that many microschools fail because “they are too dependent on one or two families who have a few kids, and then a family moves and the school can’t afford their rent. It can be tenuous.”

If you decide to launch a microschool, there are a number of legal, financial, and philosophical steps to consider. Unlike a homeschool, a microschool will need to be registered as a business and most often as a private school. You’ll also have to research state regulations, including licensing, attendance and insurance requirements.

Then of course there is developing your microschool’s identity, from selecting the kind of curriculum you’ll offer to tuition rates to renting or buying the actual space for your school.

“People underestimate the time and money it takes to start a microschool,” Ring says. “If you don’t have either of those, it can be difficult.”

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What Is a Microschool? originally appeared on usnews.com

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