Microschools educate children in highly personalized environments that can be described as a 21st century take on the one-room schoolhouse. These intentionally small schools focus on individualized learning over standardization, harnessing student interests for learning, and creating tight-knit communities that build the bonds of trust that enable deep, meaningful learning.
CHARACTERISTICS OF MICROSCHOOLS
Although there is no common definition of microschools, they typically share the following characteristics:
Small size. Microschools usually serve anywhere from 10 to a few dozen students, though they can be as large as 100 or 150 students. This allows for educators and students to better-connect with one another, build the mutual trust needed for deep learning, and ensure no kids are slipping through the cracks.
Multi-age grouping. Instead of sorting students into separate grades based on age, microschools typically educate a range of ages together in a single classroom. This often leads to a less competitive and more nurturing form of education. In a classroom of 6, 8, and 10-year-olds, each child tries to do their best with little concern about “beating” the other.
Teachers as guides. Instead of utilizing the “sage on the stage” model of teaching students through lectures, microschool teachers serve more as guides who coach students through personalized curriculua.
Personalization. Along with school size, personalization is a key characteristic of microschools. Instead of a standardized curriculum that all kids follow at the same time, there is a heavy emphasis on personalization through project-based learning, utilization of digital tools, and – whenever possible – using children’s own curiosity and interests to drive their learning.
Student-led discussions. Also called Socratic dialogues, this method engages students critical and inquisitive thinking through purposeful conversation. A facilitator (sometimes the teacher) poses a question and leaves it to the group to discuss and debate. This method not only builds critical thinking, it helps develop the interpersonal skills they will need as adults.
Educator entrepreneurships. Instead of rigid bureaucracies and demeaning labor contracts, microschools provide educators with the space to teach. Instead of being required to follow a standardized path, teachers can adapt to meet the day-to-day needs of students.
WAYS TO SUPPORT MICROSCHOOLS THROUGH POLICY
Microschooling is more of an approach to education than a specific governance model. However, most microschools are governed via homeschooling or private-school laws.
Thus, much of the innovation and growth of microschools is happening outside the traditional education system, where most education policy is focused. Despite that, there are several ways states can use policy to support
Do no harm. The first priority should be to ensure that the growth in microschools already occurring does not stop on account of increased regulations, calls for oversight, or attempts to stifle these schools that exist based only on family demand.
Unbundle education funding. Instead of funding families’ education choices, most education funding systems send money to predetermined schools. It’s no surprise that microschools are growing the fastest in private and homeschool settings, where families control the funding and enroll in the school of choice. Unbundling education funding would provide this option for all families.
Enact education scholarship account (ESA) programs. ESAs are funded using a child’s share of education funding and can be directed toward the schools, courses, programs, and services of a family’s choice. In many ways, ESAs are a type of funding reform, providing funding portability to families to use on a variety of individualized uses.
Don’t incentivize large schools through statute. There are many ways that state laws and regulations prevent district and charter operators from opening microschools. These include: building codes that consider only traditional schooling practices; outdated laws that specify the number of days/hours kids need to be in school; age-based grouping; a focus on class size instead of school size; and many others. Identify what is needed to provide a quality education and cut everything else.
EXAMPLES OF MICROSCHOOLS
The Forest School – Fayetteville, Georgia
The Forest School, located just outside Atlanta, consists of three “studios” – one serving kids ages 6-10, the second serving kids 10-14, and the third serving kids up to 18 years old. The school started small but is close to reaching its self-imposed cap of 35 students per studio. Here is how they describe their methods: “mixed-age classrooms, student choice within limits, large blocks of work time, learning through discovery, and freedom of movement in the classroom.” They also use e-learning tools, project-based learning, and the Socratic method to ensure that “learners don’t just memorize facts; they learn how to learn, learn how to do, learn how to be, and learn how to live together.”
Prenda schools – Arizona
Prenda is a network of dozens of microschools across Arizona. They operate as 5-10 student small groups that meet every day in a variety of locations, like homes and offices. Prenda describes themselves as “a combination of a tech-enabled charter school, a caring Montessori environment, and the informal freedom of homeschool.” Thanks to Arizona’s plethora of education choice programs, Prenda families can tap into state funding for tuition through the state’s charter school and education scholarship account laws. Students work through a core curriculum that covers essential subjects, but are afforded plenty of self-directed learning time to follow their passions. Adult “guides” coach and mentor students and are “more concerned with the helping kids learn how to learn than we are with regurgitating information.”
Wildflower schools – multiple states
Wildflower is a network of mixed-age Pre-K-7 Montessori schools that focus on student-driven learning methods. The schools intentionally locate in shopfronts along walkable streets that visually invite community members into the daily work of children. Each school is independently owned by two teacher-leaders who serve as school administrators and educate no more than 15-25 students. Each teacher-leader serves on the board of at least one other Wildflower school, which creates a true community of schools.
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