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Innovative Micro-Schools Help Meet Demand for Education Alternatives

December 17, 2019

As private school costs increase and more Catholic schools—known historically for lower tuition costs than secular academies—close, the education marketplace is responding with innovative options.

Micro-schools with 150 or fewer students are helping fill parents’ demand for lower cost alternatives to public education, say parents and innovators who have founded new learning environments.

More than five million students in the United States—about 10 percent of children in K-12—attend private schools. However, that number reflects a lack of options: 40 percent of parents say they would rather have their child enrolled in private schools, states a survey published by EdChoice.

As private school costs increase and more Catholic schools—known historically for lower tuition costs than secular academies—close, the education marketplace is responding with innovative options.

There are approximately 200 micro-schools in the United States, with an average enrollment of fewer than 50 students, estimates Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consultancy.

Micro-Schools ‘Relatively Undefined’

There is no one definition of a micro-school, says Juliet Squire, a partner at Bellwether.

“We spoke with numerous leaders in the sector about the shared characteristics of micro-schools and found very little consensus, except that micro-schools are intentionally small schools,” said Squire. “There are other characteristics, such as multi-grade classrooms, student-directed learning, or the use of technology, that came up often in these conversations but were not universal.”

There is very little data on micro-schools, making it hard to find statistics about growth and performance, says Squire.

 “This type of school is new and relatively undefined, so there's a lack of information, generally, about their growth over time,” Squire said.

Promising ‘Potential for Diversity’

Commonly, micro-schools are small and instruction is tailored to the student, says Don Soifer, president of Nevada Action for School Options.

“Micro-schools are kind of like personalized learning, there is not one definitive definition that is prevalent,” said Don Soifer, president of Nevada Action for School Options.

“Under 25 students and no administrators are characteristics that often come up,” Soifer said. “Beyond that, the potential for diversity in teaching and learning to meet the specific needs of individual learners is what makes it all so promising.”

Micro-schools range from outdoor, play-based curriculum to high-tech campuses. Tuition per year can range from less than $5,000 per year to more than $20,000.

Acton Academy Network Model

A decade ago, Jeff and Laura Sandefer founded Acton Academy in Austin, Texas. The model of student-led learning they pioneered has become an extensive network now encompasses 165 schools, including international campuses, says Jeff Sandefer.

“Most of our parent-entrepreneur founders choose Acton not because it’s a micro-school but because of our belief that every child is a genius, who deserves to find a calling that will change the world,” said Sandefer. “Acton features learner-driven communities—more like Google than a traditional school, where young people in multi-age classes help each other learn.”

The focus at Acton is on skill-building, not meeting academic standards, Sandefer says, though students at Acton accomplish that as well.

“Our students move at multiple grade levels a year, but our parents couldn’t care less,” Sandefer said. “What really matters is that they are learning skills to be used in apprenticeships and the real world. Not merely memorization and regurgitation.”

“The most important aspect isn’t size, but the ownership we give young people,” Sandefer said. “We chose to build Acton because we couldn’t imagine our two boys chained to a desk all day ... At Acton, they are free to discover their passion and learn to do the hard work it takes to change the world. Acton turns learning upside down, which isn’t true for all micro-schools.”

Highlands ‘Niche’ Model

Highlands Micro-school opened in Denver, Colorado in 2016. The school is intentionally located in a modified house in a residential area, says founder Anne Wintemute.

“I saw the need for a truly alternative method of education that solved many of the limitations of large-scale schooling,” Wintemute said. “I picked the location because it was in my neighborhood where I wanted to stay and serve families. People who choose Micro feel they are selecting a school that has the flexibility to adapt to their needs and interests of their child, versus the other way around. We fill a niche for families who like the small feel, the hands-on and the family-like relationships between staff and learners.”

Highlands assesses students using frequent teacher evaluations, quarterly narrative assessments, and student portfolios, rather than standardized testing. “Learners capture their work product in portfolios and the growth is pretty apparent,” Wintemute said.

The school has two full-time teachers and two support teachers. Wintemute says her model replicable, but she is not looking to create a network.

“We have 26 learners and do not plan to scale our school up, but instead to stay small.  We are very happy this way. I think creating a chain, so to speak, might diminish what is special about us.  Each micro-school really needs to be so flexible that it can fully capitalize on the community, teachers included, that are a part of it...[reflecting] the special skills of its teachers.”

Lower Cost Hybrid Model

There are lower cost micro-schools that seek to serve middle-class and minority communities, says Squire.

“When we started the research, we thought micro-schools might be just boutique schools that were catering to the more affluent families,” Squire said. “In fact, we found many micro-schools that have a goal of serving more disadvantaged and diverse student populations.”

For example, Parish Academy provides management services to Catholic parishes and dioceses that open cost-effective micro-schools on church grounds. A hybrid model for elementary or secondary education can cost as little as $1,500, or for a full-time school with as few as 40 students, $2,950-$3,850.

Ashley Bateman (bateman.ae@googlemail.com) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.