Many families reconsidered their relationships with K-12 education amid the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, microschools came to the fore.
Instead of building large schools accommodating hundreds or thousands of students, microschool leaders plant schools in storefronts, libraries, and empty dance studios. These small schools can range in size, serving anywhere from 5 to 100 or more students in multiple grade levels.
Don Soifer is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer and Ashley Soifer is the Chief Innovation Officer and co-founder of the National Microschooling Center. Their organization provides information about microschools to parents, policymakers, and school leaders, and supports founders to launch their own. In this interview, we ask the Soifers why families are drawn to this alternative education model, what challenges microschool leaders face, how they are funded, and much more.
Jude: What is a microschool and how is it different from other education models?
Ashley: A microschool school is a small, intimate, flexible learning environment. There’s no cap on a microschool and school sizes can range anywhere from eight kids sitting around the living room to over 100 in an office building. But that group of 100 is likely broken up into smaller groups for learning.
Jude: How are microschools different than a traditional classroom?
Ashley: As a microschooling parent myself with three children in a microschool, it’s so exciting to have that connection with the educators that are with my children and to really tailor their individual education for each kiddo. If a child is working on a particular math program and the educator decides it’s just not working as well as it could be, they can adapt mid-year and shift to a different program. Some microschools follow state academic content standards while others may focus on social-emotional learning, use a science-based curriculum or utilize project-based learning.
Christian: What are the pitfalls of trying to set a standard definition for microschools?
Don: Since microschooling is so flexible, we’re reluctant to adopt definitions that might be too restrictive down the road. Once you define something, you put a bullseye on its back and that makes it very easy for regulators to find problems with it. At the end of the day, some amount of definition sounds helpful for parents, but let’s make sure that we don’t do it in a way that hamstrings the movement’s effectiveness or its potential to grow.
Jude: Why do families use microschools?
Don: Millions of families across the country have reevaluated their relationships with the institutions that they had historically relied upon to meet their educational needs. This looks very different in different places. In rural communities, we’re seeing a lot of interest in microschooling taking advantage of this golden age of digital content. Others, like Montessori microschools don’t rely on technology.
At the same time, the hybrid aspects of microschooling haven’t really existed before. Families realized that they don’t need to have one exclusive provider for all of their educational needs. For example, some kids are in a microschool three days a week while the rest of the time is spent with a combination of tutors or classes. In terms of microschooling’s market share and the potential for students’ transformation – the sky’s the limit.
Jude: The public-private microschool you started in 2020 gained almost instant popularity. Why do you think microschools gained so much attention during the pandemic?
Don: When the pandemic began, it became obvious that the fifth largest school district in the country and all of the other educational options were not adequate during the pandemic for North Las Vegas residents. Ashley and I worked up two briefing books, dropped them on the city manager’s desk the next morning and ran microschools for the city of North Las Vegas in their rec centers and library. The city made it free for all of their residents so long as microschools were in person every day with safe procedures in place aligned wih government mandates. Participating residents would withdraw from the school district and follow homeschooling rules.
Three-quarters of our microschool kids were more than two grade levels behind when they arrived. But the microschool we ran for the city of North Las Vegas changed all that. Academic results and parental satisfaction were through the roof because we trusted them as partners in their children’s learning trajectories.
As we got more positive press for what we were doing, we realized we had 25 microschooling leaders coming to our office regularly who were building this exciting, vibrant, dynamic sector that had never existed before. This led us to launch the National Microschooling Center.
Jude: What advice would you give someone who wants to start a microschool?
Ashley: The first thing is to talk to people in your community, gather interested families, and hear about their children. At the National Microschool Center, we take calls from folks that are interested in starting a microschool and provide support and resources. Don’t be afraid to jump in and microschool!
Don: Microschoolingcenter.org has a lot of resources from free training and learning tools about how to microschool. Many of our calls and emails are parents looking to join a microschool, but we often shift them into building mode. Researchers tell us that we’re at about a 2% market share nationally, which is about where Catholic schools are in this country. But I believe microschooling could get to a 10% market share.
Jude: What sort of financial or policy barriers are there for families interested in microschooling?
Don: Policymakers should avoid making deals that could hamstring the effectiveness of microschools. For instance, overbearing accountability provisions can make it difficult for microschools to operate. Some microschools care more about the social and emotional growth of their learners than they do about their academic growth. Some never want to subject their learners to a norm-referenced assessment, let alone a criterion-referenced assessment. Others reject their state’s academic content standards as not being entirely pertinent to the future of their own learners.
Ashley: One of the biggest barriers that microschool leaders experience is zoning because even though microschooling has been around for quite some time, local regulators don’t always know where to put microschools. They start asking questions like: Do we need to do a traffic study? Are you a school? Do we need to figure out if pickup and drop off is going to cause backups on this major road? What does your parking lot look like? When those really aren’t things that usually matter because microschools are so small. So often the barriers we encounter come from local regulations, such as business licensing.
Jude: How are microschools funded exactly?
Ashely: It varies from state to state. In the city of North Las Vegas, the kiddos withdrew from the public school system and all the parents filed out their notice of intent. So they became homeschoolers but were coming to the microschool five days a week and learning The program was funded by city appropriation, completely outside of traditional education funding streams.
In other states, some microschools are private schools or are inside traditional public schools. And there are some really innovative things happening in Arizona and Idaho with charter schools. Bottomline, it depends on your state’s frameworks and what tools let you serve the needs of your community best.
Don: When we did a microschool for the City of North Las Vegas, we did it in rec centers and libraries that the city owns already. While Nevada is not historically a school choice-friendly state, Nevada’s TOTS (Transforming Opportunities for Toddlers and Students) Grants gives $5000 grants to families with special needs kids that can be used broadly for education purposes. Those funds supported microschools. Another example from Nevada is a microschool that operates out of a library in a rural area. The free library building covers a major facility cost, while other library-funded services can be used for microschooling purposes. States with social impact bond programs or pay-for-performance programs that could be accessed for microschooling are another possibility.
Jude: What are the major costs associated with operating a microschool?
Ashley: Facilities are one of the major costs. If it’s a partnership microschool and there’s an employer providing the facility or house of worship providing the facility, that cuts down a ton on cost. Independent microschool leaders should connect with underutilized buildings. For instance, dance studios that are only open in the evenings could be happy to rent their space out at a much cheaper cost during the day.
Being creative with facilities is crucial because that cuts down some of those big-ticket items. Staffing is another big ticket item. Sometimes we purchase bulk licenses for different learning tools that will also provide free training so that microschool leaders can use them. That way, we can help them keep their bottom line low.
Jude: To what extent can microschools be scaled by operators?
Ashley: Provider networks like Prenda play a crucial role in the microschool movement making resources for microschool leaders. The independent microschool leaders really don’t want to scale. They want to create a small intimate learning environment that families love, and they often aren’t looking to add multiple campuses or to grow their existing campus. We see the answer to scale as growing more microschool leaders. By creating more leaders you can have more microschool options popping up all over the country.
Jude: Are there any states where the microschool movement has grown significantly in the last few years?
Don: In Southern Nevada, we have about 24 microschools. Other emerging hotspots include the Atlanta area, Southern Florida, Wichita, to some extent parts of New Jersey. It’s just a matter of time until Indiana, West Virginia, and Arizona with their school-choice vehicles join the microschooling community with a big-time presence.
Jude: How is microschooling different from homeschooling?
Ashley: Oftentimes, it depends on your state. Some are taught by parents or other family members who say, “Hey, we need a better solution for our kiddos.” Others come from a variety of career fields. In the microschool venture with the city of North Las Vegas, our star middle school math teacher ran pyrotechnics at one of the shows on the Strip here in Las Vegas. What middle school kid doesn’t want to hear how he uses math every day to blow things up?
Others are veteran teachers. One of our best microschool leaders in Nevada taught in an independent school and got tired of shutting her door to teach the way that she wanted. So she opened a microschool so that she can now teach the way that’s best for kids.
Jude: What advice do you have for policymakers interested in supporting microschools in their cities and states?
Don: They should call us! What’s exciting to me is that this is truly a permissionless education and systems don’t always know what to make of microschools. We can help people navigate the existing frameworks and especially those in their state, municipal, or locality. It’s time to upgrade and update the frameworks in which microschools operate.
Jude: What final thoughts do you have for readers?
Don: This is about empowering families to build and not join, and to be active partners in learning in ways that fundamentally change the relationship people have historically had with education. Microschooling represents a new frontier with some great forward-thinking people, it has diversified in ways that we maybe haven’t seen in school choice experiments during the past 15 years. We have as many microschooling leaders who are as hard left as hard right, and it brings together a community that in some way raises the ceiling on what happens when school choice becomes a possibility and families project into it their own values and what they want for their own kids.