Education Opinion

How School Districts, Cities, and CBOs Use Microschools to Innovate

By Tom Vander Ark — August 19, 2018 6 min read

By Tom Vander Ark and Hassan Hassan.

Microschools have been popping up around the country for the last decade. New learning models and tools and strategies have made easier to open small schools of 15 to 150. As illustrated by CottageClass in Brooklyn, microschools may be full or part-time learning experiences for P-12 students.

Following is a guide to microschools as a source of innovation for school districts, community-based organizations, companies, and civic organizations.

Why should we open microschools?

Given their small size, microschools can be opened quickly. They can be used to illustrate a district’s interest in high engagement personalized learning.

Microschools quickly create new community connected learning options (themes, careers, and experiences) for students. They can be used to quickly address underserved student populations (preschool, dropout recovery, and career education).

Microschools can be used to leverage teacher leadership. In Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin, microschools were a key part of district transformation. Four new schools allowed teachers that were ready to move quickly and create valuable learning options and pictures of the future.

How can microschools improve learning?

Microschools make learning personal. With unique themes, links to community and porous walls they can ignite learning for students and innovation for districts:

  • Personalization: Psychologist Robin Dunbar’s research suggests that most humans can manage about 150 friendships. When a school gets beyond that number, it becomes difficult for adults to keep track of the needs of individual students. Microschools embrace this constraint and stay small.
  • Porous walls: Microschools like NOLA Micro Schools can be housed in creative spaces that are embedded in the community - museums, maker spaces, etc. This affords students an opportunity to connect with a wider range of experts in all fields. Students can more easily take on real-world projects and build relationships that can turn into internships.
  • Innovation: The smallness of microschools make them more receptive to change. There is a shorter loop from idea to feedback to iteration. Teachers and students can try more things more often with lower stakes.

How can microschools improve teaching?

  • Relationships: Microschools are small and typically rely on multi-age groupings--both promote powerful sustained teacher-student relationships.
  • More agency: By design, microschools often require a thinner layer of administration. Teachers have more room to lead inside and outside their classroom. Wildflower schools “are 1-2 room schools with the faculty both teaching and administering the school... By preserving a small scale, teacher-leaders are able to make day-to-day decisions that respond to the needs of the children and school-wide decisions that express their own vision in the context of the needs of children, families and themselves.”
  • Richer data: Creativity loves constraints - and the most innovate microschools teachers leverage a mix of learning sources beyond themselves - other students, parents, mentors, tutors, and of course software. This provides teachers with richer data on student progress that they can realistically process given the number of students they work with.

How could microscchools leverage a sense of place?

Microschools have the agility to connect with community and leverage the “power of place.” Through authentic community-connected experiences, students learn to collaborate, think critically and solve complex challenges. Learners become invested in their communities and ready for further education and entrepreneurship.

Place-based learning takes advantage of geography to make learning authentic, meaningful and engaging for learners. Place-based microschools like those sponsored by Teton Science provide a immersive learning experience that places students in local heritage, cultures, and landscapes (for more, check out #PlaceBasedEd).

Where do we put microschool?

New small schools can be placed in extra rooms in existing facilities. In Kettle Moraine, the four new schools are in school buildings. The three high school academies started small in double classrooms but now serve more than a third of the student population.

When Big Picture Learning was getting started the Rhode Island commissioners opened one on the first floor of the education department’s office (see feature).

Microschools can also take advantage of communities spaces including libraries, museums, zoos or corporate partners.

How do we start them?

Our friends at 4.0 Schools said, “The best way to do that is to run disciplined tests: test your school as an after-school program first; mockup your edtech tool on paper; pilot your program as part of an existing classroom.

Themed microschools are a pretty cool idea so you may be able to find support from donors or sponsors. Once you’ve started a school, they develop a constituency making them a pretty sticky investment.

Houston A+ Challenge piloted Unlimited Potential (UP) as a tuition free private school before launching a multi-site charter school network (see feature). One Stone in Boise opened as a tuition free private school with support from the Albertson Foundation.

Do microschools have to follow district rules?

Schools can be granted policy and contract waivers for unique curriculum, staffing, schedule and calendar plans. They should be able to but not required to use districts tools and resources.

For more flexibility from state regulations, microschools can apply for charter status (as they did in Kettle Moraine). For even more flexibility, private schools are an option. They could be low cost (like Talent Unbound) or no cost (like One Stone).

Are microschools cost effective?

Microschools can be cost effective but they can’t support the normal fixed cost of a full school staffing model. Schools of less than 100 students can be operated by teachers without full-time administrators. There is a national network of teacher powered schools. These schools have a much lower percentage of administration than a typical school.

Teacher-powered microschools benefit from learning platforms and shared services in networks.

What about joining a network?

Microschools should have the flexibility to join networks with well-formed instructional models and shared tools (e.g., New Tech Network, Place Network, Big Picture Learning and Building 21).

A new book on school networks, Better Together, outlines five benefits of network participation:

  • The ability to take risks, design and innovate new ideas with support and experience of others;
  • Curated curriculum materials and technology tools;
  • Common design principles that are core to the network model (helps with reflection, implementation and improvement);
  • Professional learning and networking opportunities; and
  • More data to make better-informed decisions -- the ability to learn from others within network, either with similar successes, and challenges.

How do we learn more about microschools?

The best training program for microschool founders is the 4.0 Schools Fellowship. With help from NewSchools Venture Fund, 4.0 Schools produced a Guidebook for school pilots. Check out the amazing list of more than 40 schools launched by 4.0 grads.

For more, see:

Hassan Hassan is the COO at 4.0 Schools (@4pt0schools). Find Hassan on Twitter at @hassantwice.

The opinions expressed in Vander Ark on Innovation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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