Education Opinion

The Micro-School Opportunity

By Tom Vander Ark — May 05, 2015 7 min read
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Small innovative schools opened in months rather than years of planning could prove to be an important K-12 innovation strategy.

For decades, quality school developers have used the 100 students per grade rule of thumb resulting in schools of 400-600 students. For a number of
reasons, new schools have become more difficult and expensive to open. But new learning tools and strategies have created the opportunity to quickly open
“micro-schools” as a school-within-a-school or as low cost private schools.

They, “Vary not only by size and cost but also in their education philosophies and operating models,” said Michael Horn but nearly all share radical personalization.

Backstory. New school development and talent development have proven to be the most important K-12 impact investments of the last 20 years. About 10,000
new schools have been developed, two thirds being charter, many in networks of like minded schools. They have served as R&D labs, added quality options
(see CREDO study), and replaced
schools stuck in cycles of chronic failure. They have often been served by educators prepared in nontraditional ways.

About a quarter of the new schools developed over the last 20 years are part of managed charter networks. A few, like Summit Public Schools, are innovative but most focus on execution of a
traditional model over innovation. This is, in part, a result of the shift in authorizing from innovation to quality. It now takes more time and money to
get a charter school approved, and real innovation is virtually outlawed by many state policy frameworks and application processes.

Another quarter of new schools are district schools affiliated with a school developer like NAF, Big Picture, New Tech Network, and Expeditionary Learning. Only New Tech Network is a platform-centric new school developer. Soon this will be the norm,
but it’s been slow to catch on because platforms haven’t been good, flexible, and interoperable ( read more).

The first small competency-based school I visited was in Chugach, Alaska in 1999. Each student owned their own learning progression and could describe what
they were learning and how they would progress to the next level by demonstration. The system was largely manual for teachers and students but it was
impressive (see Rich DeLorenzo’s book Delivering on the Promise and this

CompetencyWorks series


The well-intentioned policy frame of standards, assessment, and accountability that have monopolized US education for two decades are, to a some extent, at
odds with student-centered learning. Andy Calkins, Next Generation Learning Challenges, said this suggests that
outside in, bottom up efforts like micro-schools could be productive.

Flex leaders. New tools and school models have created a new opportunity set. Schools deploying a flex model use an online curriculum to promote more
autonomous learning and competency-based progression. Rather than learning as a cohort, individual students co-construct an individual learning progression
with an onsite teacher/advisor.

The Christensen Institute describes a flex model as a course or
subject in which online learning is the backbone of student learning, even if it directs students to offline activities at times. Students move on an
individually customized, fluid schedule among learning modalities. The teacher of record is on-site, and students learn mostly on the brick-and-mortar
campus, except for any homework assignments. The teacher of record or other adults provide face-to-face support on a flexible and adaptive as-needed basis
through activities such as small-group instruction, group projects, and individual tutoring.

With the development of learning platforms it has become easier to
create flex models that combine the benefits of online learning and onsite support. One example is blended credit recovery solutions, which are typically
deployed as a part or full time flex academy.

Schools that were pioneers with flex blends include Carpe Diem (AZ
& OH), Rocky Mount NC, and Village Green Virtual, Providence (all use Edgenuity).

applied the flex model to dropout prevention ( see feature). In less than two months,
they can open a 100 student academy, employing district teachers, that can boost the graduation rate.

Career Path High
is a flex academy located at a technical college north of Salt Lake City. Students take online high school classes in the morning and job training courses
in the afternoon.

Connections Education
developed the Nexus Academy network of seven upper Midwest flex
high schools.

Pat Deklotz, Kettle Moraine School District (in metro Milwaukee) has used (what Ted Kolderie would call a) split screen
innovation approach opening small thematic flex academies as in-district
charter schools to enable competency-based progression. Their large comprehensive high school has three themed flex academies that started with two
teachers and an idea. They now serve almost 40% of the students and serve as an in school field trip opportunity for teachers.

Micro-school pioneers. There are hundreds of thousands of blended classrooms, but the leap to a whole school model is daunting. Something in between that
would allow a team of teachers to quickly adopt an innovative blended model would create new student options, provide districts with valuable pilot
projects and, like the Kettle Moraine split screen strategy, give more teachers the opportunity to experience a personalized competency-based environment.

is an innovative Houston middle school flex program with six museum partnerships. Launched three years ago by Houston A+ with 40 students and two teachers, a writing specialist and a STEM teacher, the micro-school was opened
as a tuition free private school to maximize the innovation opportunity. Access to the innovative program will be expanded as a charter network.

Highly personalized private micro-schools like Acton Academy and AltSchool puts students center. Acton is so impact-oriented it claims, “Each person who enters our
doors will find a calling that will change the world.” That may sound audacious but it’s a different impulse. “We believe in the power of love,” said
co-founder and head of school Laura Sandefer, “Students should be known and cared for.” And when they are in an environment that promotes curiosity and
character, Laura believes, “Each student can find a ‘calling,’ using his or her most precious gifts, in a way that brings great joy, to solve a deep
burning need in the world.”

Acton is being replicated by a number of edupreneurs including networks like Talent Unbound. Two dozen Acton
Academies will be open worldwide by fall. (Learn more about replication here.)

AltSchool just announced a whopping

$100 million round of funding

, pushing the total of venture funding to the startup to $133 million (Learn Capital, where I’m a partner, is an investor). Investors are betting that
micro-schools will pop up quickly in urban environments and that other schools will adopt their learning platform.

Micro-school opportunity. A micro-school could be as simple as a middle school principal supporting the initiative of two teachers who want to create a
blended, interdisciplinary, and project-based academy suing a free platform like Edmodo and focusing on open content Big History Project.

A school district or network could use a micro-school strategy as part of collaborative and distributed innovation strategy. Several
academies of 50 students could test alternative approaches, tools, and themes.

An online learning provider or school developer, with a little support from an impact investor, could develop a modular approach to grades 6-8 or 9-12 that
could be adopted by two teachers with 40-50 students. The offering could include an engaging sequence of student-driven learning experiences supported by a
platform, assessments, leadership development, and teacher supports. The platform-based approach could be rapidly and inexpensively deployed as new schools
or school-within-a-school models.

Daphne Koller, president of Coursera is enthusiastic about the international potential for learning hubs, small student led study groups using open content. Add an advisor and
certification system and one can imagine a micro-school network with equal secondary and postsecondary opportunity.

Public school districts and networks should consider the benefits of micro-schools including:

  • Rewarding teacher leadership with an opportunity to quickly open innovative blended models;

  • Providing more engaging and personalized student options sooner than later;

  • De-risking and accelerating high school transformation in big comprehensive schools;

  • Providing local site visit opportunities for teachers and community members; and

  • Creating the opportunity for low cost private and religious schools linked to community resources.

Micro-schools have the potential to scale rapidly as school-within-a- school models and new schools. They could, in most cities, accelerate the transition
to next generation learning.

For more see:

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.