The one-room schoolhouse, that symbol of rural American education that dates back to the earliest days of the Colonial era, might be on the verge of making a comeback.
In recent years, a smattering of “micro schools” have popped up in places such as California’s Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; and New Orleans, offering parents a drastically different version of K-12 education than traditional public and private schools. These are tiny schools—sometimes with as few as half a dozen students—that put a heavy emphasis on technology and pushing instructional boundaries in a mash-up of lab schools and home school co-ops.
And with a boutique offering at a lower price point than many independent schools, micro schools have the potential to shake up the private school world, say the few experts who have been studying the new trend.
“This is the first innovation in the private system in the U.S. in a long time,” said Michael Horn, a co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank focusing on disruptive innovation. “As a result, I don’t know that we have a great precedent for understanding where it could go or how far-reaching the impact could be if they really drive down costs.”
The definition of a micro school is still being hammered out, but a consensus seems to be coalescing around a few core details: Schools have no more than 150 students in grades K-12; multiple ages learn together in a single classroom; teachers act more as guides than lecturers; there’s a heavy emphasis on digital and project-based learning; and small class sizes, combined with those other factors, make for a highly personalized education.
Arguably the best known micro school network is, thanks to its ambitious approach of infusing technology into every aspect of instruction, as well as recent profiles in media outlets such as Wired and Fast Company. Founded by Google’s former head of personalization, Max Ventilla, the micro-school network has expanded to six campuses in the Bay Area and New York City, with plans for a campus in Chicago.
But among the earliest micro schools in the country is Acton Academy in Austin, Texas. Founded in 2009, the school has spawned a network of more than 10 schools in the United States, Honduras and Guatemala. Another 17 schools, including new sites in Chicago and Budapest, Hungary, are scheduled to open next year.
Acton’s flagship campus in Austin has attracted students from a wide range of educational backgrounds, including families whose children were in public schools, private schools, and those who were home schooled.
Among the parents at Acton Academy is Heather Staker. A former colleague of Horn’s at the Clayton Christensen Institute, Staker first learned about the school while doing research on blended learning. After one phone call with Acton co-founder Jeff Sandefer to discuss how he uses blended learning in his school, Staker was sold on the idea. “I hung up the phone and said, ‘If I don’t move to Austin, Texas for our own children to attend that school, I’m going to start one myself.’ ”
The Stakers were living in Hawaii. But after visiting Acton Academy, they decided to relocate to Texas to enroll their oldest son, who was eight at the time and had been attending public school.
“It has a Montessori element and the students are very self-directed so they’ll do their online learning and other core skills work for a couple of hours, and then when it’s project time, they just knew how to get going with their work,” whether it was building robots or filling out patent applications, Staker said. "[They were] finding joy in learning that was not possible in the typical, industrial-era classroom.”
Small Schools, Big Impact
It’s unclear exactly how many of these schools currently exist in the United States. The National Association of Independent Schools does not track the number of micro schools in the country. Horn, who also sits on the board for NAIS, doesn’t know of any other organization that does, either. Staker’s best guess is that the tally is in the dozens.
But while the idea is still in its infancy, both Horn and Staker say they think micro schools have the potential to really shake up the private school sector. In addition to offering a highly personalized education to students, they’re also a less expensive alternative to many private schools, especially in high cost-of-living cities like New York and Washington, D.C.
“As we look at our comprehensive high schools in America, they’ve been competing over years to offer more courses, more athletics, and it increases their cost structure,” said Staker. “We see the same thing in higher education. But increasingly, there’s a segment of their market demographic that feels overserved.”
With small buildings, few faculty and staff members, and a curriculum built largely around free, online programs, micro schools strip education down to the bare essentials.
It costs just under $10,000 a year to attend Acton’s flagship school in Austin and around $25,000 on average at AltSchool. That may seem like a lot of money—especially when compared to free public school—but tuition at AltSchool is 10 to 15 percent lower than the average private school tuition in San Francisco, said Horn.
And private schools on the low end of the spectrum are often religiously affiliated, such as urban Catholic schools geared mostly toward low-income families. Even in New Orleans, a city with numerous private and public options, micro schools have found a niche.
“When we looked around New Orleans, all the private schools were very expensive or religiously affiliated,” said Kim Gibson, a parent of three children who launched the city’s first micro school.
Tuition at NOLA Micro Schools is between $6,000 and $12,000 per year.
Although the overall quality of public schooling in New Orleans has gotten better in the decade since Hurricane Katrina triggered a massive overhaul of the city’s K-12 system, the pace wasn’t moving fast enough for Gibson, whose oldest daughter is in 6th grade.
Gibson saw other benefits to going the private school route, even in a city where charters account for over 90 percent of all public schools. With fewer regulations than even charters, Gibson could get her school up and running more quickly while having the freedom to build a curriculum unrestrained by standardized tests. Her reasoning echoes Max Ventilla’s, the founder of AltSchool, who has said going the private school route allows the network to expand faster and experiment more around instruction.
Next Stop: Charter Sector?
While some tout micro schools as a model for bringing change to private education, others see them as a means to a different end—a low-risk way to pilot public charter schools before launching full-scale campuses. That’s a new, and much talked about initiative of 4.0 Schools’ mission, a New Orleans-based education incubator nonprofit that helped Gibson start her school. The organization is supporting the development of a handful of tiny pilot charters in New Orleans and California, as well as a Catholic micro school network based in Atlanta.
Although public schools, specifically those within the charter sector, are just starting to experiment with the micro-school model, Horn doesn’t foresee that private micro schools will become a serious threat to regular public schools—it will always be hard to compete with tuition-free schools, he said. But Horn predicts that micro schools may eventually eat up the same share of the private school market as charters have of the public school sector.
“To me, it’s not hard to imagine this being 5 percent to 10 percent of the schooling population,” said Horn. “I think those independent schools are quite worried about them—or they should be if they’re not.”
Coverage of issues related to creating opportunities for all American students and their families to choose a quality school is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as ‘Micro’ Schools Could Pressure Private K-12