School Choice & Charters Explainer

What Is a Micro School? And Where Can You Find One?

By Arianna Prothero — January 28, 2016 3 min read
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Micro schools—private schools with sometimes as few as a half dozen students—are popping up in places from Silicon Valley to Washington, D.C.

And along the way, they’ve been generating excitement inside school choice circles and tech and business publications like Wired and Fast Company.

Some experts predict micro schools have the potential to not only revive the one-room school house idea of yore, but also shake up the private school sector by offering parents a highly personalized education for their children at lower cost than traditional private schools.

But what, exactly, is a micro school?

After trying to answer that question for a recent article I wrote for Education Week, I can tell you there is no hard and fast definition for this relatively new phenomenon. But, at least among the people I spoke with, there seems to be a consensus forming around a few core traits:

  • Micro schools have no more than 150 students, but are often smaller—from around 10 to a few dozen students;
  • 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
  • Education is highly personalized.

But if you’re looking for a quick and conversational way to explain what micro schools are, I’ve been going with “a mix between a lab school and a home school co-op with an emphasis on blended learning.” There’s also nothing written that micro schools have to be private school, they just mostly seem to be.

Where do I find a micro school?

If you live in the Bay Area and want to check out a micro school, you’re in luck—there’s a concentration of the schools there. For the rest of the rest of the country, micro schools appear to be few and far between, however, they are spreading. Below is a list of the micro schools I put together while working on my story. Similar to charters, some are networks of schools, like Acton and AltSchool, while others are standalones. This is by no means a definitive list, so if there are any I’ve missed, please add them in the comments section.

  • Acton Academy: The flagship school is in Austin, Texas, but there are more than 10 campuses across the country. Several more are scheduled to open soon, including one in Budapest, Hungary.
  • AltSchool: Five of its six schools are in the Bay Area, but the network recently opened a campus in New York City and has another planned for Chicago.
  • Brightworks: A San Francisco-based micro school.
  • Full Circle School: Founded in 1973 in rural Massachusetts, the school currently has 23 students in grades K-6.
  • Highlands Micro School: This school is opening in Denver in August 2016.
  • Khan Lab School: Although lab school is in the name, several people I’ve spoken to categorized this Bay Area school launched by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, as a micro school.
  • NOLA Micro Schools: A New Orleans-based micro school.
  • Parish Academy: This is an Atlanta-based organization that helps Catholic parishes and parents launch Catholic micro schools.

Required reading

Not much has been written about micro schools yet, but if you want to learn more, here are a few articles to get you started.

For a detailed dive into how micro schools might affect the larger K-12 education sector, check out my Education Week story here.

Tom Vander Ark, former education director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and current CEO of Getting Smart, has also written about micro schools on his Education Week blog, Tom Vander Ark On Innovation. Michael Horn, an expert on disruptive innovation in education and a board member for the National Association of Independent Schools, has written about micro schools for EducationNext, as has Matthew Candler, founder of the education incubator 4.0 Schools, on Medium.

Finally, you can explore how one micro-school network, AltSchool, is pushing the boundaries of technology in the classroom in this story by my colleague, Benjamin Herold.

Related stories:

Photos: Students reading and playing outdoors at Acton Academy in Austin, Texas— Julia Robinson/Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.