Twenty-twenty is not just the year of coronavirus, but also the year the term “microschools” became all the rage. Little known to most parents before this spring, microschools existed before the current pandemic, and the attentive, deeply personal style of education they can offer seems likely to thrive beyond the crisis.
(In addition, because they’re so small, classes will likely meet in person for schooling, even during this pandemic.)
Microschool leaders pride themselves on a smaller, more focused learning environment, and especially on the individualized attention students receive as teachers are able to forge a stronger relationship with every kid – often just five or six – in the class.
However, the microschool concept has become controversial since the pandemic started because of fears that the newest incarnation – small, home-based, private microschool groups inspired by social-distancing needs – will heighten racial and socioeconomic inequities in education.
Critics say that home-based neighborhood microschool models may take kids out of the public school system, depriving school districts of needed funding and educating only children from families with greater financial means in mostly white neighborhoods, while kids without access will fall farther behind academically. While each school leader I spoke to was motivated about working towards racial equity and inclusion, and offers scholarships for families who don’t have the money to pay, the question of racial and economic equity is an ongoing issue and ethical quandary for parents who want to make sure all kids have adequate access to schooling and child care during this crisis.
Here’s a sampling of microschool organizations in our area, the first two of which were started before coronavirus was a headline word around the world.
Seattle School for Boys, Capitol Hill
In 2019, Jerome Hunter founded the Seattle School for Boys, a Capitol Hill middle school with a strong focus on social and emotional learning for children who identify as male.
The interim head of school, Patti Hearn, explains that Hunter has “thought a lot about adolescent development and brain development, and did quite a bit of research into thinking about how schools serve and don’t serve adolescent boys, and adolescent boys of color in particular.”
“We’re really thinking about adolescence and middle school as its own thing to really attend to and be excited about and be joyful about,” says Hearn, citing identity development and values formation as key processes for middle-schoolers.
The small school, which has enrolled just under 40 kids in three grades for this fall, was able to transition quickly to all-online learning back in March, and plans to open up outdoors a couple of days a week this fall.
As part of its model to ensure equity, Seattle School for Boys offers four tiered levels in which families pay what they can.
The curriculum emphasizes outdoor time and movement, which are important for boys this age, and the kids learn ethnic studies and martial arts, as well as frequently participating in projects in the community. Last year, the students helped build a tiny house and donated it to a group assisting the homeless.
“I think the school has an opportunity and a responsibility to help grow really responsible boys who make space for everyone – and who are good listeners and who believe in equality and equity,” says Hearn.
“Raising people who believe that everybody should have a place at the table.”
International Friends School, Bellevue
Sue Brooks is a passionate advocate for multilingual education. After years living in Asia and running a school in Shanghai, she co-founded a small language-immersion school here in the United States in 2018.
“We’ve been lucky that this program in the microschool model was resonating with parents because they want their children to be world citizens,” says Brooks. “They want them to be able to communicate across diverse audiences in a critical world language.”
International Friends School strives to balance heritage and non-heritage learners of Mandarin as it puts together a class. The kids learn math and science in English, and are taught Spanish twice a week as well.
In Brooks’ view, the U.S. needs to recognize the growing importance of the ability to do international work, and therefore speak various languages – and to give kids rigorous academic training. This school offers its nonreligious education in the Quaker tradition, like the education presidential daughters Sasha and Malia Obama and Chelsea Clinton received at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. The Quaker Friends school model emphasizes community building and service to others, without giving religious instruction.
One of the co-founder’s goals is to pay attention to international benchmarks for academics. The current model offers all-day education to children in preschool, pre-K and kindergarten, and that will be expanded gradually each year up until eighth grade. No cluster of kids in a class is larger than six, and the school plans to be open on site this fall, largely outdoors.
The Facebook group Parents, guardians, and teachers of Seattle area nano schools
When he was straining to find a social outlet for his 5-year-old son last spring, Ivan Kerbel of Mount Baker stumbled into being one of the first people to propose at-home coronavirus microschools.
He formed a Facebook group, proposing parents use it to find families near them to form what he now calls nanoschools – groups of four or five kids getting together safely at a family’s house, either with a paid instructor or parent volunteer. The idea really took off, leading to him being interviewed by National Public Radio and the New York Times as one of the apparent figureheads of a new COVID-influenced movement.
After realizing what a huge amount of interest the COVID nanoschool idea was attracting, and quickly amassing more than 6,000 followers, Kerbel kept the Facebook group active for the Seattle area. Now he’s building an online tool for interested parents from the rest of the country so that they can find local families with the same interests – and in some cases, teachers or child care professionals. Any school group with four kids is being encouraged to extend a scholarship to a fifth child with financial need.
To him, the movement is less about worrying about academic achievement, and more about keeping elementary school kids engaged with other kids with activities like cooking, gardening and music, also a big source of learning.
“This very big task of matching everyone, and having it organized, has been the bulk of the project to date, and probably will be the bulk of the project into the fall,” says Kerbel.
As he sums up the current state of education: “It’s a pandemic. And we need all hands on deck.”