What if your child could get off the screen and attend school in person this fall? What if they could meet up in a group that’s big enough for learning and socialization, but small enough to prevent the wider spread of COVID-19? That’s the promise of the microschool.
My ninth-grade son, Julian, has attended microschools for the last six years. He’s currently a student at LEADPrep, an independent, nonprofit microschool with campuses in North Seattle and Kirkland. Before COVID-19, Julian’s school campus in Seattle had 12 students, sharing two large classrooms at the Phinney Neighborhood Association building.
This fall, his microschool is planning to offer parents a choice of in-person or live-streamed classes. And, yes, I plan on sending my son to in-person classes. I believe our school is small enough to provide our students with Phase 2 safety precautions like distancing, masks, hand-washing checks, fresh air and plenty of outside time.
It’s important to note that microschools are not always a substitute for public schools. Not all microschools are independent private schools, and not all microschools have to be built up from scratch. We can create and support microschools through organizations we already have in place, including within public school structures.
Many public high schools in the United States already host small learning communities for creative learners or students with extra challenges. Public schools partner with community colleges to make “middle college” programs. They could also partner with after-school care organizations like the YMCA or Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which are still serving many families, even during lockdown. Some cities, like San Francisco, are partnering with public libraries and community centers to help low-income students form microschool pods. Creating targeted public microschools for underserved students could be a way to compensate for unequal access to online technology.
My family’s experience of the pandemic showed me that microschool pods are helpful even when school is 100% online learning. What if we assigned every public school student a Zoom “homeroom” of 10 other students, with a teacher, staff member, or paraeducator monitoring and checking in? That way, if a student is struggling with issues at school or at home, they would have a trusted adult to speak with, and we could make sure no student is in crisis or feels alone. These relationships matter.
Parents are also feeling very alone and unsupported right now. Even if you’re not raising kids yourself, you may be part of an organization that can help parents and students. Churches, mosques and temples can sponsor and host a microschool, or a microschool can be sponsored and hosted by volunteer groups like the Elks or Rotary International. Corporations and businesses could create a fund to sponsor their employees’ kids’ microschool. Maybe there isn’t one big solution, but a hundred small solutions.
I’m incredibly grateful to the people who created the microschool solutions for my son. I love our communities at both of the microschools he has attended. I’m deeply thankful to all the people who donate and volunteer there, and I’m happy to pay it forward as best as I can.
Sometimes, if a problem is too big to solve all at once, we have to be flexible and break it down into small parts. We do what we can, with what we have, where we are. Like planting wartime victory gardens in backyards and alleys, microschools can be planted anywhere that people have time or resources to share.
My family’s experience at microschools during COVID-19
Our family has helped “plant” two microschool pods, one for older grade-schoolers and one for junior high and high schoolers. Because so many parents are getting interested in this model, I want to share some of the things I’ve learned about microschooling over the past six years.
Microschools are flexible. When the pandemic lockdown began, most schools struggled to make the transition to online learning. At his microschool, LEADPrep, Julian did not miss a single day of classes. Because we have a small team of teachers, the staff was able to work together quickly and efficiently to move the school online. The organization is small enough for everyone to communicate easily, and all the teachers use the same tools and set the same expectations. And best of all, since they’re only looking after a small group of students, the teachers are able to make sure nobody falls through the cracks. They have time to give each student help as they need it. That means I don’t have to spend those long extra hours helping my kid understand and organize his schoolwork, which is a huge relief.
Organizational flexibility also extends to students’ individual learning styles. We all learn differently, and at a microschool, students can advocate for their own needs. If Julian has a question or a concern, he can talk to a teacher and work things out right away. If he wants to personalize a project or has an idea about how to improve the school, the adults listen to him and respect his input. Because the school is flexible, kids learn that they have agency and grow in confidence. At a microschool, creative, independent students have more choices, shy or anxious students find their voices, and kids who are neurodivergent can be celebrated and given meaningful leadership roles.
In a microschool, kids learn through relationships
This pandemic lockdown has made me realize more than ever that Julian needs close relationships with his teachers and peers. The microschool classroom model creates space for those relationships to grow.
When Julian attended his first microschool pod, at Kapka Cooperative School in Fremont, he had the same teacher with him for the third, fourth and fifth grades, and a group of peers that were together all three years. That teacher was a valuable and trusted role model, and the students Julian started that class with are still his good friends. The long-term stability and affection that my child experienced within that class helped form his identity and the way he treats other people.
In a small class of eight, ten or 15 kids, a student has to build a working relationship with every other student in that class. Collaborating and socializing in a mixed-age group, students learn that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, good days and bad days. They look up to older kids and set a good example for younger kids. They learn how to adapt to other people’s working styles, set boundaries and have empathy. These are the real-life, small-group social skills that people need to be successful and happy in adulthood.
At a microschool, Julian is developing deep, meaningful friendships with all kinds of students — kids he might not have had the chance to be friends with in a larger school. If a microschool is diverse, kids will have the opportunity to build friendships across differences of grade level, gender, culture, race, economic background or learning style. His microschool, LEADPrep, makes diversity a priority, but it’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen without deliberate effort. Teachers, parents, and staff must actively invite and welcome the perspective of people from different backgrounds and prioritize their well-being. As adults, we are setting the example of relationships that our children will follow.
Everyone has to chip in for a microschool to succeed
A microschool is powered by the labor and involvement of parents and community members. Some microschools are nonprofits, some are co-ops, and some are part of a public school system, but all of them require serious investment from the community. In order to create an independent learning community, you have to have a group of adults who are willing to contribute their time, their money or both.
Our family learned a lot about building school community at my son’s elementary microschool, which has been operating as a cooperative school for 30 years. It’s a saying there that everyone has to find their “my-size job” to make the community work. While we were part of the co-op, I worked one day a week in the classroom, attended monthly meetings, taught art classes, helped with community-service projects and social events, walked kids to the park, installed the school ceramics kiln in my basement and raised a tank full of baby salmon for release into the wild. It was fun, but it was a lot of work.
It’s important to note that almost all the children at the co-op school have at least one parent who works from home or has a flexible work schedule, so that they can fit in the school work shifts and parent jobs. If you’re planning to attend or create a microschool with a co-op model, you have to expect a big time investment. This can be a challenge for single parents and families with two demanding careers. In order to build microschools, we need employers to offer flexible schedules that allow for parenting, caretaking and community-building activities.
Julian’s current school isn’t a co-op, but it still has a volunteer requirement — and it relies on parents who are able to participate. Parents do administration assistance, board leadership, marketing, enrichment activities, fundraising and outreach. Some parents are able to volunteer more than others, and the community relies on those who can donate their time.
Some parents are willing to donate money generously, above and beyond tuition. This extra money makes a huge difference for our school. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, our microschool would not exist without the funds we receive from family donations, especially with employer donation-matching programs from companies like Boeing and Microsoft. (It’s disappointing to me that Amazon does not have a similar school donation-matching program.)
At our microschool, we are fortunate to have an amazing, passionate, creative staff, so we do our best to provide them with a wage that covers the cost of living in Seattle, along with health insurance. The microschool model will only be sustainable if we are willing to take care of the teachers who take care of our kids.
In addition to striving for a fair wage for our teachers, our microschool has 30% of students on scholarship. The way I see it, economic justice isn’t just a future goal, but also a choice we can make now, by sharing our time and finances. Many parents, including myself, are willing to share our resources in order to create equity within our own small community. Businesses and nonprofit groups can support microschools for students in underserved communities, while honoring that community’s leadership, autonomy and cultural perspective. Equity, like diversity, can be achieved in microschools, but only if we make it a priority.