How Micro-Schools Work Within the Alternative School Framework

How Micro-Schools Work Within the Alternative School Framework

The education system today looks very similar to the way it did 50 or 100 years ago. That is to say, as we learn more about the human brain, how children develop and how we process information, we’ve sadly done little to ensure we’re meeting the needs of all children in our care. That’s where micro-schools come in.

The child who 50 years ago was “slow” or couldn’t find success in a traditional classroom setting still struggles–even when we’ve identified solutions to these challenges. Even more importantly, we’ve identified that the child isn’t, in fact, “slow,” but rather has a different learning style than his peers.

As a result, we’re leaving kids behind at an alarming rate. And this is exactly why alternative schools and, more specifically micro-schools, are vital to the success of our children and our educational system.

How Micro-Schools Fit into the Alternative School Model

Schools vary in size and structure, from schools of more than 2,000 to some with less than 20 students. There’s also a wide variety of labels we give to schools: public, private, parochial…or no school at all–unschooling.

In 2020, many alternative groupings of students exist within these frameworks. We cannot expect larger and more traditional schools to meet each student’s needs or preferences. As a result, alternative schools have been created to meet specific populations and needs. Within the alternative framework, the micro-school is becoming more attractive and available to families. Let’s look at the what, why, and how of micro-schools.

What is a Micro-School?

The crowd-sourced definition of micro-schooling is the reinvention of the one-room school house, where class size is typically smaller than that in most schools (15 students or less in a classroom) with mixed-age level groupings. Micro-schooling is viewed as a replacement for various school paradigms that are standard worldwide.

Features of a Micro-School

Three key benefits of a micro-school are personal attention for the student, attention to the holistic needs of the student, and nimble adaptation of curriculum based on real-time assessments. This type of education is ideal for students of any age and learning style, but it’s particularly helpful for those who have struggled to be successful elsewhere.

Personal Attention to Students

Teachers in traditional classrooms today serve anywhere from 25 students to 100 and more, depending on the grade level and school type. That’s 25 to 100 different personalities and learning styles to cater to–alongside keeping the kids engaged and ensuring their individual needs are met.

At the same time, teachers are tasked with improving test scores, attending to required re-certification hours, communicating with parents and team members, attending meetings for students with individual education plans and more. To say that teachers are stressed out and overworked is an understatement.

In a micro-school, these same teachers can serve the needs of their small caseload of students to more effectively meet their needs. Think of your favorite elementary school teacher, who had a daily caseload of less than 30. She knew about each student’s home life, interests, friendships, and learning styles. If a student had an academic, social, or emotional challenge, she was on top of it. The child was seen, heard, and valued. This strong student-teacher relationship allowed students to trust and learning happened in a safe and caring environment. Each student thrived..

Holistic Needs of the Student

What would it look like for a child to have his needs met, both at home and in the classroom? For him to be able to advocate for himself in the classroom without fear of repercussions? For him to learn how to monitor his own learning and regulate his own behavior?

Since a micro-school tends to have a smaller class size, teachers can provide more attention to each student. With this opportunity to get to know each student as a learner and a human, relationships form, building trust and enhancing learning.

This leads to the teacher being able to address not just the academic, but the physical, emotional, and social aspects of a student–holistically. Employers are seeking high school graduates who demonstrate 21st century skills–these are not academic skills, rather they are human skills. These employers attest that they can teach the job procedures, but need employees who can collaborate, resolve conflict, create, be flexible, collaborate, think critically, and communicate. A holistic classroom weaves these important skills into regular instruction. This teacher uses real-life situations (often found when students collaborate on project-based learning) to teach these habits of success that are sought by employers and foundational to success in life.

Nimble Adaptation of Curriculum

In larger schools, a teacher typically has classes of 25+ students and a set curriculum aligned to testing expectations. These parameters make getting to know individual students and their skills or learning styles at a personal level very difficult. As a result, all students in a class have the same assignment, deadlines, and post-learning (summative) assessment. Assessment in this model is a grade stamped on a unit, without the teacher or student having a chance to learn from the evaluation or re-teach/re-learn the content.

In micro-schools, teachers work with the students and can vary assignments to match learning styles. They have the ability to flex deadlines based on knowledge of mastery–which different students achieve at different times. This is possible because assessment is organic and occurs at all phases of learning, not simply at the end of a chapter or unit. This assessment that influences instruction is called formative assessment.

Often a subject has a pre-assessment to understand the students’ background knowledge. If there are any gaps, the teacher can fill in the gaps before moving forward. If a student has already learned the material and can show mastery, the student can move along or receive enrichment options. If a student does not show mastery at the end of a unit, there are more opportunities to demonstrate mastery. When the student-teacher ratio and overall class size is low, it’s possible to be more nimble and adjust curriculum and pace while using a formative assessment. Matching student learning levels with multiple paces operating simultaneously in one class keeps students actively engaged with learning happening at a differentiated and successful pace for all learners.

Why a Micro-School?

If I am a parent, I would want my child in a micro-school so that she could be seen as an individual and have a close relationship with her teachers. We all learn better when we feel like we are safe and appreciated. These relationships with teachers provide that security and affirmation. I would also want my whole child to be educated. While the academic subjects are important, I want to know that my child is getting help with friendships, dealing with stress, organizing her thinking, and developing a growth mindset–skills that will serve her well past high school graduation. I would also want my daughter to be assessed in an ongoing matter manner, so that she isn’t required to move on in a subject before she is ready simply because that’s what the top-down, school-mandated curriculum says needs to happen. At the same time, I don’t want her to waste time on content she’s already mastered–which is exactly why we see bored and disengaged students in classrooms today.

If I am a teacher, I am in the profession because I know I have the right skills to really make a difference in children’s lives and society as a whole. However, the quantity of state and federal mandates and demands of reaching a large number of students with a single piece of content keeps me from using my skills fully and making the impact I know is possible. So in a microscope, I would get to be that educator who has the freedom to make professional decisions in the best interests of each student.

From any perspective, a microscope offers the opportunity to forge a strong community. In this age of predominantly screen and online relationships, being a part of a real community is vital. A micro-school provides an opportunity to work on skills such as interpersonal skills such as empathy, boundary setting, and clear communication. With mental health concerns on the rise for our tweens and teens, being in a safe place where the whole student is closely monitored and supported is of the utmost importance.

This smaller setting also allows for much more creativity, collaboration, and strength based learning. Design thinking and project management are often key features in a micro-school. Students have much more opportunity to move beyond demonstrating knowledge with a pencil and paper and instead create in the classroom implementing the arts, and giving presentations that show knowledge versus telling. It’s about real-world experiences and not rote memorization and repetition.

Why Else?

Our students are leaving their K-12 experiences “broken.” Sadly, almost half of our students entering college are dealing with debilitating mental health issues. The rapid changes in our society and the influences of technology have made this a difficult era for parents and students to navigate.

Our current traditional model is not graduating enough students. My fine state of Washington, home of many progressive businesses such as Amazon, Boeing, Google, and Microsoft, has less than an 80% on-time graduation rate. If the student is in special education, this number drops to 58%. While states can play with graduation rate statistics (citing students as moving away instead of dropping out, etc.), alarming numbers of students are not graduating with their peers.

We have a crisis on our hands and the cost is the well-being and productivity of our next generation of adults. We need to create more solutions, using present-day research and resources, so that our youth survive and thrive. Micro-schools are nimble by nature and well-equipped to meet the holistic needs of a generation that has too many teens falling through the cracks.

How to Start a Micro-School

Parents and educators alike are abandoning the hope that the traditional public education system will change and are instead taking matters into their own hands. That is to say, they’re starting their own micro-schools to ensure the needs of their children are met in the best way possible.

So how does a micro-school form? A micro-school can start small and grow, or it can be a school that breaks off from something larger. For example, a small homeschool may choose to become a micro-school and get state approval to operate as a credit awarding school. Or a large high school may create a school-within-a-school (SWAS) model; to focus on a specific population or topic. It might be a gifted SWAS, or a hands-on learning SWAS, or one that works on relationships for students who have become disenfranchised and are in danger of dropping out.

In any setting, it takes a perceived learning need and some strong leaders to build a micro-school and make it successful. Starting any new business requires a great deal of grit; starting a micro-school is the same. Teachers or parents who are interested need to look at their mission and vision and identify who might become members of their tribe, fun sources, facilities, and local and state regulations.

Luckily, the number of micro-schools continues to grow and many are very willing to share what has worked in their setting and to collaborate to support more options becoming available for our wonderful students.

My Path in the Micro-School Journey

I have personally lived this micro-school story. I started out as a parent in pain, then became a school creator, then an author. This led to becoming a strategic partner, and now I’m stepping into a podcast on education evolution. It is my life’s calling to be a part of the change our schools need to support this generation of learners.

Like many of you, my parenting experience became complicated when my daughters hit adolescence. My two daughters both suddenly began floundering in high school. As a school administrator, I navigated the system and we tried a variety of high school models. It was a painful time for my daughters and me. We successfully came out the other side, but not without a lot of frustrating years of struggling in the traditional education system. In 2013, I decided to channel that frustration into a micro-school that would see, hear, and value each student and give them a voice in their learning. LEADPrep began as this needed school for our tweens and teens.

As families reached out to me and shared the pain they were experiencing of children refusing to go to school, being bullied, being afraid of being gender-diverse in a traditional school, or just feeling invisible, I began to look at statistics that tell a story of a generation in crisis. I compare that story of crisis to the amazing success stories and obstacles that our students have overcome in our humble micro-school. While it hasn’t been easy to personalize and meet a variety of student needs, as one parent said, at LEADPrep, lives had been transformed. And that makes it all worth it.

More Micro-Schools

We need so many updates and innovations to serve our youth. Our LEADPrep story inspired me to want more people to be a part of the change. In the summer of 2019, with the help of two parents from our school, I wrote a book explaining why so many students don’t fit into the traditional assembly line of middle and high school. I suggested some form of micro-school as a structure that could be a part of the solution. As a result, we have had more visitors than ever asking to learn more about the micro-school option.

Micro-School Coalition

As the conversation about micro-schools becomes more mainstream, we still have a long way to go. We struggle with funding, resources, staffing and even filling our schools. But while we have limited resources, we have big hearts and desire to collaborate and learn together for the benefit of our students.

We have created a coalition of other schools across the globe and are building it so that micro-schools have a place to share resources and families have a place to look for micro-schools in their area. This is secondary to working directly with our students, so this coalition will evolve as time allows.

Micro-schools Structures

Micro-schools come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a homeschool co-op that has opted to provide full-day education. They can be a school-within-a-school with a specific purpose or program, such as the Cambridge model or an expeditionary focus. It can be a multi-age or immersion program within a larger traditional model.

We chose for our model of micro-school to be flipped. This means that teachers shift from being lecturers, dispensing knowledge, to being guides with the students in the center of the learning. The teacher organizes the base content and creates a preview video lesson that goes home to the students. Then in the classroom, the teacher has a variety of activities prepared so that students can do higher-level thinking and drive their own learning.

Boiling frogs in Secondary Education

Most of us know the recipe for how to boil a frog. We put the frog in a pot of cold water on the stove. We slowly turn up the heat. It is so gradual that the frog does not notice when the water reaches boiling point.

This metaphor applies to our secondary education model. The assembly line where every student of a certain age would be expected to be at a certain grade level in every subject and a certain emotional developmental level, was the pot of cold water in the 1800s. But over 100 years later, as change resulted in the temperature of the water increasing, the poor frog–our educational model–found itself trapped. Boiling to death. Our frog–educational model– needs to evolve to avoid that dire fate.

Education evolution

Have hope! There are many wonderful innovations and great thinkers supporting today’s learners. There are strategies available and people willing to help. My Education Evolution podcast will look at the issues facing our learners and schools and provide many hopeful examples of where education can be heading. Twice a month, we will unpack challenges and resources that address serving today’s learners, using ingenuity and today’s resources.

Micro-schools are ONE alternative

I started this article talking about the micro-school model. It is one way that we can help students be seen, heard, and valued, so that they survive and thrive. The beauty of micro-schools is that they usually foster a strong sense of community and belonging. They also tend to be able to adapt quickly to new opportunities and challenges. Since we have a wide variety of students and learning styles, needs, and goals, we need a myriad of learning options for our students. Together, we can build these multiple schools of varying sizes and frameworks. Together we will create learning options that work for today’s students and create a better tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top