How to Make a Micro-School a Long-Term Solution

How to Make a Micro-School a Long-Term Solution

Parents across the country are looking for solutions for their children’s schooling. Some believe their public school district isn’t prepared to support their children in this COVID-19 world or are fearful for their children’s health if going back to school in person is mandated. Other parents have already seen the reality of their children not having the right support at school–no matter what the public health landscape looks like.

I’ve supported micro-schools across the globe and started three of my own, putting me in a unique position to help parents and education professionals navigate the road of starting their own micro-school.

Starting your own school isn’t as cut and dried as some would have you believe, primarily because it’s not a temporary band aid. When done right, a micro-school is a long-term solution that can help your children thrive.

More detail and the full seven-step plan can be found in my book, Creating Micro-Schools for Colorful Mismatched Kids.

An Introduction to Micro-Schools

To quote my book, “Listening to the needs of children and prioritizing them is the heartbeat of student-centered humane education, just as a heartbeat pushes blood throughout the body, the drive for humane education pushes deep innovation throughout a micro-school.”

The point is not to duplicate failing or limited conventional school systems, but rather to create a new kind of learning community. One that addresses unmet needs and, ideally, equity. Right now, we are looking for how we can get our kids face-to-face safely, because we know how important it is to have social engagement; we also know that parents working from home need a reprieve so they can do their day jobs and not solely supervise and teach their kids.

Micro-schools are a paradigm, a way of looking at learning–not a specific model. There are, however, some common features that we find in our micro-schools:

  • Usually small in size
  • Adaptable and responsive
  • Personalized learning
  • Multi-age classrooms
  • Teachers are guides, not lecturers
  • Resources and technology are used to directly benefit students, not as supplemental materials brought out just from time to time
  • Innovative with holistic curriculum 

So let’s look at three key steps for starting your own micro-school.

Step One: Your Mission

You need to know your purpose, which is probably more than just face-to-face learning for your child. Ask yourself three questions–outcome, population, and design–as you create your mission.

Where will children be at the end of their time in your micro-school?

The first is to identify the outcomes sought. What will it ideally look like when a student is done with your program. If this is a half-year program, will they be at grade level? Will they be happy? Will they have been engaged socially? If this is a program through graduation, what will a graduate look like? Will this person be ready to go off to college or to get a job?

Who do you plan to serve?

The second is to determine the population you will serve. Are you serving a certain age group, a specific geography, a certain kind of learner? Are you serving kids that want hands-on learning or who are kinesthetic learners? 

What will serving students look like?

The third is how you will serve them. What will your school design look like? Are you serving them with at home assignments? Is it face-to-face, a hybrid model or completely online? F2F and outdoors? Is it supplementing PE and music and art, and then kids go back and do the reading and writing in their homes? 

Step Two: Getting the Word Out

In getting the word out, you will also think about what makes your school unique (Step Three). These two steps go back and forth; it’s not a linear process. In this post I am prioritizing getting the word out (Step Four in my book), but there are lots of ways to start the process. Word of mouth is amazing, so you want to get some interested people to shout you out in as many places as possible. 

You can also connect with other groups such as the Portland Micro-Schools; Educated Nannies; and Parents, Guardians, and Teachers of Pandemic era Nano-Schools Facebook groups. I’m a part of a small school network in the Northwest, and not only do we share ideas all the time, it opens a lot of doors for possible collaborations. We’re all in this for the kids; it’s not about competition. 

Once you have the word out, you’re going to have people join your initiative who will influence some of what your school’s features will be, even though you already have a mission in mind. As this happens, you will want to team up with at least one other person to divide the ideas, leadership and operational tasks in a way that plays to the strengths of each of you and also to your resources. Don’t try to go this alone, there’s plenty of work to be shared.

Step Three: Identify What Makes Your School Unique

This is my favorite part! Look at your interests and resources. Do you want to focus on the environment and nature? Do you want to be learner-directed with a project-based approach? Will you hold your classes in Spanish or in American Sign Language? This goes back to your graduate profile. What do you want for the outcomes of students that are at your school? 

As you are refining, you will see that these three steps are not necessarily linear. One will inform the other. 

Next, there are five questions that you need to answer:

Question One: What are the logistics of my school? 

You need to figure out the best safety and hygiene protocols for you. Things to consider to be face-to-face: How will we health screen (and take temperatures?) each morning? How will we social distance? Masks or shields? Outdoors? All of these considerations and more are in a very thorough plan that we have for our micro-school to be able to open face-to-face in the fall.

The Oregon’s Department of Education Ready Schools, Safe Learners protocol is the amazing checklist we used. It would really help you think about the different safety implications. There are many angles to address to keep everybody safe. Some more things to consider could include what you are doing for meals, recreation and transportation. Kids need routine to feel secure, now more than ever, so try not to alter your routine for the first three or four weeks. 

Finally, you need to look at the legal implications in your state if you are hiring teachers, assuming liability, expecting recognition/school credit, etc. Of course, any hiring needs to include background checks, screening and careful reference checks. 

Question Two: What curriculum will you use? 

Our micro-school LEADPrep doesn’t use textbooks because we’re interdisciplinary and project-based. We do use a sequential math program with hands-on activities for younger grades. There are so many directions you can go with the curriculum, but PLEASE stay away from pencil and paper workbooks. Engage the kids and do not go for rote learning. Some resources you can check out are as follows:

Question Three: What are your norms and can you create/refine these with the students? 

Are there any non-negotiables? A simple place to start is with something like respect of self, others and space. Then you can unpack it in a class discussion with students role-playing various ways of living the norms or drawing pictures to illustrate your values and expectations. Keep the norms simple and include student input to help the students own and practice the norms.

Question Four: What roles will each family have in relation to the school? 

Will each family pay or contribute a certain amount? Will families provide supplies? How will the school have a reporting process to share what is learned? How will the school communicate concerns or needs? What basic agreements are foundational for the school, parents and students? As a sample, take a look at our LEADPrep school student parent covenant. We all sign the covenant before the start of the year to make sure roles and expectations are clear from the start.

Question Five: How will you measure your success? 

Look back to that profile. Did you want your students to grow in literacy and numeracy? To improve social skills? To have fun? To take better care of the planet and each other? Reflect weekly and report out monthly on these measures, using your reflection as a formative assessment to assess how you’re doing. This assessment can inform your next steps to continue, redirect or whatever you need to do to fully serve each of your wonderful students. 

A Final Note

This pandemic and time of waking up to our systems of inequality is a welcome chance to rethink our institutions. It’s an opportunity to make sure all children are served and have equal access. As you dream about a short-term solution for the fall, think in terms of both short- and long-term goals.

Short-term. One Seattle parent Facebook group is committing to being able to add at least one family to their pod who would not otherwise have the resources to participate. Equity. Can you make an immediate difference like this?

Long-term. Use this time for looking deeply at our education models. What would you want to see if you could transform education to serve ALL of our kids? How would you change schools so that each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving–preschool through high school graduation? 

Our public institutions are woefully behind private industries in staying current and relevant, but you have the power to be a force for change for our precious children. Please don’t stop working for responsive and equitable learning when the pandemic ends. Let’s use this challenging time as a springboard to transform the landscape of education to help all of our children become capable, happy, contributing young adults.

The education evolution needs you. 

While my consulting is usually with existing schools wanting to add a school-within-a-school, or with those interested in starting a permanent micro-school, I’m happy to consult with you. Getting off to a great start with your school is important. I can help.

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