The Micro-School Opportunity

Small innovative schools opened in months rather than years of planning could prove to be an important K-12 innovation strategy.

For decades, quality school developers have used the 100 students per grade rule of thumb resulting in schools of 400-600 students. For a number of reasons, new schools have become more difficult and expensive to open. But new learning tools and strategies have created the opportunity to quickly open “micro-schools” as a school-within-a-school or as low cost private schools.

They, “Vary not only by size and cost but also in their education philosophies and operating models,” said Michael Horn but nearly all share radical personalization.

Backstory. New school development and talent development have proven to be the most important K-12 impact investments of the last 20 years. About 10,000 new schools have been developed, two thirds being charter, many in networks of like minded schools. They have served as R&D labs, added quality options (see CREDO study), and replaced schools stuck in cycles of chronic failure. They have often been served by educators prepared in nontraditional ways.

About a quarter of the new schools developed over the last 20 years are part of managed charter networks. A few, like Summit Public Schools, are innovative but most focus on execution of a traditional model over innovation. This is, in part, a result of the shift in authorizing from innovation to quality. It now takes more time and money to get a charter school approved, and real innovation is virtually outlawed by many state policy frameworks and application processes.

Another quarter of new schools are district schools affiliated with a school developer like NAF, Big Picture, New Tech Network, and Expeditionary Learning. Only New Tech Network is a platform-centric new school developer. Soon this will be the norm, but it’s been slow to catch on because platforms haven’t been good, flexible, and interoperable (read more).

The first small competency-based school I visited was in Chugach, Alaska in 1999. Each student owned their own learning progression and could describe what they were learning and how they would progress to the next level by demonstration. The system was largely manual for teachers and students but it was impressive (see Rich DeLorenzo’s book Delivering on the Promise and this CompetencyWorks series).

The well–intentioned policy frame of standards, assessment, and accountability that have monopolized US education for two decades are, to a some extent, at odds with student-centered learning. Andy Calkins, Next Generation Learning Challenges, said this suggests that outside in, bottom up efforts like micro-schools could be productive.

Flex leaders. New tools and school models have created a new opportunity set. Schools deploying a flex model use an online curriculum to promote more autonomous learning and competency-based progression. Rather than learning as a cohort, individual students co-construct an individual learning progression with an onsite teacher/advisor.

The Christensen Institute describes a flex model as a course or subject in which online learning is the backbone of student learning, even if it directs students to offline activities at times. Students move on an individually customized, fluid schedule among learning modalities. The teacher of record is on-site, and students learn mostly on the brick-and-mortar campus, except for any homework assignments. The teacher of record or other adults provide face-to-face support on a flexible and adaptive as-needed basis through activities such as small-group instruction, group projects, and individual tutoring.

With the development of learning platforms it has become easier to create flex models that combine the benefits of online learning and onsite support. One example is blended credit recovery solutions, which are typically deployed as a part or full time flex academy.

Schools that were pioneers with flex blends include Carpe Diem (AZ & OH), Rocky Mount NC, and Village Green Virtual, Providence (all use Edgenuity).

AdvancePath applied the flex model to dropout prevention (see feature). In less than two months, they can open a 100 student academy, employing district teachers, that can boost the graduation rate.

Career Path High is a flex academy located at a technical college north of Salt Lake City. Students take online high school classes in the morning and job training courses in the afternoon.

Connections Education developed the Nexus Academy network of seven upper Midwest flex high schools.

Pat Deklotz, Kettle Moraine School District (in metro Milwaukee) has used (what Ted Kolderie would call a) split screen innovation approach opening small thematic flex academies as in-district charter schools to enable competency-based progression. Their large comprehensive high school has three themed flex academies that started with two teachers and an idea. They now serve almost 40% of the students and serve as an in school field trip opportunity for teachers.

Micro-school pioneers. There are hundreds of thousands of blended classrooms, but the leap to a whole school model is daunting. Something in between that would allow a team of teachers to quickly adopt an innovative blended model would create new student options, provide districts with valuable pilot projects and, like the Kettle Moraine split screen strategy, give more teachers the opportunity to experience a personalized competency-based environment.

A+UP is an innovative Houston middle school flex program with six museum partnerships. Launched three years ago by Houston A+ with 40 students and two teachers, a writing specialist and a STEM teacher, the micro-school was opened as a tuition free private school to maximize the innovation opportunity. Access to the innovative program will be expanded as a charter network.

Highly personalized private micro-schools like Acton Academy (feature image) and AltSchool puts students at the center. Acton is so impact-oriented it claims, “Each person who enters our doors will find a calling that will change the world.” That may sound audacious but it’s a different impulse. “We believe in the power of love,” said co-founder and head of school Laura Sandefer, “Students should be known and cared for.” And when they are in an environment that promotes curiosity and character, Laura believes, “Each student can find a ‘calling,’ using his or her most precious gifts, in a way that brings great joy, to solve a deep burning need in the world.”

Acton is being replicated by a number of edupreneurs including networks like Talent Unbound. Two dozen Acton Academies will be open worldwide by fall. (Learn more about replication here.)

AltSchool just announced a whopping $100 million round of funding, pushing the total of venture funding to the startup to $133 million (Learn Capital, where I’m a partner, is an investor). Investors are betting that micro-schools will pop up quickly in urban environments and that other schools will adopt their learning platform.

Micro-school opportunity. A micro-school could be as simple as a middle school principal supporting the initiative of two teachers who want to create a blended, interdisciplinary, and project-based academy using a free platform like Edmodo and focusing on open content Big History Project.

A school district or network could use a micro-school strategy as part of collaborative and distributed innovation strategy. Several academies of 50 students could test alternative approaches, tools, and themes.

An online learning provider or school developer, with a little support from an impact investor, could develop a modular approach to grades 6-8 or 9-12 that could be adopted by two teachers with 40-50 students. The offering could include an engaging sequence of student-driven learning experiences supported by a platform, assessments, leadership development, and teacher supports. The platform-based approach could be rapidly and inexpensively deployed as new schools or school-within-a-school models.

Daphne Koller, president of Coursera is enthusiastic about the international potential for learning hubs, small student led study groups using open content. Add an advisor and certification system and one can imagine a micro-school network with equal secondary and postsecondary opportunity.

Public school districts and networks should consider the benefits of micro-schools including:

  • Rewarding teacher leadership with an opportunity to quickly open innovative blended models;
  • Providing more engaging and personalized student options sooner than later;
  • De-risking and accelerating high school transformation in big comprehensive schools;
  • Providing local site visit opportunities for teachers and community members; and
  • Creating the opportunity for low cost private and religious schools linked to community resources.

Micro-schools have the potential to scale rapidly as school-within-a-school models and new schools. They could, in most cities, accelerate the transition to next generation learning.

For more see

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Manisha Snoyer

Great article! When teacher/entrepreneurs start microschools and differentiate instruction in their classrooms everyone wins. The microschool or Cottage school model allows talented teachers to shape their curriculum to a diverse set of needs and serve their local community. I would love to see more teachers and parents around the country empowered to start their own schools. There are so many millions of great teachers with wonderful ideas on how to reinvent education at a grassroots level. I hope this will be a win for them.

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