Microschools Changing the Phoenix Education Landscape

Key Points

  • Small class sizes and new methods of accessing funding make microschools a powerful option for personalizing learning.

  • Microschools are effective in networks and often find their home in unconventional buildings (houses, businesses, etc.).

Two years after Universal ESA funding was introduced in Arizona, Phoenix has one of the most interesting and diverse portfolios of microschools in the country. They include district, charter, private schools, and homeschool cooperatives and are located in public schools, on college campuses, in storefronts, and in homes. They are all highly personalized and offer a small supportive learning environment. Most are open enrollment. Some specifically focus on diverse learners. Following is a summary of some of the microschools we visited this school year.  

Storefront Private Microschools

KaiPod operates four Phoenix-area storefronts. Each serves a maximum of 24 learners with a day split between academics and screen-free enrichment and socialization. Most pods have a math and an English teacher, called learning coaches. Parents, with coaches’ advice, make curriculum choices. It’s often Zern in math and Lexia in reading. Parents and coaches communicate at least weekly. 

KaiPod sites operate from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays and students attend 2-5 days per week. The North Scottsdale storefront (below and featured image) has two pods, lower (grades 3-6) and upper (grades 7-12). And, interestingly, it’s the high school students that often attend 5 days a week.

Most families that send students to KaiPod storefront location use the $7,000 Empowerment Scholarship Account to pay some or all of the tuition (which ranges from $5-10k depending on use). 

Some students who attend virtual charter schools (like ASU Prep Digital or Primavera) spend several days a week at KaiPod to supplement their learning.

School District Microschool Options

Phoenix Union High School District has 24 schools and over 28,000 students, serving most of the high school students in the City of Phoenix. While many of the high schools are large and comprehensive, they have designed a microschool option to better serve all students. PXU City is the district’s classroom without walls, whereas Phoenix is the learning experience. Students enroll in flexible schedules to accommodate on-site and virtual classes, work-based learning, place-based learning, and internships. 

Prenda has a long-running microschool at Eisenhower Elementary, a Title I school in Mesa Public Schools.

College Campus Extensions 

ASU Prep Digital students in Phoenix have the option to spend two days a week on an ASU campus in Tempe, Mesa, or Glendale where online coursework is enhanced with in-person collaboration, discussion, and project-based learning in small groups. Each campus hosts 1-2 cohorts of 30 students at each location for four years. ASU faculty provide the opportunity for in-depth exploration of specific content courses, projects, majors, and career paths. (See feature for more on ASU Prep micros.)

Science Prep Academy 

After nine years of teacher leadership in Gwinnett County Public Schools, Kenneth Mims founded the Neurodiversity Education Research Center to improve access to quality education and workforce development for neurodivergent youth. The first program was Science Prep Academy, which was founded in 2017 and believes students with Autism can successfully transition into college and a career. In two classrooms on the upper floor of the Kroc Center in Phoenix, SPA serves 18 neurodivergent students in grades 6-12 with 2 full-time teachers, a half-time teacher, and a success coach.   

Science Prep Academy primarily uses the Apex curriculum in personalized blended learning, with some opportunities for projects and choices in assessment structures. The $28K SPA tuition is covered by Arizona ESA funds, providing extra funding for learners with IEPs and the small class sizes also contribute to this personalized approach.

SPA launched its Project SEARCH internship program in partnership with Banner Desert Medical Center and the University of Arizona Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities. Project SEARCH is a work skills developmental program designed to facilitate a successful post-high school transition to the workforce for young autistic adults. This unique business-led, one-year employment preparation program occurs entirely within a hospital setting.

Math class at Science Prep Academy at the Kroc Center
Math class at Science Prep Academy at the Kroc Center

Although unaffiliated, SPA shares the second floor of the Kroc Center with one of the nine Student Choice High locations in metro Phoenix. The alternative charter school and dropout recovery center serves about 100 students who progress through individualized learning plans in four-hour blocks. 

ReThink Microschools has a similar school for 45 neurodivergent students (grades 6-12) in Mesa.  

Home-based Microschools 

Integrative Learning Academy is a private nonprofit Christian school serving 20 neurodiverse learners (half with identified special needs) in Rachel’s home northwest of Phoenix. Tuition is covered or subsidized by state ESA funds. 

North of Phoenix near the outlet mall, High Point Academy serves 11 students aged 6-14 and features “a hands-on project-based learning approach that fosters real-world problem solving and critical thinking.” Amy devotes the whole first floor of her Anthem home to the school. The dining room is a learning lab, the living room is a classroom, and the backyard is a playground. She leverages local outdoor spaces and works with families on flexible attendance plans. 

Both Rachel and Amy got their start with Prenda, a microschool provider that supports more than 80 home-based schools in greater Phoenix. The Prenda learning model helps guides empower four modes: connect, conquer (skills), collaborate, and create. (See a 2023 podcast with Prenda founder Kelly Smith.)

Most ESA funding in Arizona is just subsidizing prior education choices (in private schools or homeschooling) but there may be 30,000 students experiencing new options and a quarter of them are likely metro Phoenix learners in microschools. 

Microschools are changing the Phoenix education landscape. Most are personalized and expand family options but the distribution of quality is broad (with no built-in accountability). Keep an eye on small schools in the Valley. 

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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