With the school year in full swing, anxious parents hope their children are content in their local schools. Families worry about finding the right school environment for their children, especially since every child learns differently.
Take the Gilbert family, in Florida, whose story captures the importance of having multiple education options.
Four of their five children have special needs, and the family travels “80 miles per day, 180 days a year” to four different schools. But it’s worth it, since Stephanie Gilbert “had no idea how much each child would each change over time, or how their needs would transform as well.”
“The ability to find different schools to meet those unique and changing needs became invaluable,” she said.
While most parents don’t encounter the hurdles common to the Gilbert family, most can relate to the struggle of finding the school that best accommodates their children, especially when families’ education options are severely restricted due to geographic or financial limitations.
One way educators try to provide alternative schooling options is by establishing “micro-schools.”
They are tiny, autonomous private schools, typically enrolling fewer than 70 students. Michael B. Horn of Education Next describes “the ethos of micro-schools: a fidelity to personalization and success for all in small communities.”
These schooling options create innovative and personalized learning experiences for students, such as using multi-age classrooms or encouraging personal relationships to boost learning.
Business Insider points out the benefits of the approach. The “micro-school” model brings students of all ages into the same classroom, “using technology to cater the curriculum to each child’s needs.”
“Teachers serve as facilitators, rather than lecturers, and kids learn through projects, not memorization,” it said.
Due to their small size, micro-schools are nimble. As a recent Bellwether Education Partners’ report notes, “There are no administrators. Teachers … tend to have a real entrepreneurial drive. They want to be in the position to make decisions about the administrative things.”
Many micro-schools are geared toward working with children from low-income families. While private school tuition is often out of reach for low-income families, more than half of micro-schools offer financial aid to upwards of one-third of their student body. For example, The Forest School in Fayetteville, Georgia, offers approximately $4,000 in financial aid per pupil to 20% of its student body.
Yet, even with financial aid, many low-income families struggle to foot the bill. States, however, can help students find their best schooling option by strengthening their school choice policies.
For instance, Arizona policymakers expanded the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program to include Native American children on tribal lands.
With an education savings account, families can pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, private tutors, and a host of other education-related services, products, and providers.
Native American families immediately put those funds to good use by creating their own micro-school.
Hadassah John started a new micro-school, Prenda, on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona because she was frustrated by the local public school’s failure to prevent bullying or to challenge students.
The executive editor of RedefinEd, Matthew Ladner, commented on the area surrounding John’s school: “The local school district spends well above the Arizona state average, but earned a letter grade of F from the state. Parent reviews, and even a teacher review, on the Great Schools site are scathing.”
Arizona’s recent reforms were imperative since the traditional public school at the San Carlos Reservation failed to produce student growth.
As Ladner notes, “All Arizona racial/ethnic subgroups scored equal to or above the national average on eighth-grade math and reading in 2017 except Native American students.”
John’s micro-school will give students the attention and environment where they can flourish.
Micro-schools can offer education options to families who have few other choices. No child’s ZIP code should trap them in a failing public school, and education savings accounts ensure that families have a choice.
Policymakers throughout the nation can empower more families by letting them choose the school that is the best fit for their children.