“Micro-schools” are loosely defined as private schools with a self-directed curriculum enrolling approximately 10 to a few dozen students. Prominent micro-schools have been founded in Austin, Texas; Berkeley, California; New Orleans; New York City; and Washington, DC in just the past few years.
“Several factors are driving their emergence,” Education Next reported in January 2016. “Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education. These families want an option other than home schooling that will personalize instruction for their child’s needs. A school in which students attend a couple days a week or a small school with like-minded parents can fit the bill.”
Anne Wintemute is the founder and director of Highlands Micro School in Denver, Colorado, a second-year micro-school with 22 students. Wintemute says the school pays attention to individual students’ interests.
“We are a student-centered progressive school,” Wintemute said. “The topics of interest to the children and the day-to-day aspects of life these children grapple with are couched with new skills and new content kids are expected to learn. We put this into a real-world context, giving it meaning in what the kids are doing or learning.”
Setting Their Own Standards
Wintemute says her school strives not to standardize its system so the children are compared to one another.
“We want children who graduate from this program to have a broad definition of what success looks like,” Wintemute said. “We want to … produce adults who go on to lead fulfilling lives, [and] because fulfillment is personally defined, allowing them to have a personalized definition of their life today will allow them to continue to have it into adulthood.”
‘We’ve Cut a Lot’
Highlands Micro School has no huge gym, beautiful tree-lined streets, or guest speakers. Wintemute says her school focuses on the essentials.
“We narrowly define how we spend our money, preferring to spend it on things which benefit the students directly,” Wintemute said. “We’ve cut a lot of what you see in traditional independent schools because it’s not necessary to promote student achievement.
“Instead, we believe when you have the ability to educate the child individually, there are inherent benefits for each child,” Wintemute said. “This means each child is right where they need to be, each child is learning at their own age level, and each child is making the important connections they need to within their own life, finding what’s meaningful to them to really retain that academic information.”
No Class Divisions
John Friends is co-director of Full Circle Elementary in rural Massachusetts, a micro-school that opened in 1973. The school currently serves 23 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, with tuition costing less than $10,000 a year.
“Full Circle exists in the absence of class divisions,” the school’s website says. “Ages are mixed, sexes are mixed, and cultures are mixed. This one-room schoolhouse approach to education offers an environment in which differences are celebrated rather than merely tolerated or hidden. Everyone is viewed as a teacher as well as a student. From older children, students glimpse models of where they might be, younger children remind students of where they have been, and those within their age group teach students about how varied individual differences can be even at a similar age.”
Friends says his school started long before the micro-school trend took hold.
“The term ‘micro-school’ only started a couple of years ago, so we didn’t refer to ourselves as a micro school,” Friends said. “Instead, we tend to think of ourselves as sort of a one-room schoolhouse with more than one room. It’s sort of like the old-fashioned way they taught children a hundred years ago, and we’re bringing this back into the modern day.”
Mixing Age Groups
Friends says Full Circle offers a high level of socialization not common at other schools.
“We have all ages of children mixing on a regular basis,” Friends said. “The social skills develop, and the children learn how to interact with one another so the older children support the younger children. We differ from homeschooling because the children going through our school are very much together for many years, and it’s very much a sibling-like experience because they spend so much time together, but it’s not home, it’s school.”
‘Children Love to Learn’
Friends says Full Circle sustains the joy children find in learning.
“Children love to learn, and the joy can easily be taken out of it,” Friends said. “So we keep the joy in it by letting them have a lot of choice in what they’re pursuing. We try to make it fun again, and this means really listening to children, validating their opinions and interests, and guiding them to learn through the process of following their passions and interests.
“It really works,” Friends said. “Once the kids realize you’re really listening to them and respecting whatever it is they’re doing, then it becomes really important to them and they become really committed to what they’re doing.”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.
Teresa Mull, “What Is a Micro-School?” The Heartland Institute, December 14, 2017: https://heartland.org/multimedia/podcasts/what-is-a-micro-school