Micro-schools meet the moment

After tutoring children at a Phoenix library for a few years, Kelly smith and seven neighborhood children started the first Prenda micro-school. Two years later, 200 small Prenda schools met in lounges and community spaces.

Given the choice of sending their children back to school or enrolling them in a questionable online program, many parents are considering alternatives, including starting or joining a micro-school.

Prenda was among the first beneficiaries of the VELA Education Fund, a new non-profit fund that supports pioneering entrepreneurs who create and lead innovative, non-system models of education. VELA was launched with seed funding from Walton Family Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute and is expected to grow to include additional donors over time.

This week, VELA’s Board of Directors announced a Meet the moment program of grants to new micro-school opportunities. VELA “will fund efforts that produce something new or transform existing models, provided they provide responsive and authentic learning experiences for young people. “

“Parents, educators and entrepreneurs are reinventing when, where and how learning happens,” said Marc Sternberg, director of the K-12 education program at the Walton Family Foundation.

VELA directors plan to create a portfolio of non-system models and programs that represent geographic, socio-economic and racial diversity. In addition to low-cost micro-schools, they are open to supporting homeschool cooperatives, youth-led programming and learning, and online content.

“VELA is committed to increasing the availability of access to new student-centered education models and experiences,” said Meredith Olson, Board Member.

A small revolution

Small schools from sprawling African towns to suburbs of Austin are reshaping the education landscape. Some of these micro-schools operate outside formal systems, some operate in networks that spread around the world, and some operate outside the current conception of education.

The possibility of opening schools quickly in non-traditional spaces is an advantage of micro-schools. Some are in homes while others take advantage of community assets such as parks, museums, zoos and business partners. Micro-schools can quickly reach out to underserved student populations and demonstrate new innovative staffing practices and strategies.

Micro-schools can be opened quickly, connected to community learning options, address specific needs, and leverage parental engagement and / or teacher leadership (i.e. they are so small that they do not have a separate administrator). Micro-schools can stay small, expand into a network, or grow into a large school with demonstrated success.

Micro-schools, often developed in networks like Edvisions and Acton Academy, have historically served 15 to 150 students, but with the pandemic, we are seeing a new interest in small schools of 5 to 10 (sometimes called nano-schools) like the Prenda network.

Parent co-ops, groups of families enrolled in the same online school and sharing child care and extracurricular activities, have grown quietly and steadily over the past 15 years. By next month, there could be thousands of such co-ops across the country.

For 10 years, 4.0 Schools has been the main advocate for small experiences and small schools connected to the community. The New Orleans nonprofit will support the Meet the moment program by distributing resources to its alumni network of over 1,000 leaders who are reinventing learning through innovative micro-schools, youth development programs and new tools.

VELA extends the Walton Family Foundation’s commitment to new learning models, including their Innovative Schools Program, which has supported 14 new models over the past three years. VELA will also benefit from the Koch Foundation’s commitment to personalized education for each child and its strength in policy and advocacy.

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