This article is part of our latest Learning special report, which focuses on ways that remote learning will shape the future.
In March, when the coronavirus shut down schools in Portland, Ore., Juliet Travis was desperate to find ways to engage her 12-year-old son. The public schools’ remote-learning efforts were hit-or-miss at best, she said, so she signed him up for Outschool, which provides live, virtual classes and allows students to invite their friends to join them.
“I was trying to keep his education going and make it fun,” she said.
This fall, Ms. Travis and the parents of several of her son’s friends decided to create some semblance of school. “We podded up,” she said. In addition to Outschool classes, Ms. Travis hired a retired teacher to go to their homes once a week and augment the public school’s history and English curriculum. And a trainer from a local gym conducts physical education classes twice a week in a driveway or garage.
The cost of these learning pods varies, and Ms. Travis said hers was $40 per week per child for the teacher and the fitness trainer. Outschool classes average $10 per class, and families in financial need can access classes free through the company’s nonprofit arm, Outschool.org.
“The pandemic has launched the largest educational innovation experiment in the history of mankind,” says Sujata Bhatt, a senior fellow at Transcend, a national nonprofit that helps communities and school districts create innovative, equitable learning environments.
Parents are increasingly turning to microschools — very small schools that usually have a specific culture — and learning pods. Microschools can be based outside or inside a home, and may or may not be state-approved and accredited. Learning pods are generally ad hoc and home-based, most having been created this summer in response to public school closings. (The Pandemic Pods Facebook page has more than 41,000 members.)
Like the one Ms. Travis started, learning pods are often a mix of the public school’s remote curriculum, supervised care and enrichment activities.
“So much personal growth takes place in school,” Ms. Travis said. “My son needed to be learning with other kids.”
True microschools, however, predated the pandemic. Jerry Mintz and the organization he founded, Alternative Education Resource Organization, have been helping parents and educators start “learner centered” schools, including microschools, since 1989.
“Here is the basic difference in the schools in our network and regular schools: We believe kids are natural learners and the job of the educator is to help kids find resources; they are more guides than teachers,” Mr. Mintz said.
This is a consistent theme among microschools: the desire to let students steer the learning. Rather than giving answers and solving problems for students, many microschool educators guide students toward finding the answers themselves.
The mission of NOLA Micro Schools, founded in 2015 in New Orleans, is to have learning driven by the “unique passions, struggles and curiosities of our students.” All the students — elementary, middle and high school age — learn together in one physical space, “a modern-day one-room schoolhouse,” said the head-of-school, Ashley Redd. Tuition is $9,000 annually, but NOLA offers a sliding-scale tuition for those in need.
LEADprep, a microschool with two Seattle-area campuses, was founded in 2013 by Maureen O’Shaughnessy, a career school administrator with a Ph.D. in education leadership. The schools serve children in middle and high school and each campus is capped at 30, with an average student-teacher ratio of five to one.
“In a microschool, if you master things quickly, you move ahead quickly, but if you need more time, learning is slowed down so you can fill in the gaps,” Ms. O’Shaughnessy said. Tuition is $25,000 a year but 40 percent of families receive financial aid. “It’s basically a sliding scale,” she said. “We never turn a family away.”
Edgecombe County Public Schools, a district about 75 miles east of Raleigh, N.C., that serves around 6,200 students — the majority of whom are low-income and high needs — began its own microschool in 2017, in collaboration with Transcend. The North Phillips School of Innovation was housed in the high school and had 30 eighth- and-ninth-grade students. Additional costs for curriculum and professional development, as well as hiring more staff, were minimal and covered by grants.
Edgecombe’s superintendent, Valerie H. Bridges, said the microschool had two aims: to help students find purpose and passion in their lives and to strengthen their resilience. After one year, the students reported a significant increase in their sense of belonging and feelings of safety and their standardized test scores in reading and science went up.
The microschool has begun changing the design of the greater school system. It was expanded last year to include all eighth, ninth and 10th graders and this year, to all sixth- through 12th-grade students.
The district also created remote learning pods in response to coronavirus school closings, for students without Wi-Fi access or adequate adult supervision. Ms. Bridges sees opportunities for keeping these kinds of pods in the school system after the pandemic ends, potentially geared toward students with similar extracurricular interests or who need to work full time and might otherwise drop out.
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For both learning pods and independent microschools, there is a growing need for supportive technology. Several companies already existed in this space, like Curacubby, which offers administrative software for enrollment, billing and payment processing, and Prenda, which provides the academic tools needed to run a microschool, including Chromebooks and Wi-Fi filters for internet safety.
When the pandemic hit, about 700 students were participating in microschools supported by Prenda, mostly in charter public schools in Arizona; by October, that grew to more than 3,000, and the number of microschools jumped to 326 from 126. The company just expanded to Colorado.
Other education technology companies are adapting to meet the pandemic-driven needs of parents. Outschool is a marketplace of live, online classes often taught in creative ways, like teaching architecture through the game Minecraft or Spanish through translations of Taylor Swift songs.
The company is trying to keep up with a 2,000 percent year-over-year increase in classes booked; it went from 80,000 students on its platform in February to more than 500,000 today.
“We’re investing very heavily in increasing the number of teachers and teaching tools, because the range of demands are changing,” said Amir Nathoo, the chief executive and co-founder. “And the social component has become even more important.”
SchoolHouse, which launched in New York City right before the pandemic, was originally created to help teachers start their own microschools. The teachers on its platform had taken a year off to prepare, but when the pandemic struck, those plans were put on hold and SchoolHouse pivoted.
It had a community of teachers on sabbatical and lots of families contacting the company in search of microschools. Joseph Connor, SchoolHouse’s co-founder and chief operating officer, said the company decided to set up its own microschools, which it calls pod schools. The teachers became full-time employees with benefits and general commercial insurance, and they were connected to pods of eight students.
Tuition averages $14,000 a year per student, Mr. Connor said, but SchoolHouse also offers pods the option to use a sliding scale, where some families pay more and others attend free. SchoolHouse hit its five-year business goal in about five months.
“We really think this is a better way to learn and that even when there is a vaccine, people will continue to choose us,” Mr. Connor said. “We already have parents asking if this will be available next year.”