In West Virginia, microschools come with hope

Editor’s note: This article by Kerry McDonald, senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, appeared Sunday on the foundation’s website.

When Michael Parsons envisioned his Montessori-inspired microschool in Charleston, West Virginia, earlier this year, he knew that he wanted to create an intentionally small learning environment where each child’s individual strengths could be nurtured and needs could be met.

He also valued a mixed-age classroom model, similar to a one-room schoolhouse, where young people could be in community together while working on academic content tailored to their learning level. Ample time hiking outside and walking to various local sites, such as the public library, were also key priorities.

Parsons pieced all of that together when he opened Vandalia Community School this fall in a cozy rented church space adjacent to a trail system near Charleston’s vibrant community resources. Parsons, who most recently taught at a community college, gravitated to the microschooling model which has been gaining popularity across the country and has been recognized by the West Virginia legislature as a specific educational approach.

“I love the microschooling model because it allows us to have a stable school community that provides our students with structured and predictable routines while also being flexible enough to meet the needs of each individual student,” said Parsons. “I think that microschooling presents a unique opportunity in a state as geographically isolated as West Virginia. It’s a structure that allows individual communities to envision and implement diverse educational models without exorbitant funding requirements or the need for high enrollment.”

Vandalia currently serves 10 students with two teachers. Parsons says he will likely cap enrollment at about 20 students to retain the small, personalized learning setting that he believes sets microschools apart from more traditional schools. He expects to open additional small schools as parent interest grows.

Like other microschools, Vandalia’s tuition is a fraction of the cost of traditional private schools. With West Virginia’s new education savings account program, Hope Scholarship, distributing $4,300 in state-allocated funding to almost every West Virginia K-12 student beginning next month, programs such as Vandalia become even more accessible to more families.

(Children who are homeschooled or already enrolled in a private school are currently not eligible for the Hope Scholarship.) When the Hope Scholarship program was delayed in the court system over the summer, Parsons announced that he would provide private scholarships up to $4,300 to the families in his microschool who were relying on that Hope Scholarship amount.

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BY Special to NextSteps