Size matters: Microschools and education pluralism

Just what is a microschool? The Christian Science Monitor takes a thorough and balanced look at the growing movement.

Ask a dozen microschool leaders to describe their schools, and you’ll likely receive a dozen slightly different responses:

Montessori-inspired, nature-focused, project-based, faith-oriented, child-led, or some combination of other attributes. They may exist independently, as part of a provider network, or in partnership with another entity such as an employer or a faith organization. Their schedules vary, too. Some follow a typical academic calendar, while others operate year-round, and some allow students to attend part time.

In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all definition for microschools. But, in general, they’re intentionally small learning environments. They often serve fewer than 30 students total and operate as learning centers to support home-schooled students or as accredited or unaccredited private schools. Their exact designations differ based on state laws.

To that description, I’d just add one more layer of nuance: Many microschools operate in partnership with public schools, for example, by sub-contracting with districts or charter schools, or as affiliates of longstanding private education institutions, like the microschools operated by the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles.

Their diverse missions and configurations share something in common: divergence from the norm in public education. I have yet to encounter a microschool whose founders describe their work in terms that in any way resemble: We offer conventional schooling, only better.

Microschools break from convention, by design. Their breaks from convention could relate to content (they may offer religious instruction that isn’t possible in public schools), pedagogy (they might embrace classical education or student-led learning), the identities of students they aim to serve (as in the case of the Black Mothers Forum in Arizona), or the structure of schooling (by bringing together students of different ages or offering hybrid and part-time schedules).

This is where their small size matters. A microschool can make bold and specific choices about what it offers, because it often only needs to attract a small number of like-minded students and educators. This allows microschools to exist in communities that could not possibly muster the numbers to sustain traditionally sized schools aligned to their philosophy or value proposition.

In rural New Hampshire towns where it wouldn’t be economical for a conventional private or charter school to offer an alternative to existing public schools, 10 students can sign up with a learning guide to form a Prenda microschool. Under Prenda’s flexible, student-led instructional philosophy, they need not even be exactly the same age. The Black Mothers Forum operates a network of microschools in Greater Phoenix, where just 7% of public-school students are Black—less than half the percentage in public schools nationally. These and countless other examples are able to offer particular groups of students something truly different, without having to worry about sanding down the edges of their identity to attract a critical mass.

To be sure, some microschools could grow to the point that “micro” becomes a misnomer. Some could operate “schools” that serve groups of students in multiple locations, or simply enroll enough students that they rival the size of a more conventional learning environment.

Thanks to their ability to operate at a small scale, to bring students together in ways that defy the conventions of age-based grading, and sometimes to blur the lines between schooling and homeschooling, microschools have the potential to enable a new level of pluralism and diversity in education.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)