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In Pandemic’s Wake, Learning Pods and Microschools Take Root

作者:admin 2020-10-15

ImageIn Pandemic’s Wake, Learning Pods and Microschools Take Root

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.

Credit...Veasey Conway for The New York Times

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.

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.”

Credit...Tatiana Kiseleva

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.”

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