In West Virginia, Microschools Come With Hope

January 8, 2023   |   Tags:

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.

Microschools have been sprouting across West Virginia and run the gamut of educational philosophies and approaches, from Montessori-inspired programs like Vandalia to classical education models, and include both secular and faith-based options. Microschools were gaining popularity prior to 2020, but interest in these smaller, more customized learning settings has soared over the past couple of years of pandemic-related education disruption. Some estimates suggest that up to two million students across the U.S. are currently attending microschools full-time.

Jamie Buckland has been supporting the emerging microschool movement in West Virginia and helping to activate more education entrepreneurship and innovation in the state. “The youth of West Virginia deserve access to learning environments that meet them where they are and foster curiosity and confidence now,” said Buckland, who runs the non-profit West Virginia Families United for Education (WVFUE). “Because of the flexibility and agility this model offers, our microschool leaders are finding they can respond accordingly to meet this increasing demand.”

Melissa Mohr has witnessed this increasing demand first-hand. Mohr worked as a teacher and administrator in a traditional private school for nearly 20 years until deciding to launch her own microschool, City on a Hill Christian Academy, this fall in Bridgeport. Her microschool now serves 49 children from elementary school to high school, and parent demand continues to climb. “It is like homeschooling,” said Mohr. “I sit at the table with the students. It’s a more relaxed atmosphere. We take Fridays off and the students work from home. I’m seeing so much growth in the kids.”

Microschools allow for more flexible schedules and hybrid homeschooling approaches, with a tailored curriculum and close family involvement. Microschool students in West Virginia are assessed annually using either standardized tests or portfolio reviews, but they avoid the curricular and structural rigidity of traditional public and private schools.

“We started this year as a microschool because that is what got us off the ground quickly, but now we’re not going back. We don’t want to be a private school,” said Mohr.

Advocates of parental choice in education hope to encourage the expansion of microschools and similar education models, particularly in West Virginia where school choice policies such as Hope Scholarship make these models accessible to more families. “The momentum for microschooling in West Virginia is an immensely promising development for this state, and it's an indication that individuals in West Virginia recognize not only the problem, but more importantly, the solution,” said Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy that championed the passage of the Hope Scholarship program. “Student-focused education is at the core of the micrschooling movement, and the proliferation of this educational model will serve generations of students in West Virginia well.”

As more states introduce or expand education choice policies, like Hope Scholarship, that enable funding to follow students, parents gain greater opportunities to find the best educational fit for their children. Making it easier for microschool founders and other education entrepreneurs to start or scale their organizations can help ensure the success of these choice policies. Parents may have access to additional funding in some states, but if there is a limited supply of programs at which to use those funds, then choice policies may not achieve their full potential. Advocates in Utah are already tackling this issue, and those in West Virginia are also exploring ways to reduce regulatory burdens that can prevent education entrepreneurship from flourishing.

Despite startup obstacles, entrepreneurial educators in West Virginia and elsewhere are moving forward to imagine and build innovative education options that meet the needs of more families. For West Virginians like Ballengee, it’s exciting to see. “From where this state was just a few years ago to where it is now in terms of education options is a bit like going from the Flintstone car to a Tesla in relatively no time at all,” he said. “It is proof that if the state simply gets out of the way, individuals will build a better path all on their own.”

Listen to or watch Kerry's recent LiberatED Podcast conversation with Michael Parsons to learn more about his journey as a microschool founder.

This Forbes article has been republished with permission.


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