Tuesday, April 02, 2024

The Microschool Movement Is Taking Off in Tennessee

by Kerry McDonald, Foundation for Economic Education, April 2, 2024 - I recently heard someone dismiss microschools as insignificant in the education space due to their size. It’s true that microschools are intentionally small, typically below 100 students, but they are steadily growing nationwide. Small things sometimes make the biggest impact. For example, the 33 million small businesses in the U.S. form the backbone of the economy, comprising 99.9 percent of all companies and employing more than 61 million people. 

Small is scalable.

In addition to their small size, microschools are also usually low-cost, highly personalized learning programs, often with a creative curriculum and supple scheduling. They were gaining momentum pre-pandemic and took off following COVID school closures and prolonged remote learning. As someone who has been following alternative education trends for years, I suspected microschooling — and its cousin, homeschooling — would remain above pre-pandemic levels even after schools returned to normal. But I have been pleasantly surprised to see a continued acceleration of these programs in many areas of the country.

Tennessee is a case in point. I recently visited five microschools and related learning models around Nashville and Chattanooga. All of them have launched in the past four years and most opened within the past two years. Their enrollment is quickly rising, and some have already hit capacity with long waitlists. Demand for these start-up schools shows no signs of slowing.

The oldest of the programs I visited opened in August 2020. Located on an organic farm in Smyrna, Tennessee, about 20 miles outside of Nashville, Bloomsbury Farm School began with one teacher and five homeschooled children, including farmer Lauren Palmer’s own five-year-old. By January 2021, the program had 30 children and two teachers. Today, it is a Reggio Emilia-inspired K-5 farm school, with additional parent-child programming for littler ones, that serves 86 children. 

Blending core academics and interest-driven learning, along with abundant outside time and opportunities to help with farm duties, the farm school is currently at maximum enrollment, with dozens of children on a waitlist. All of the children are recognized homeschoolers, with most attending two to three days a week. The full-time, five-day option costs $900/month. “For the majority of our families, COVID was the catalyst to them beginning their homeschooling journey,” said Kaiti Dewhirst, Bloomsbury Farm’s Director of Education. She says now these families don’t want their children in a conventional classroom. “They see the farm school as an opportunity to preserve childhood wonder.” Dewhirst and her team are in the planning stages of determining how to extend their program to middle school and beyond, as well as serve more families on the waitlist.

In Franklin, another Nashville suburb, Harpeth Montessori opened its doors as a recognized private school in fall 2021 with over 40 learners, including toddlers to fifth graders. Today, it has nearly 100 students and 16 staff members. Founders Greg and Jennifer Biorkman never expected to own a school. Both have backgrounds in business and sales and were working full-time jobs when COVID hit and disrupted the education of their two young boys. They decided to create their ideal learning environment with trained Montessori teachers and a focus on child-centered learning.

“We truly could not find a school we wanted to send our children to,” said Jennifer. “It was simple supply and demand.” Last year, Greg left his corporate job to oversee Harpeth Montessori full time, and is planning to expand the program to middle schoolers in the fall while managing a growing waitlist. 

“This community is very open to alternatives to conventional education but there are not a lot of options,” he said, acknowledging that there is a lot of opportunity for other entrepreneurial parents and teachers to launch small schools.

Further south, the Chattanooga area has some of the newest microschools and related learning models in the state. In fall 2022, Rebecca Ellis opened Canyon Creek Christian Academy in Chattanooga with 32 K-6 students. A Charlotte Mason-inspired hybrid homeschool program, Canyon Creek learners attend full-time classes three days a week focused on core academics and deep nature study, while working through curriculum at home on the remaining two days. Today, Canyon Creek Christian Academy has more than 50 learners with five full-time teachers and additional part-time instructors. 

The Academy recently leased additional church space next door to continue to accommodate its growing enrollment. “We are getting more kids trying to pull out of the public school system,” said Ellis, who says her program’s low-stress, child-focused environment is appealing to parents — especially those whose children are growing anxious in test-heavy conventional schools. Canyon Creek’s low annual tuition, currently set at $3,750, is also attractive, costing significantly less than other local private schools.

Just a few miles down the road in Chattanooga, Discovery Learners’ Academy also opened in fall 2022. Founded by Rachel Good, who worked as a public school teacher in Washington and Tennessee for over eight years, Discovery Learners’ Academy, is a state-recognized private school with a personalized educational approach that opened with 21 learners and today has 50 — about 15 of whom attend part-time as homeschoolers. Half of all the school’s students are neurodiverse, a population that Good caters to as a former special education teacher. Indeed, her inability to fully serve special needs students in the conventional school system was one of the reasons she left the public schools. “I was always trying to advocate for these kids and was always hitting a brick wall,” said Good.

At $7,000 a year, Discovery Learners’ Academy is about half the cost of most traditional private schools in the area, and less than the $10,850 a year that the local Hamilton County public schools spend per student. Even so, tuition is still financially out-of-reach for many families, and the school currently doesn’t qualify for the state’s small education choice program. “It’s so heartbreaking when a parent asks if they can use their voucher here and I have to say no,” said Good, who is supportive of current efforts by Tennessee lawmakers to expand school choice policies.

The newest microschool I visited in the Volunteer State opened in August in Cleveland, just outside of
Chattanooga. Triumph Acton Academy is a home-based learning pod for homeschoolers that is part of the fast-growing Acton Academy network that includes more than 300 independently-operated, learner-driven microschools, serving thousands of students. 

In spring 2023, Alexis and JT Rubatsky listened to a podcast with Acton Academy co-founder, Jeff Sandefer, explaining the philosophy of learner-driven education where young people are empowered to pursue their passions while mastering core curriculum content. They were hooked, and knew immediately that it was the type of education they wanted for their two boys, ages six and 11. “Our kids weren’t thriving in school, and as a teacher, I saw that there was so much focus on the tests, on shoving information down their throats,” said Alexis, who quit her job teaching high school biology in the local public schools to open Triumph. The year started with five learners, including the Rubatskys’ two boys. Half-way through their first year, enrollment has more than doubled to 11 learners and the founders know it won’t be long before they outgrow their home-based classroom for a larger space.

“I would love for there to be lots of options,” said Alexis, who is encouraged by the growth of microschools and related models in Tennessee and across the U.S. She is already connecting with local founders like Rachel Good, who is working to build community among the entrepreneurial parents and teachers who are creating these new options. Working collaboratively, these small schools can have an even greater impact.

“I want to support these innovative educators,” said Good. “We need to have that variety of options.” 

Rod's Comment: I am pleased to see the growth of innovation and choice in education. My grandson attends Bloombury one day a week. A lot of his time is spend playing in the "forest." They get muddy and climb trees and play in the creek and feed chickens and pet goats and learn and have a great time. I have visited the school and am impressed and glad my grandson is having this experience. 

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