Microschools on the rise in Arizona, with COVID providing added boost

By: - July 28, 2020 5:35 pm

Photo by Imgorthand | Getty Images

By the time he was in fifth grade, Emily McIntosh’s son, Mo, had cycled through several schools, and nothing had worked.

Mo was essentially three years behind state standards on his math skills, and was “very, very insecure reading,” McIntosh said. 

Midway through his fifth-grade year, McIntosh tried something new: She enrolled Mo in a Prenda microschool. By the time he was halfway through his sixth-grade year, Mo had not only caught up but was doing math at a seventh-grade level.

“Basically, he went from feeling really inadequate and like he was stupid to feeing really capable and, like, excited to learn,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh said she’s become an evangelist for Prenda. She and Mo feature prominently in some of the company’s online ads.

Mo’s story is becoming more common in Arizona, where the popularity of microschools has exploded over the past several years, opening up a new frontier in the school choice movement.

There’s no universally agreed-upon definition of a microschool. The common denominators are usually that they tend to be very small with a mix of students from different grade levels, harkening back to the days of one-room schoolhouses. They typically have curriculum that is personalized to the students, and rely on guides who assist with student-driven learning instead of traditional teachers.

Some advocates describe it as a combination of homeschooling and a traditional school. 

“A microschool is kind of a midpoint. You don’t have to go all the way to homeschooling, but you can get some of that flexibility and some of that engagement you’re looking for,” said Kelly Smith, Prenda’s founder and CEO.

Smith said he’s seen schools that consider themselves microschools with as many as 50 students. Workspace Education, a nonprofit microschool in Connecticut, has about 120 students. Phoenix Union High School District runs a Montessori program out of Camelback High School that it considers a microschool, despite having a student body of about 130.

For Prenda, which dominates the market in Arizona, schools have between 5 and 10 students who are overseen not by a teacher, but by a learning guide. Schools mix several grade levels together, from kindergartners to eight graders, and students learn at their own pace, combining online instruction with project-based learning and peer-to-peer learning.

The first Prenda microschool opened in Arizona in January 2018 with 7 students. That fall, 24 students were enrolled in Prenda schools when the 2018-19 school year began. 

Since then, enrollment in Prenda schools has grown dramatically. At the start of the 2019-20 school year, Smith said there were about 550 students enrolled in Prenda schools, a number that had grown to about 700 by the time the COVID-19 crisis forced the state’s schools to shut down for the year. Smith estimated that there were about 1,000 students across the state in microschools when the last school year ended.

That exponential growth may get an extra boost from the COVID-19 outbreak, which has caused tremendous uncertainty over when and how the school year will begin, and has left many parents wary of sending their children back to large brick-and-mortar campuses with hundreds or even thousands of other students and staff.

Smith said Prenda’s enrollment has effectively doubled from this time last year, with more than 1,500 already signed up for Prenda schools. And there’s no telling how many could switch over during the course of the school year. On July 7, the map on the company’s website showed 126 Prenda schools in the state. By July 28, that number had swelled to 264.

Smith said it’s difficult to determine how much of the enrollment for the upcoming school year is due to parental concern over COVID-19 versus the natural growth that Prenda has seen in the past few years, but he was certain some of that growth was due to the pandemic.

How do microschools work?

Prenda doesn’t actually run the schools. It simply provides the curriculum, equipment, supplies and ongoing support that microschools across Arizona, the United States and the world at large — it has campuses as far away as Ghana — use to educate their students. 

Prenda’s learning guides receive training and background checks through the company. Typically, though not always, those guides run the schools out of their homes. Frequently, they began as microschool parents before becoming guides. Other times, the schools lease spaces from churches or other facilities. 

While guides help lead instruction, the Prenda model is for students to largely direct their own learning. Smith said Prenda’s curriculum uses three “modes”: conquer, collaborate and create.

Smith described the first, “conquer” mode, as an individualized learning in which the students go at their own pace, accessing content, lessons and material as needed, and going through periodic assessments to determine whether they’ve mastered the subjects they’re studying. Students don’t move on to another subject until they’ve mastered the one they’re working on. In “collaborate,” students lead structured group activities. And “create” mode focuses on project-based learning, 

“If you think of those three modes of learning, there’s lots of content being consumed. But it’s never an adult standing and sort of trying to put the content into the brain of the children. The kids are accessing it at a pace that works for them and they’re moving themselves through mastery,” Smith said.

Students attend Prenda schools for 20 hours per week, with a flexible schedule that allows variation in which days and for how long each day students attend.

Prenda students are held to the same academic standards as other district and charter school students, and must take the AzMerit assessment. For its first three years operating in Arizona, Prenda’s student body was too small to make much of a comparison with other public school students, Kelly said. The most recent school year was the first in which Kelly felt the number of students enrolled in Prenda schools was large enough to make a solid comparison with their peers, but the AzMerit test was called off due to the COVID-19 outbreak that shuttered schools across the state.

“We were very excited actually to take the test this year. We might have been the only people who were disappointed in April when we weren’t able to take the AzMerit,” Smith said.

In Arizona, most Prenda schools are public and are free of charge for students to attend, though there is a small handful of parents who pay for the company’s services through the state’s voucher-style Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Prenda partners with several charter schools and Mesa Public Schools, through which state funding flows to the individual schools.

Prenda is the biggest name in miscroschooling in Arizona, but not the only one. Acton Academy Phoenix is a private microschool that is part of the larger Acton Academy network, in which independently operated schools are connected through a common support network. Acton Academy Phoenix opened its doors near 35th Avenue and Camelback in 2016, and another Acton school is opening in the East Valley.

Acton Academy schools use a similar educational model to Prenda. Andrew Collins, the managing director of Acton Academy Phoenix, said the school uses a mastery-based, student-driven educational style, led by a learning guide, with elements of Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches.

“There’s no grade. They just keep working with a growth mindset using the best tools available until they can prove their mastery,” said Collins, who is also president and CEO of New Learning Ventures, the umbrella organization that Acton Academy is part of. 

Acton students engage in some online learning, but there’s also a focus on “learning by doing,” Collins said. Sometimes that means writing, whether it be a review of a book the students chose to read or a proposal for a business they’d like to start. Students go out into the community to interview and learn from businesspeople, nonprofit leaders, restaurateurs, artists or others, sometimes shadowing them or apprenticing with them. Every year, students craft a proposal for a business that they launch at the Arizona Children’s Business Fair.

Acton Academy doesn’t have individual grade levels. The Phoenix campus has 25-30 students, broken down into three “studios” that separate children into blocs based on age. 

Prenda microschools are regulated by the state as virtual schools, so the rules shutting down other public schools don’t apply to them, Smith said, and there’s been no new guidance from the state mandating otherwise. The schools can open as scheduled for the new school year, Smith said, “with lots of caveats” and a high comfort level among the people involved.

“Groups of 10 or fewer people together in a private home still feels OK, according to the guidance we’ve seen,” Smith said.

As a private school, Acton Academy isn’t bound by the state’s requirements for reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic. Collins said the school will open for the new school year on Aug. 17, with students attending in person if they’re able, though others will have the option of learning remotely.

“We believe learning can happen anywhere and everywhere,” Collins said.

Why are parents choosing microschools?

The focus on allowing children to learn at their own pace was a big selling point for Armando and Erika Barry, whose three children are all enrolled in Prenda schools. 

Two of their children, who are in the same grade, had very different educational needs, with one excelling and getting bored with school and the other falling behind and needing help catching up. Both have flourished in their Prenda school, the parents said.

“How could we meet both of their needs? The answer was Prenda. They could both advance at their level, their pace,” Armando said.

A third child, a special education student with learning disabilities, attends a Prenda campus that operates inside of Eisenhower Elementary School in Mesa.

For Armando and Erika, there was a lot to like with their children’s schooling, whether it be the lack of focus on performance assessments, the lack of homework, the reliance on technology or the emphasis on empowering students, teaching them to find the answers to their questions themselves, with adults helping them figure out where to look rather than telling them the answers outright. Armando and Erika can log into their children’s accounts and see what they’ve done in school every day. 

The son who’s enrolled at Eisenhower had his most successful year of school of his academic career, the parents said.

“He progressed at a better rate than any other time in his schooling. His comment was, ‘I don’t feel the pressure of being in a big class and making a mistake in front of everyone,’” Armando said.

As an added bonus, the Prenda program at Eisenhower provides all the benefits that Armando and Erika like about microschooling, while allowing their son to do things like go to music and art classes, have physical education and lunch period, go on field trips, and enjoy all the social benefits of a more traditional educational experience.

Erika described Prenda as “empowering.”

“That’s one thing this model is so great for. You can take all those kids … who are different levels academically but they’re cheering for each other. They’re celebrating all these milestones. The reward is not a tangible certificate or prize,” she said.

Donna Nelson turned to Prenda out of frustration with her daughter Jonni’s public school. Nelson, who lives on the San Carlos Apache Reservation near Globe, said her daughter’s teacher had trouble managing her class because she had so many students, and was concerned that the school wasn’t doing anything to address the bullying her daughter was experiencing.

So Nelson enrolled her daughter in the Dassa John Microschool, a Prenda school that operates out of a church in Globe. Since then, Nelson said, Jonni has gone from lagging behind her grade level to exceeding it. 

Nelson touted the microschool’s focus on encouraging problem-solving skills. The guide has more time to focus on Jonni than the teacher at her district school did, she said. And in addition to the guide, she said, the students help each other as well. 

“She has the attention that she needs. The guide is there. And she’s really grown because she’s not in a class with just students her age,” Nelson said.

Nelson said she’s seen the same problem afflict many other students on the reservation, and believes microschools are becoming more popular there as a result.

“I think that’s why a lot of kids on the reservation get lost and fall behind and they get frustrated and they end up not going to school or not putting their best forward,” she said.

Kirk Adams, the former speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives who later served as chief of staff to Gov. Doug Ducey, sent his son to a Prenda school for fifth grade. He wasn’t necessarily struggling with school, Adams said, but he wasn’t enjoying it, either. Getting him out the door for school each morning was a challenge.

Adams said that changed when he started attending his microschool, where the customized learning environment and student-to-teacher ratio helped turn things around. After a year there, his son decided he was ready to go back to a more traditional school, and he’s since enrolled in a Basis charter school.

“For him, he kind of caught on fire academically. He took ownership for his own learning,” Adams said.

The ‘Wild West’ of education

While microschools are becoming the new darlings of the school choice movement, they aren’t without critics.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, of the public education advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona, said there are a number of concerns, and insisted new legislation is needed to regulate microschools.  

“This is the Wild West of a schooling option. Most microschools just happen in someone’s home, except these aren’t your own kids, these are other people’s kids,” Penich-Thacker said.

Penich-Thacker questioned the quality of the education the students receive. While the students still must take standardized assessments like any other public school student, Prenda emphasizes that tests like AzMerit aren’t their focus, she said. 

“In some ways, I think any educator would say, yeah, we should care less about those things. But the state of Arizona, when it’s using taxpayer dollars, has a heavy hand and mandates that for public district schools. And yet we have microschools taking the exact same money saying, we don’t care, you don’t have to worry about that here,” Penich-Thacker said.

She questioned the quality of the learning guides as well. They don’t call them teachers for a reason, she said, describing guides as “just supervising kids who are on laptops doing online charter school.” With such small student bodies and guides with limited training, she questioned how microschools could accommodate students with learning disabilities or non-English speakers, whom public schools can’t legally turn away.

And Penich-Thacker said she has concerns about student safety and welfare, pointing to a lack of state laws and regulations for microschools. For example, she questioned whether students are learning in homes with prescription medications or firearms that aren’t secured. 

Smith, the Prenda CEO, said his organization subjects learning guides to the same fingerprint-based background check that the state requires of public school teachers. Guides are required by the company to keep things like medications and firearms secured, he said, and Prenda also requires smoke detectors and prohibits open alcoholic containers and illicit drugs.

In the relatively short history of microschools in this state, the Arizona Department of Education has yet to receive any complaints, said spokesman Richie Taylor. In fact, it’s heard little about microschools in general.

That’s not to say the department doesn’t have concerns, as well. Taylor said the department has questions about things like background checks and the safety of students inside guides’ homes. He noted that teachers are mandatory reporters, meaning they’re legally obligated to report things like signs of abuse or neglect, and questioned whether the same would hold true for microschool guides.

“If it becomes more of a trend and we’re seeing more students and parents choose that option, we’d want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep kids safe. But (we) certainly understand in this environment that people are going to be looking for different options,” Taylor said.

Mixed feelings in Mesa

On July 23, Mesa Public Schools, which has partnered with Prenda at Eisenhower Elementary School, and is starting a similar program at Webster Elementary School, rejected a proposal for a larger partnership with the microschooling company. Under that proposal program, 100 students would have attended Prenda microschools in partnership with the district’s Mesa Distance Learning Program, with the option of enlarging the program if it proved successful.

Feelings were mixed among members of the district’s governing board. Governing board member Jenny Richardson, who has an adult daughter who applied to be a Prenda guide, said she knows a number of people who have enrolled their children in Prenda schools and are very happy with the decision. And partnering with Prenda would help families who don’t have the tools they need for their children to succeed while Mesa Public Schools provides remote instruction.

“I thought Prenda was built for this pandemic,” Richardson said. 

Elaine Miner, the governing board president, said the program would provide options to parents while ensuring that students stayed enrolled with Mesa Public Schools. She said some parents were unhappy with the prospect of online learning because they have multiple students enrolled with the district and can’t watch them during the day. 

Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Andi Fourlis said it would be preferable for the district to collaborate with Prenda rather than compete with it. 

Others, however, had a litany of concerns. Board members Marcie Hutchinson and Kiana Sears had concerns about demographics. Hutchinson noted that Mesa Public Schools is a majority-minority district, while Smith told the board that Prenda’s student body in Arizona is about 80% white, though he emphasized that included many poor rural students. They questioned how the students would be selected and whether the program would truly be open to all Mesa Public Schools students.

Critics of the plan essentially described the proposed partnership as a slap in the face to the district’s teachers.

“I’m afraid that we didn’t even give them a shot, that our district didn’t trust the professionals in the room. These are folks that have master’s degrees, advanced degrees, they have experience with our kids, they know our community. And we gave them a vote of no confidence,” Hutchinson said. “How can our teachers not feel disrespected right now?”

After a lengthy executive session, the governing board unanimously rejected the partnership proposal. While Mesa Public Schools won’t enter into the new agreement, it will continue its partnership with Prenda at Eisenhower and Webster elementary schools, Smith said. 

Not for everyone

Even those who support microschools say there are some downsides. Armando Barry said Prenda’s partnership with Eisenhower Elementary School is the ideal model because students who use the traditional model miss out on so many experiences.

Armando and Erika had to devote about 20 hours a week to their other two children who attend regular Prenda microschools to ensure they had the kinds of extracurricular experiences they missed out on by not attending a more traditional school.

“I’m not 100% sold on the Prenda model, how it is now. I think there are benefits and there are drawbacks to having a community school where you only have eight to ten kids in the neighborhood, and there’s drawbacks to having a giant school. And I think somewhere in the middle is a perfect blend,” he said.

Jenn Gray was looking to enroll her 7-year-old daughter in a Prenda school for the upcoming academic year. Because of her daughter’s vision problems, Gray didn’t want her attending a school where she would be required to wear a mask all day. So she looked at Prenda and was enthusiastic about its mastery-based, goal-oriented, student-driven approach to education. 

“I love the idea of having small groups of kids. The same six to eight kids getting together all the time is a much safer situation than a petri dish of several hundred kids crossing paths all day long,” Gray said.

But Gray was ultimately dissuaded by Prenda’s part-time schedule.

“I personally think it’s great for the kids. It’s better for the kids. But it’s just not realistic for most working families,” she said. “I think it’s a great fit for people who have a flexible enough schedule to accommodate it.”

Instead of microschooling or homeschooling, Gray is trying an innovative approach of her own, sort of a halfway point between regular distance learning and pandemic pods. Her daughter will learn remotely at home through her school, and Gray will supervise other students who are learning remotely while their parents work.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”