Opinion: Microschools would have helped me as a kid in Peru. Now they can help Utahns.

I imagine the possibility of implementing microschools back home and seeing how they can improve the lives of thousands of Peruvian kids.

(Ian Lindsey) Students attend class at Acton Academy St. George, a microschool in St. George, Utah.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, microschools have been gaining popularity. Following this new trend, some parents have decided that the traditional model might not be the best option for their kids and have thus transitioned to microschools. During this period, over 1.2 million students left traditional district schools. Many of them opted instead for microschools or private education.

What is a microschool?

Microschools have been described as minischools, pandemic pods, one-room schoolhouses and learning centers. Some of these schools can accommodate as many as 150 students.

Microschools provide more diverse learning options and as such can better cater to the specific and individual needs of their students. Thus, it is unsurprising that microschools have so significantly grown in popularity over the last few years considering the plethora of options that they provide for every parent and child.

As an immigrant from Peru, I appreciate what microschools can bring to the table. It is common in the most rural areas of my country for children to have to walk for hours to attend public schools. The worst part is that most of these schools are in bad condition (i.e. no water, no infrastructure, and no seats). I imagine the possibility of implementing microschools back home and seeing how they can improve the lives of thousands of Peruvian kids.

Microschools offer a wide array of opportunities for students and their families. Some offer advanced courses in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines, while others provide a safe and nurturing environment for students with special needs. These programs all are characterized by their commitment to meeting the particular needs and interests of their students.

One of the primary goals of microschools is to individualize education by shrinking class sizes. Instead of forcing teachers to juggle 20-30 students per class, the average student-to-teacher ratio in microschools is 5:1. This better positions educators to focus on individualized learning which students benefit from tremendously.

It is estimated that there are over 120,000 microschools in the United States, which are responsible for educating around 2 million students.

Why do founders start microschools?

“While working within the school system and in private practice, I noticed a concerning trend: As children reached upper elementary school and middle school, many of them became increasingly anxious and depressed. As a parent, I worried about the potential impact on my own son, who was happy and sociable at that time”, said Christina Sullivan before creating Evolve Learning Community, a microschool that is succeeding in Florida.

The situation was similar for Alex Cheung, who founded a microschool in Utah. He discussed how when his son was in first grade he was already performing math at a third or fourth grade level, while he felt completely lost when it came to reading. Bored during math and frustrated during reading, his son was labeled with a behavior problem in kindergarten. According to Alex, “(My son’s) curiosity gradually diminished, his excitement for learning dwindled, and he fought going to school every day.”

Different parents prioritize and value different things for their kids, which explains their decisions to opt for one school over another. Those reasons can stem from the disparity among parents with the decisions of their schools, or because their kids are struggling in the school environment.

Parents are willing to embrace new ways of education if they think it is in the best interest of their children.

How do we reduce government barriers?

Not all states have adopted a welcoming stance to these alternative forms of education, but Utah has. In fact, it is at the forefront of the movement.

The Utah legislature recently passed SB13, which removes many of the barriers to microschools.

Before this bill, microschools had the worst of both zoning and building codes. First they were forced into strip malls or onto busy highways. When a suitable location was found, the founders would have to make expensive renovations to the building, such as adding extra bathrooms for schools with 20-30 students. Sometimes founders have to go as far as lobbying the city to change the zone code before they could even begin their renovations.

Thanks to the bill, microschool founders can create a microschool in all zoning districts within a county and municipality. This means that they have the choice to locate their microschools wherever they want, including home-based schools.

Further, building requirements were also reduced for new microschools. These microschools can now be in commercial buildings without having to do extensive renovations to meet the requirements of an outdated building code.

Since microschools can now be based anywhere, it reduces the costs that founders need to spend to start one. For reference on how expensive it was previously, Ian Lindsey invested around half a million dollars to create a microschool in St. George before the law was passed.

This new law, sponsored by Sen. Fillmore, diminishes barriers and reaffirms education empowerment. This new step represents an excellent opportunity for parents, children and teachers to innovate and improve education.

(Photo courtesy of Libertas Institute) Bruno Rodriguez Puccinelli

Bruno Rodriguez Puccinelli is a policy intern at Libertas Institute.

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