The Roman philosopher Seneca is quoted as saying that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” When the coronavirus hit Arizona and parents were looking for options outside of their closed traditional public schools, they were lucky to find a proliferating network of microschools. But that lucky moment was years, if not decades, in the making.
In a new paper for the Manhattan Institute, I examine the phenomenon of microschooling in Arizona. After hearing from several parents who found microschools to be a godsend after they grew frustrated watching their school boards and administrators dither and prevaricate on COVID policies, I wanted to answer a basic question: Why here?
To answer that question, we have to look back more than two decades into Arizona education policy. Starting in the mid-1990s, Arizona pushed for greater school choice, with the legislature passing a charter school law and an open enrollment law, followed just a few years later by one of the nation’s first tax-credit scholarship laws. Over the intervening years, the state has created four more private school choice programs, including a nation-leading education savings account in 2011.
Arizona has one of the largest charter school market shares in the nation. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 18 percent of Arizona students attend a charter school. And it isn’t just charter schools. According to EdChoice, 6.6 percent of Arizona students participate in a private school choice program. Paired with a large number of students participating in inter-district open enrollment, and you have an extremely choice-friendly state.
Given this fertile ground, it shouldn’t surprise us that new and innovative school models have emerged in Arizona. They have the space to operate, they can access public funding, and they have a population that is used to seeing new and different things.
Enter Prenda. Founded in 2018 by entrepreneur Kelly Smith as an extension of an after-school coding club he ran for students at a public library in Mesa, it has been growing in leaps and bounds, now enrolling more than 4,000 students.
As microschools, Prenda schools tend to enroll fewer than 10 students per site. A typical day at a Prenda microschool is divided into three parts: Conquer, Collaborate, and Create. Conquer is the part of the day devoted to academics, with students working with personalized learning software to deliver core instruction. Once that is completed, students enter Collaborate, where they work on group projects curated by their learning “guide” (the adult in the room) and the larger Prenda team, mostly focused on history and science. Finally, Create sets students loose for the rest of the day on artistic projects related to what they are learning.
Prenda is guided by several key values. These include “Start with heart,” “Figure it out,” “Dare greatly,” “Foundation of trust,” and “Learning > comfort.” In short, the founders of Prenda see young people as individuals capable of doing real and meaningful work. The small environment allows them to be themselves and have the space to try things, take risks, work through problems at their own pace, and grow.
When the coronavirus hit, Prenda and other microschools were in a strong position. Because the schools are so small, it was easier to keep up with social distancing guidelines. There were fewer students who could bring the virus into the classroom. And, if a student was exposed, they could do much of their academic work from home. But more than that, microschools created small communities with high levels of trust where adults and children were working together and supporting each other, rather than arguing against and undermining each other. In times of trial, trust and communal bonds are key. Prenda schools had them.
For most Arizona students, Prenda is free. Some students use the state’s private school choice programs, if they qualify, but most actually enroll in EdKey's Sequoia online charter school, with whom Prenda partners. The students take the same state tests as all other public school students in Arizona, and Sequoia’s charter is contingent on them performing. Rather than working from home, the students attend a Prenda site, with Prenda providing the guide, organizational infrastructure, and curated library of projects.
But parents seem to care less about the intricacies and more about the opportunities. During a pandemic when schools were closed and kids were struggling, learning environments that could nurture students and cultivate their gifts and talents were hard to come by. In a time of isolation and atomization, tight-knit communities were tested, as well. But they were more plentiful and more resilient in Arizona because policymakers have embraced choice and created an environment where entrepreneurial educators can create new and different schools.
As the pandemic recedes and we look to the lessons we can learn from the past two years, Arizona should stand out as a place we can learn from. It created space for community and entrepreneurship to solve problems. The solutions are small, and it takes a lot of them to make a difference. But in a world of fads and flashes in the pan, a commitment to the slow and steady work of educational improvement is a welcome change.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes
Michael McShane is director of national research at EdChoice. Based on a MI issue brief.
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