Alternative learning options for this fall should be more accessible

Governor Walz and the Department of Education will announce school plans for the fall on Thursday, July 30. While Walz has previously indicated that schools will be reopening in some form, further guidance is expected on what that will look like and what restrictions (if any) will be required to unlock school doors.

There is a possibility children will not be going back into the classroom, despite research that keeping schools shuttered will exacerbate education disparities and disproportionately impact low-income students and students of color—students whose learning needs have already been underserved for years.

The uncertainty around what school will look like has sent parents scrambling and looking to innovative alternatives to meet the needs of their students and enhance their learning opportunities. From “pandemic pods” to micro schools and “cottage schools” to homeschool co-ops, parents’ interest in education alternatives is on the rise. Not only are these alternatives helpful for families concerned with the direction of public education—or the dread of continuing distance learning, which didn’t go well this past spring—but they are also helpful for parents with health safety concerns regarding in-person learning.

“Pandemic Pods”

Across the country, parents have started organizing “pandemic pods,” in which, according to Lindsey Burke, “parents team up with other families in their neighborhoods or social circles to hire teachers for their children.”

Families work together to recruit teachers that they pay out-of-pocket to teach small groups—“pods”—of children. It’s a way for clusters of students to receive professional instruction for several hours each day.

Some parents are using their pod arrangements to hire teachers who will supplement the online classes being provided by their school districts.

As teachers’ unions battle against reopening plans, parents and teachers “are choosing to avoid this bureaucratic mess altogether” by pursuing pods, writes Kerry McDonald.

Micro schools

Micro schools have been around for a number of years but have recently popped into the spotlight given parents’ growing interest in micro schools’ defining quality—their size. According to Education Week, micro schools are similar to the one-room schoolhouse idea and can offer parents a highly personalized education at a lower cost than traditional private schools (think one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning and homeschooling meets private schooling). The definition of a micro school varies, but a few core traits that Education Week has identified are listed below.

  • No more than 150 students (but they are often smaller, from around 10 to a few dozen students)
  • Multiple ages learning together in a single classroom
  • Teachers who act more as guides than lecturers
  • Emphasis on digital and project-based learning
  • Highly personalized education

Education Next describes micro schools this way:

Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education. These families want an option other than home schooling that will personalize instruction for their child’s needs. A school in which students attend a couple days a week or a small school with like-minded parents can fit the bill.

Here are the micro schools in Minnesota that I have heard of: Everyberry School House in Mankato, four schools in the Wildflower Montessori network in Minneapolis and St. Paul aimed at children 6 years and younger, and Awakening Spirit School in Woodbury.

“Cottage Schools”

The “cottage school” concept is similar to podding and homeschool cooperatives, with slight variances, according to Burke who quotes

Our cottage school is made up of four families with 16 kids between us all! We meet once a week for about 24 weeks of the school year to learn together.

One aspect that makes a cottage school different from other homeschool co-ops is its size. It’s purposefully small—cottage-like! It allows us to have encouragement and support from each other as we teach our kids.

Homeschool Cooperatives

A homeschool co-op is a group of families who meet together to achieve common academic, social, and project-based goals, similar to the above examples, but range in size and can include as many as several hundred children. “Activities and classes that are part of a co-op may be led by parents, or the parents may chip in to pay all or some of the teachers and activity leaders,” according to The Homeschool Mom.

Here is a list of homeschool co-ops in Minnesota.

The alternatives listed above should not be limited to families who can afford them. If schools don’t reopen or can’t provide a learning environment that meets students’ needs, lawmakers could make funds available that give parents the opportunity to pursue a learning model that works for their student. Parents should not be limited to paying for closed schools and a distance learning model that proved to have serious limitations. These funds could be made available through emergency education savings accounts, which several states across the country are already providing, that would allow interested families to use a portion of their student’s public education funds to access meaningful resources and education services.