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Unconventional private schools are attracting parents with tailored offerings. Public schools can, too.

School children gather around a picnic table.
Students gather for outdoor learning at the Morgan Oliver School, a diverse-by-design private microschool in Atlanta, GA (Chelsea Waite).

Small learning environments that operate outside public schools—such as microschools, hybrid homeschools, and learning pods—exploded into broad public consciousness during the pandemic. While many children who were in these programs have now returned to public school, entrepreneurs continue to expand alternative learning options, and many families are interested in what they offer. 

One thing is abundantly clear from the still-limited research on these learning environments: they’re enormously pluralistic. Instead of unifying around a shared philosophy, aim, or approach, one commonality among these alternative schools is that they operate outside the boundaries of the public school system, offering approaches that contrast with traditional education structures.

Our research adds another nuance: microschools and other unconventional learning environments aren’t trying to solve for every single reason that families opt out of “regular” school. They’re generally designed to solve one or two issues, such as how to reduce distractions and help students focus, or how to educate students through the lens of a specific value system. 

Traditional public schools, by contrast, are expected to serve every family that walks in the door. This is how public education is supposed to work—by maintaining protections for students and families no matter their needs or circumstances. On the other hand, when every school is expected to meet every need at once, they can often end up serving no one very well. The pluralistic approach of these private learning operators is a reminder that district and charter network leaders can create a create a menu of school options within their systems while preserving the equity and democratic functions of public schools.

Unconventional education operators tap into families’ values and priorities

To dig deeper into the offerings of these unconventional operators, we scanned reports and websites from organizations that advocate for, fund, or study these private learning environments, focusing on schools that fit the definition of “permissionless” or “unconventional.” Then, we examined the website of each learning environment to get a sense of how they communicate their offerings to families and to create a data set of their features. These environments are independent (not public district or charter schools) and offer core education as an alternative to public school (i.e., they are not supplemental programs).

To be sure, what independent learning environments describe on their websites is no guarantee of educational quality or the robustness of curriculum the school can offer. But, we’ve read through dozens of school websites to understand how these systems communicate their offerings, what problems entrepreneurs are trying to address, and the solutions they’ve applied. How these operators communicate their purpose tells us about how they hope to appeal to families that are considering alternative educational options. Some major goals and values that emerged from our research include: 

  • Higher quality education for marginalized communities. Some operators perceive that schools most readily available to marginalized students are low-quality. In response, they promise better results to help students succeed academically and later, economically. For example, Icon Preparatory School, with campuses in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville, FL as well as Cleveland, OH, promises academic excellence for low-income, predominantly BIPOC students. In New Orleans, the 1881 Institute aims to launch underrepresented students into STEM careers with high earning potential. 
  • More culturally affirming and inclusive learning environments. Some operators are focused on reaching families for whom school is a marginalizing experience. They appear to be solving this problem by promising to view a student’s cultural background as a strength. For instance, Roxbury Roots in Boston, MA offers an African-centered Montessori program, and Lakota Oyate Homeschool Co-op in South Dakota prioritizes cultural safety for Lakota youth.
  • Education focused on a particular set of values. Some operators aim to appeal to families who don’t see their core values reflected or taught in traditional schools. They state their values plainly and integrate them into learning and enrichment activities. For example, Morgan Oliver School, in Atlanta, GA, offers what they describe as an antiracist curriculum. Aquinas Learning advertises itself as a Catholic-based education. 
  • Education tailored for learners with complex needs. Some operators aim to serve families whose children need unique supports that aren’t always offered in traditional schools. These environments are designed to suit the specific needs of students with disabilities, neurodivergent learners, or gifted students. For example, North Florida School of Special Education in Jacksonville, FL serves students ages 6-22 who have intellectual and developmental differences, and Autism Inspired Academy in Clearwater, FL says it focuses on developing the strengths of students on the autism spectrum.
  • Small and individualized classes to help students focus. While many operators tout their ability to customize learning for students, some are especially focused on serving families whose biggest critique of traditional schools is that classrooms are too large and filled with distractions. These operators are designing instruction to allow for more individual work and tailored coaching or tutoring. For instance, Fusion Academy, with campuses in 18 states, pairs each student with a teacher for one-on-one instruction.
  • Education that prioritizes exploration and expression. Some operators are focused on upending what they see as compliance-oriented learning and rote memorization in traditional schools. They focus on attracting families who want their children to learn through inquiry and hands-on experiences rather than direct instruction. For example, Discovery Lab in Ellensburg, WA offers a project-based curriculum, and North Star Teens in Sunderland, MA lets teens choose what they want to learn and doesn’t require any mandatory classes.
  • Programs with more flexibility in time and space for learning. Some operators focus on attracting families who believe the traditional school schedule is too rigid and who want greater flexibility in when and where students learn. For instance, MyTech High offers an online education for students who need flexible schedules because they are athletes, or whose families are traveling or live in multiple places.

In our scan so far, it seems clear that operators often focus on one or two key issues in their schools. They’re not trying to be a better option than traditional school for every family.

Public schools, by contrast, are tasked with meeting the needs of all families, regardless of background or circumstance. Traditional residential assignment requires this on principle. But a “one size fits all” approach inevitably will privilege some and marginalize others—which leads some families to seek out alternatives like those listed above. 

Instead of assuming that the way to effectively meet diverse families’ needs is to make a better one-size-fits-all model, district and school leaders could explore ways to create different models for families with different circumstances and priorities.

Taking such an approach in public schools is not without challenges. There are risks for special populations: while some schools may be designed around the needs of students with disabilities or multilingual students, allowing other schools to screen out these students or decline services could mean effectively segregating complex learners. There are risks for the most vulnerable students, who may not have adult advocates at home thinking about what they need, or who may switch schools frequently, which research shows can lead to lower graduation rates. Even families who are paying close attention to their children’s education may not have the information, know-how, or resources to navigate the trade-offs of a confusing set of different options. There are also broader social and political risks: the flip side of pluralism may be self-segregation, where families opt into learning communities that share their values but minimize their exposure to different perspectives. 

In a political climate where division is threatening democratic stability, we urgently need creative thinking about how a more pluralistic education landscape can still create common ground and strengthen communities even across differing viewpoints and ideologies.

While these risks merit further inquiry, public education leaders should consider the upsides. Greater autonomy at the school level can allow schools to make unique design choices suited to their communities’ priorities, such as a district portfolio strategy. An openness to creativity and experimentation, such as piloting microschools with a set of families opting in, might help target a narrower set of family priorities and student needs. A focus on equity can ensure that students with unique and complex needs are at the center of some schools’ designs—like Da Vinci RISE, a public charter school authorized by the Los Angeles County Board of Education, which focuses on youth navigating foster care and housing instability.

We’ll be digging deeper into these issues in future posts, all with the aim of surfacing promising ideas from outside the system to inform public education. We’ll also raise critical questions about where research, funding, or policy interventions are necessary to deliver more options that meet families’ needs and advance the goals of public education.

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