What Are Microschools? Mythbusting the Microschool Model | Kate Parsons | 4 Min Read

January 27, 2021

In light of the global pandemic, education as many of us know it, has been turned on its head. Families everywhere are suddenly faced with a plethora of new options; terms like pods, micropods, microschools, and hybrid learning were brought into the universe as families attempted to navigate the COVID-19 education landscape. Despite what some may think, microschools are not in the same categories as the other options and were around long before COVID-19 came into existence as an alternative to traditional schooling. 

What is a microschool? 

So what is a microschool? While there is no single definition, there are plenty of characteristics that microschool models across the nation share. Among other distinguishing features, microschools…

  • Are considered “micro” because they intentionally serve small cohorts of students for a personalized experience (usually between 15-150 students)
  • Have teachers and staff that function more as guides and coaches that facilitate learning
  • Embrace practices like project-based and competency-based learning to provide meaningful, relevant, and authentic learning experiences 

Benefits of Microschools

Microschools are viewed as a good alternative to other options for two main reasons: cost and personalization.  With lean, creative financial models, microschools are able to keep tuition costs low and accessible to more students, all the while providing a highly individualized program where students have deep relationships with peers and staff due to the intentionally small enrollment models. Tuition comes at a fraction of the cost (50% or more) of average independent high schools. While some may argue that the same level of personalization and quality instruction cannot be achieved in a model like this, microschools tend to cut costs creatively in other areas: lower cost backend systems, leveraging parents or industry experts as teachers, utilizing community resources and partnerships with existing programs for extracurriculars, or allowing students to participate in work-study to subsidize tuition and get legitimate work experience as part of school operations.

Portal Schools Sample Weekly Schedule

The team at Portal Schools, based in Los Angeles with plans to scale nationwide, is committed to crafting an educational experience that disrupts the current traditional school model and provides essential elements for lifelong success. Portal Schools is an emerging network of select microschools where students simultaneously attain a high school diploma and bachelor’s degree in tandem. The schools’ campuses are shared with partnering corporations, giving students the opportunity to dive into exciting, hands-on internships, and obtain a diverse range of invaluable learning experiences. Their first site is launching in August 2021 on the campus of Belkin International. Portal Schools serve an intentionally diverse student population, with a focus on true equity, through a model that is student-centered, competency-based, and career-immersed, with a focus on opening the doors of opportunity for all and empowering students to successfully launch into professional careers. Students leave Portal with a set of versatile skills that align with the future of work. 

Based on wisdom from other alternative and microschool models such as Acton Academy, Wildflower Schools and Workspace Education, among others, Portal Schools has designed their radically relevant education at a fraction of the cost of other private schools in the area. 

Distinctive Features of Portal Schools’ model include:

  • Attainment of a high school diploma and bachelor’s degree, simultaneously
  • Career-immersed learning through co-location on a corporate campus
  • Diverse by design student body
  • Competency-based, project-based academic curriculum
  • Hybrid schedules with “flex days” to meet the varying needs of students
  • Individualization and flexibility in pacing, curriculum, and career development
  • Student-driven and student-created extracurriculars
  • Cohorts of 15 students that allow for strong relationships crucial to learning
  • Coaches guiding each student’s personal academic journey, career learning, extracurricular choices, and monitoring academic and social-emotional progress to ensure student success
*Concept rendering created by Gensler Los Angeles

There are many misinformed perceptions of microschools that exist. For instance, some might think they only serve students who want to pursue a trade or vocational career, that they lack rigor and structure for learning (“what do students even do all day?”), or that they are the same thing as impromptu “pandemic pods.” But in fact, established microschools are quite the contrary. Microschools meet students where they are and help them access rigorous curriculum by providing safe opportunities for risk-taking and individualization (quite a departure from the traditional perception of independent and other private schools). And they are anything but impromptu: the model design is thoughtfully and intentionally built to create a unique educational experience, unlike many other school options. For example, at Portal Schools’ microschool sites, students have the ability to earn both a high school diploma and a college degree, in addition to experiencing career opportunities.

What are you looking for in the educational experience for your child? Have you considered an alternative school model? As more possibilities for education that once seemed far-fetched and impossible become available, more families may choose to join microschools that better meet the needs of the 21st-century learner, leaving the century-old, time-bound approach we know behind.

By Kate Parsons, Head of School & C.O.O., Portal Schools

Kate Parsons

Kate Parsons is the Head of School and COO of Portal Schools. In her current role, she is responsible for developing school design and instructional components, overseeing logistics related to operations, enrollment and accreditations, as well as hiring and managing the many staff, partners, and consultants that Portal Schools engages with as they build their model. Prior to her work with Portal Schools, Kate worked for the Da Vinci Schools from its founding year in 2009 until 2019. She served as the Principal of Da Vinci Design from 2013-2019 and was a math and science teacher prior to that. As Principal, Kate developed two career pathways at Da Vinci Design and built a third to launch in the 2019-20 school year. In addition, she initiated the Da Vinci Design Advisory Board, a group whose mission is to support and inform the relevance of each career pathway. She developed and ran professional development sessions for staff regularly and successfully led the Da Vinci Design team through a full WASC self-study process. Kate is a proud mentor in the Transforming Learning Collaborative, founded in 2018 by Da Vinci Schools, Schools that Can, and the Next Generation Learning Challenge. Kate earned her B.S. in Education and Chemistry from Manhattan College in New York where she was also a member of the Women’s Soccer team. She earned her M.Ed. in Educational Administration and Leadership through Arizona State University. She is excited and honored to be working on Portal Schools with a passionate team to create meaningful and lasting change in the world of education.

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