Where Size Matters

The micro-school movement toward modernity

It is often reported that the US education system needs more funding, more attention, and reimagining. The micro-school movement is a recent response based on the idea that in education,    smaller = better. Micro-schools are intentionally small schools that teach anywhere from 5 to 15 students. The trend is based on the idealized model of the one-room schoolhouse, but micro-schools are an important departure from the past: they are founded with all intention of bringing every possible technological advance into the classroom.

This isn’t about cutting costs, it’s about broadening and strengthening the curriculum. Trailblazers for this newly reimagined system are schools like AltSchool, 4.0, and Brooklyn Apple Academy. Placed in large urban centers, these schools select students based on an application and screening process.
There are good reasons that Micro-schools have recently gained traction in many US cities. They appeal to a sense of excellence, balance and harmony are preached, teacher to student ratios are capitalized on, and technology is applied in new and exciting forms. However, what’s most important about this new movement in education is the questions it raises about the current educational system. Micro-schools, at their core, are a response to the largely overcrowded and underfunded US grade school system.  In many of the startup schools, the strict correlation between grade and age is abandoned. The new system encourages mixing age groups together in the hopes of giving students experience with working and conversing with various age groups, something that public grade schools are structurally opposed to.

Sure, there are benefits. Firstly and perhaps most obviously, the benefit of a small school is the increased interaction between the teacher and staff and the students. The goal of the micro-schools is to bring the focus back on the individual and the students. The thought is that personality, creativity, and individuality can be fostered following this system while also giving the students a head-and-shoulders advantage over classmates who attend current public institutions. By building upon the required curriculum, students of micro-schools have the freedom to pursue topics for further study and specialization that current school systems do not have. This includes everything from more field trips, video-chatting with professionals and researchers, etc. The students can have an early chance to pursue things that might build interest that will last a lifetime.

The benefits are definitely there. However, do they outweigh the costs? Though it may seem that the costs would be lower having only a handful of kids per school, the opposite is true. Attendance in a micro-school is not a cheap affair. For example, AltSchool’s tuition in San Francisco for the 2014-2015 school year is $19,100. This does not include meals and afterschool care.

For many parents, this is economically out of reach.

Is this a feasible model to follow? The micro-school system is not a solution to the current issues with education in the USA. It isn’t a financially feasible idea to be applied universally.  It works by distancing itself from the mess and clutter while maintaining the same basic core structure. Instead of sensationalizing the micro-school movement, it should be accepted for what it is: a broadening of the definition of what education can be and what education will be in the future.