By Kerry McDonald, State Policy Network Education Policy Fellow
When Stephanie Harper decided to open Harper Learning Academy in Byram, Mississippi in August, her goal was to create a small, personalized educational setting in which her daughter would thrive. Conventional classroom environments weren’t a good match for Harper’s child. They also weren’t working well for the daughter of Harper’s colleague, Tekeeta Funchess. Harper and Funchess had been longtime teachers in the Jackson Public Schools before they left their jobs to provide educational consulting services to public school districts through the firm Harper founded in 2016.
As they worked together, they realized their daughters were experiencing similar challenges in standard school settings. “We’re mothers with children who learn differently who are trying to improve the system but realized that the system wasn’t working for our children,” said Harper, who is a certified teacher with a Ph.D. in education. They also suspected it wasn’t working for many other children as well.
“We really couldn’t find what we were looking for. We tried several different schools,” added Funchess, who has a master’s degree in computer science and is a certified mathematics teacher. “We decided that if we can’t get the table, we’ll build the table.”
The result is Harper Academy, a mixed-age, K-12 microschool for children who benefit from a smaller school setting with a customized curriculum approach. The microschool currently has 14 students and two classroom teachers, along with Harper and Funchess who serve as administrators while continuing to do their consulting work. Indeed, it’s the consulting business that subsidizes the microschool and makes it more financially accessible to families.
Located in an inviting, home-like setting along a commercial strip, the microschool exudes warmth and happiness. The smiling children, most of whom have learning differences, learn at their own pace, with creative curriculum and state-of-the-art technology. In one language arts lesson, the teacher guided the older elementary and middle school-age children through an “escape the room” writing and critical thinking activity that blended Chromebooks and lively conversations. Meanwhile, a group of younger students in the adjacent classroom were enthusiastically working through a math lesson. They were allowed, and encouraged, to move their bodies as they listened to their teacher, rather than being told to sit still in their seats—something that is difficult for many young children and especially for children who may have an ADHD diagnosis, as many of these microschoolers do.
Funchess’s daughter is one of them. She struggled with ADHD and anxiety, and had been taking medications to treat these conditions. Since beginning Harper Academy over the summer, she no longer needs any medication. “A lot of it was because of her school settings,” said Funchess. “School was a big trigger for her. Here, we make them feel human. My daughter now says that when she’s here, she’s happy.” In addition to being happier, her daughter and the other microschooled children are also excelling academically through this more individualized educational approach.
From their experience working in public schools as teachers and consultants, Harper and Funchess say that the educators working in conventional schools try their best and are often hamstrung by institutional constraints, such as rigid curriculum standards and frequent testing. “It’s not the people, it’s how the system was created,” said Harper. “Our philosophy is that we’re doing what’s best for each child, not an institution.”
Harper’s microschool is one of several that have opened in Mississippi over the past two years. Microschools are intentionally small, mixed-age learning communities that are modeled after a one-room schoolhouse. They typically have low student to teacher ratios and adopt a highly personalized, mastery-based curriculum. Microschools have been gaining popularity over the past decade, led by national microschool networks such as Acton Academy, Liberated Learners, Prenda, and Wildflower Montessori. Since 2020, however, interest in microschools has soared, prompting more entrepreneurial parents and educators to launch a microschool in their community.
Donna Akers retired in 2020 after a nearly 30-year career as a certified special education teacher in the Mississippi public schools. She decided to open Ivy Greene Academy, a Pontotoc microschool affiliated with the Acton Academy network. Acton Academy was founded in 2010 by Laura and Jeff Sandefer and now includes approximately 280 microschools in more than 30 states and 25 countries. It emphasizes learner-driven education, with a non-coercive educational approach that prioritizes personal agency. Ivy Greene now has over 40 students in kindergarten through tenth grade, with four adult guides in addition to Akers. Some families travel long distances to attend the microschool, including one family who drives more than an hour each way from Memphis.
“It’s amazing to me that they are willing to do this for their children,” said Akers. “I did not expect people to drive that far. They love the model. They love how independent their child is. It’s transforming them.”
This strong parent demand for smaller, more personalized learning options is what led Emily Williams to open a microschool in Vicksburg. Like the other Mississippi microschool founders, Williams was also a public school teacher who taught in district schools for more than a decade. She resigned from her job in 2020 to open Micah’s Mission, which now serves nearly 50 children, including several who have significant special needs. Most children attend her program five days a week, but some participate part-time as homeschoolers.
These three Mississippi microschools are expanding education options for families who are looking for an alternative to a conventional classroom. Elyse Marcellino, the director of New Schools Project at Empower Mississippi, has been following the burgeoning microschool movement, both nationally and in Mississippi. “It’s exciting to see parents and educators coming up with timely education solutions to help their communities thrive and supporting each other in that process,” said Marcellino. “The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well here.”
Marcellino leads Embark, a project of Empower Mississippi, to help support microschool founders and accelerate the growth of innovative K-12 learning models throughout the state. “Embark proactively works to find promising education entrepreneurs and connect them with pre-launch resources, support, and mentorship,” said Marcellino. “Our goal is to shorten the distance between idea and doors open so that these leaders have the momentum they need to create and open great new school options in Mississippi.” She hosts monthly meetings and regular events for current and prospective Mississippi education entrepreneurs.
In my recent State Policy Network report, I describe common regulatory barriers that education entrepreneurs often encounter. Unlike many states, Mississippi is relatively friendly toward education entrepreneurs who want to build new learning solutions. It’s generally easy to open a private school, to homeschool, and to offer various educational services in the state. “In Mississippi, we have very light regulation, light boundaries in terms of starting a school,” said Stephanie Harper, whose microschool was recently honored with an award from the city of Byram for its innovative business model. This sets Mississippi apart and helps to explain the growth of its microschooling sector.
Other states can follow Mississippi’s lead by reducing regulatory hurdles for education entrepreneurs and encouraging the expansion of innovative, low-cost learning models. They can also replicate Mississippi’s strategy of helping to cultivate the creation of more of these models by establishing state-based initiatives such as Empower’s Embark project.
School choice policies, including education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarship programs, enable education funding to go directly to students and help to activate education entrepreneurship. These policies expand access to a diversity of education options for families and should continue to be championed. Supporting education entrepreneurs who are building new learning models, with or without school choice policies, can also increase access to a variety of low-cost education options. Parents are increasingly demanding more education choices, and entrepreneurs are rising to meet that demand and extend the supply of available education possibilities.
All of the Mississippi microschool founders spotlighted here intend to grow their programs to keep up with demand. “Since COVID, families have now been exposed to the reality that school can look differently than what it was,” said Harper, who plans to create a network of microschools throughout the state. “Many parents don’t want their children to go back into that situation. They know that small, safe settings are best.”
The visionary educators who are creating bottom-up, decentralized K-12 learning models are helping to reimagine education in Mississippi and beyond.
Kerry McDonald is an education policy fellow at State Policy Network and a senior education fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. She is the author of the book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom.