Kerry McDonald is the Velinda Jonson Family Education Fellow at State Policy Network.
When Mercedes Grant opened enrollment last spring for her new microschool, Path of Life Learning in Yorktown, Virginia, she didn’t know what to expect. Would anyone sign up?
Within a few weeks, her program was at capacity with a waiting list. This fall, the former public school teacher opened the doors of her K-8 microschool with 33 students, and 30 more on the waitlist.
“The immediate success and rapidly growing waiting list of my hybrid microschool model is unexpected but extremely exciting,” said Grant. “I know how special this can be for children, their families, and the community, so I’m working hard to serve the children I have while also thinking about the children I will serve in the future.”
Grant is just one of the many education entrepreneurs throughout Virginia, and across the U.S., who are reshaping American education. Many, like Grant, are teachers who grew disillusioned with the traditional schooling model and wanted to create a more individualized, learner-centered educational option for families. Some are parents who decided to build what they couldn’t find for their own children’s education.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to introduce Virginia’s Network partners to some of the education entrepreneurs working in the greater Richmond area. Leaders from the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and the Virginia Institute for Public Policy visited several local microschools, which are intentionally-small, low-cost, mixed-age private schools. They also visited bustling homeschool collaboratives, including Cultural Roots Homeschool Cooperative, a 125-student homeschool program in Richmond founded by former Virginia public school teacher, Alycia Wright. It meets several times a week in a local community center with hired educators who offer a culturally relevant curriculum for a largely Black and ethnically diverse group of homeschoolers.
Additionally, Network partners got the chance to hear about some of the entrepreneurial challenges these founders face. Entrepreneurs encounter obstacles in all sectors, but the highly regulated, often rigid education sector creates greater regulatory barriers for education entrepreneurs. Founders voiced concerns around a host of issues, including inflexible and often outdated zoning rules, marketing challenges, teacher recruitment and staffing, and affordability for families.
“As a former school founder and educator, I know both the amount of effort it takes and the huge reward one gets from stepping out from the one-size-fits-all school paradigm into the world of education entrepreneurship,” said Derrick Max, President of the Thomas Jefferson Institute. “This microschool tour of four vastly different educational models in Richmond was a total inspiration. I am more committed than ever to seeing these heroes of education get the support they need to flourish and more importantly to ensure that our state and local laws do not hinder their life changing work.”
Jonathan Haines, Executive Vice President at the Virginia Institute, agrees that microschools and related learning models offer alternatives to a one-size-fits-all mass schooling system. “I really appreciated seeing the diversity of options and how the options are being tailored to children’s and families’ needs,” he said. “I also appreciated how individuals are seeing a void in education in their communities and are stepping forward, showing leadership, and solving problems to fill the voids. We look forward to working with education entrepreneurs and innovators to build relationships and expand educational freedom and microschools throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia to meet families’ needs.”
It’s a transformative time in American education, and Network partners are increasingly on the ground with education entrepreneurs in their states listening to their challenges, reducing regulatory roadblocks, and supporting them in their enterprising efforts.