Friday Feature: Bridges to Science

Colleen Hroncich

When the kids in Rosa Aristy’s homeschool co‐​op said they wanted to learn coding, the moms all looked at each other and wondered who was going to teach those classes. “The kids were so enthusiastic and wanted to learn more,” she recalls. “And I thought to myself, I’m not going to let these kids down. I was a marketing analyst before I became a mom, so I had done some programming. Not the kind they would want to learn, but I thought I could figure things out and take it from there.”

Rosa knew the kids would need a very solid math curriculum if they were going to get into robotics and coding. “I decided to start out with a math club, so then I’d get a rhythm and create a community,” she said. “Then these kids would be equipped to dive deep into robotics and coding and whatnot.”

She arranged for professors from Texas A&M to facilitate some sessions and she facilitated the others. One thing led to the other, and soon Rosa made connections that allowed her to start planning a robotics program. She was spending a lot of money on supplies and hated paying taxes on it when it was for educational purposes, so she decided to start a non‐​profit called Bridges to Science.

“Two months after we launched, Covid came and everything changed,” she recalls. “We started doing virtual, primarily the math circle. We continued that because the students really wanted to, and it gave them a sense of continuity in the midst of it all. Then we also started doing virtual coding clubs. We believe in providing a whole ecosystem for the students. By that I mean it’s not just me and the parents who are there chaperoning.

“We invite professionals—software engineers from different tech companies, faculty members, retired engineers, you name it. Every year in the math circle, we have a theme. Last year it was finance and economics. We did the stock market game, and we invited a lot of financial professionals who gave our students a peek into how they use math to buy stocks, create portfolios, etc.”

Last year, Rosa launched a Youth Ambassador program, where the upper high school students start training the younger students. Bridges to Science also has what they call family creative learning gatherings, which Rosa says are like mini science festivals. The youth ambassadors facilitate the different activities at the gatherings.

Learning with Bridges to Science.

According to Rosa, the gatherings got the attention of a sponsor who suggested they host a larger event. “So we did,” she says. “We just launched the Houston Science Festival on September 9, and it was an amazing success. We exceeded expectations in attendance. We welcomed over 15 exhibitors, including the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Texas A&M, Rice University, cyber​.org, and Girls Who Code. We had music to kick off Hispanic heritage month. It was lots of fun. What was very gratifying is that over two‐​thirds of attendees were people who are considered low income. Many pulled me to the side and told me ‘if you hadn’t done this, we wouldn’t have ever seen any of these.’”

Rosa also focuses on Hispanic outreach. “There aren’t that many Hispanics homeschooling, and we believe there can be more of them,” she notes. “That was another great thing about the festival. Families came to us and said, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t know there were so many of us because usually every group has just handful of Hispanics.’ So we want to work with them and help them realize there are others.”

Bridges to Science is now shifting towards becoming an organization that supports the yearly science festival since it’s so much work. In between, the focus will be working with different communities in the Houston area so that families have access to resources that might not be accessible to them now. “If they attend a coding workshop or go to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to explore chemistry or the life sciences, the children begin to see which areas catch their fancy. Once you give them all these appetizers then they might want to dive deep into one of them,” Rosa explains. “The way we see our organization is we are a bridge—on one end of the bridge we have the communities that have little access and on the other we have the organizations, primarily universities, and we connect the two.”

Friday Feature: Burbrella Learning Academy

Colleen Hroncich

When education was disrupted during the pandemic, Dominique Burgess didn’t waste time. An educator with more than a decade of experience, she had started Burbrella Education pre‐​COVID‐​19 to support parents, teachers, and school leaders with coaching and support. In spring 2020, she started offering remote learning options to help families while schools were closed.

Dominique was very flexible and began adding options as parents and teachers expressed interest. She now operates Burbrella Learning Academy, which includes an online microschool, an in‐​person microschool in North Carolina, and tutoring.

In the beginning, she says most of the families who signed up with Burbrella were already homeschooling their kids and were looking for academic support and a consistent schedule. Then there were parents who were frustrated by the poor communications from their local school and wanted something more concrete. As schools started to return in person, some parents who weren’t ready for that turned to Burbrella. But at the same time, other parents were asking for in‐​person options. “So we coordinated some homeschool co‐​ops in specific states where we had interest from parents,” she explains.

As the homeschool co‐​ops spread, more families were asking for in‐​person options in their locations. Dominique says, “I did a good amount of research on microschools for about a year. After looking at the parameters around how a microschool can operate in North Carolina, I decided to start the first one here because (1) this is currently home for me, and (2) I spent a lot of time during Covid analyzing the different educational institutions and dynamics of education here in North Carolina.”

She chose Alamance County for her first in‐​person location to help parents see that there are other educational options out there and because she didn’t find many alternatives in the area. “The first question that we get is ‘what’s a microschool,’” says Dominique. That gives her the opportunity to explain what a microschool is and how they are revitalizing education while providing families with choice.

The Burbrella microschool in NC, which opened this year, is K‑5 and meets Monday through Friday. Parents can choose a hybrid option as well, where they do three days in person and two at home in the online school. There’s also a homeschool drop‐​in option for homeschoolers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The after‐​school program is open to district, charter, and private school students.

Plans are in the works to open an in‐​person microschool in Indiana next year. The online microschool is preK‐​12, which is Dominique’s goal for her in‐​person locations as well.

The Burbrella online microschool offers live classes Monday through Friday. Students get all of the core content area subjects—math, reading, history, and STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, and math]. Dominique says teachers must understand that Burbrella is play‑, projects‑, and nature‐​based. “Our classes are structured just a little bit different than the traditional online classes, and we hire teachers that are aligned with our philosophy and our mission,” she says.

According to Dominique, Burbrella operates kind of like a network school district. “We say, ‘Here are the parameters around curriculum. Every class that will be taught in the online school needs to cover these four subjects—because we’re in a large number of states and want to make sure that the homeschooling expectation for every state is covered.”

It’s clear that Dominique’s flexible approach is appealing for many parents. She has 168 students from 18 states in the online microschool.

Dominique’s advice for parents is “know what’s available to you in your community, in your county. If it’s not there, push for it, ask for it.” And, like other education entrepreneurs I’ve talked to, her advice for prospective school founders is “take the leap.”

She notes that many teachers are afraid to leave the traditional setting because they don’t know where they’ll get things like insurance and retirement plans. “It will find you,” she says. “I tell teachers all the time the same 401K that I had and insurance premiums that I had, I still have. And that’s because people in this community found me. I was able to bring plans over for a much cheaper rate. So, take the leap. Do it. All the things will fall into place for you.”

Friday Feature: Streams of Hope Christian School

Colleen Hroncich

One of the great things about the increase in microschools, hybrid schools, and similar options is the flexibility they give families. Rather than being locked into a Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule, parents can find the options that meet the individual needs of their children. Streams of Hope Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, takes flexibility to a whole new level.

Despite being only in its fourth year, Streams of Hope offers an amazing range of education options: full‐​time school; part‐​time school, which meets each morning and covers all core subjects; homeschool enrichment classes, which meet in the afternoon; online classes; and a Friday homeschool co‐​op. A new hybrid option, which will meet in person two or three days a week and provide at‐​home lessons for the other days, is in the works.

Executive Director Jill Haskins says the school was started by a teacher who had been offering classes from her home for 30 years. The pastor of Heartland Church in Fort Wayne asked the teacher to start a school at the church. Jill, a former public school teacher who had been homeschooling her children for six years at that point, enrolled her youngest son in Streams of Hope when it opened in 2020. The following March, Jill became a teacher at the school; she took over as Executive Director earlier this year.

“We’re still working on figuring out what a couple of the programs will look like,” she says. “I don’t know what will stick and what won’t long term. We’re just trying to figure out what the need is and how to meet that need.”

According to Jill, the 2020 opening was unrelated to the pandemic and accompanying school closures. “They had been planning on opening prior to Covid hitting and never once closed down during Covid, which was amazing,” she notes. “We’ve grown kind of massively in the past four years. I think Covid is probably one of the catalysts that helped bring that growth.”

While each day and each class is different, the school follows a general schedule. A typical day starts with morning prayer and announcements and individual teacher/​student check‐​ins. Then students work independently, in small groups, and in whole class groups. Half‐​day students leave at noon, while full‐​day students eat lunch. After lunch, full‐​day and homeschool students participate in afternoon classes, which are focused on enrichment and creative pursuits.

Streams of Hope has multi‐​age classrooms. Jill currently has 26 students in her class; the youngest is in 6th grade and the oldest is in 12th. There are two additional classrooms with fewer students and narrower age spans. Jill says they plan to even out the age ranges in each classroom as the other teachers gain more experience.

There are currently 42 students enrolled in the full‐ and half‐​day private school option that covers all of the core curriculum. In the afternoon enrichment sessions there are 25 students, which includes a mix of full‐​time and homeschool students. While many of the students take individual online classes, only two are enrolled exclusively online. And there are 33 children in the homeschool co‐​op.

Some private school leaders are hesitant to adopt creative scheduling options that include part‐​time and à la carte classes because they fear it will be too complicated. “From the administrative, back‐​end side of things, it creates a bit of extra work,” Jill acknowledges. There are different enrollment forms, and the school really emphasizes the distinction for families. “We’re very specific to clarify ‘You’re enrolling in the private school option, you are a private schooler. You are not a home schooler.’ Or ‘You are enrolling in an à la carte homeschool class. You are still a homeschooling family.’” And there are logistic challenges of which child is being dropped off and picked up at what time. But she says it’s not too complicated overall, and it’s seamless for the students.

“We’re still kind of exploring what our hybrid option is going to look like,” she continues. “Our hybrid students will be enrolled at our private school, so they wouldn’t be homeschooled. But will they be doing two or three days here and two or three days at home? And are we going to do that project based? Is it going to look completely different than how we do things here or are we going to give them the planner pages like our regularly enrolled students do and then just have them continue that at home? We don’t quite know yet. That’s something we’re trying to develop and figure out.”

The front page of the Streams of Hope website proclaims, “We approach education in ways that meet the needs of each individual student & family.” It’s clear from the multitude of options available at the school that they really strive to live up to that goal.

Advancing School Choice While Protecting Homeschoolers

Colleen Hroncich

In recent years, there has been an explosion of school choice programs that enable parents to use state education dollars for learning options beyond the local district school. Education savings accounts (ESAs) have become particularly popular for the flexibility they provide: parents can use the funds for a variety of education options like tuition, tutoring, curriculum, and services for children with special needs. It seems like homeschoolers would be prime beneficiaries of ESAs since they often tap into multiple resources to educate their children.

While some homeschoolers support ESAs, more traditional homeschoolers and homeschool groups often fight these programs because they want to avoid government entanglement. In the 1960s and 1970s, parents had to wage legal and legislative battles to secure the right to homeschool their children. Homeschoolers who know this history often want to remain completely separate from the government. These traditional homeschool groups are politically active and will fight against programs that they think will encroach on homeschool freedoms.

As my new Cato Briefing Paper, School Choice Programs Need a Firewall for Homeschoolers, explains, there is a solution that can satisfy both groups. ESA programs can be written to exclude students who are officially registered as homeschoolers while creating a separate category for students who use an ESA for home‐​based education. Because each state’s education laws are different, there isn’t a cut‐​and‐​paste solution. But by looking at the compulsory education requirements and homeschool provisions in a particular state, policymakers can craft language that will work.

As school choice programs continue to expand and spread, it’s important for homeschoolers to be engaged and for policymakers to listen to their concerns. With careful design, education savings accounts can help new families begin their home education journey while protecting those who want to stay independent of the government.

Friday Feature: Dragonfly Academy, a Microschool Where Neurodivergent Children Learn and Thrive

Colleen Hroncich

Today’s education entrepreneurs are as unique as the learning environments they create. Many are parents seeking a better fit for their own children or teachers wanting the autonomy to teach the way they think is best. In the case of Dragonfly Academy in Las Vegas, it was a grandmother who stepped up to create a place where neurodivergent children could learn and thrive.

Anita Williams is a licensed clinical mental health therapist whose grandchildren have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. Because of her professional background, Anita was able to help her daughter find the right specialists. But even with her knowledge, it was difficult to navigate the system and get her grandchildren the help they needed. When Anita and her daughter met with her grandson’s teacher and principal, Anita could tell they weren’t equipped to meet his needs.

They decided to try homeschooling, which was difficult but did relieve some of the stress of dealing with the school district. Anita began learning more about autism and the autism spectrum. She and her husband eventually decided to open a learning center specifically for neurodiverse individuals. At Dragonfly, Anita says, “an individual education plan is actually an individual education plan. It’s not a copy and paste from one child to another. It’s giving them what they need and focusing on their interests.” If a child has speech therapy, occupational therapy, or any other therapies that the family is happy with, those therapies can take place right at Dragonfly.

Anita initially planned for Dragonfly Academy to be a private school, but after bumping into bureaucratic red tape she reconsidered her options. She’d met Don and Ashley Soifer of the National Microschooling Center, and they told her about microschools. “I’ve been sold on this innovative, non‐​traditional education movement ever since,” she says. Students who attend Dragonfly must register as homeschoolers with the state of Nevada.

Using the homeschool/​microschool model gives Anita a lot of autonomy and flexibility with Dragonfly Academy. This is essential because her goal is to create a learning environment that appeals to a variety of neurodiverse children. By incorporating play therapy, sandtray therapy, art, and music therapy, Dragonfly students can learn, develop, and thrive with their peers.

For this school year, Dragonfly Academy will meet Monday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Learners can attend all four days or just two days per week (Mon/​Wed or Tue/​Thu) with tuition adjusted accordingly. They plan to have field trips one or two Fridays a month. Parents can volunteer for 10 hours a month at Dragonfly in exchange for a lower tuition rate. Limited financial assistance is also available.

An occupational therapist who leases a room from Anita for her private practice also works with Dragonfly students. Each morning there is an optional 30‐​minute “Movement with Miss Mallory” session at 9:30. Then the kids have some self‐​directed time before they get together for a morning meeting. Anita wants the students to be active participants in their learning journey, so she gives them several options throughout the day for group activities in addition to the self‐​directed time.

“Therapeutic schools are not new; I haven’t reinvented the wheel,” Anita says. “But this model has a unique twist to it because a lot of times therapeutic schools are boarding schools—children may stay there months or weeks or Monday through Friday and go home on the weekends. My concept is for these needs to be met on a daily basis and then for the children to go home with their families.”

Anita wants to keep the learning environment at Dragonfly Academy small so she can continue to provide truly individualized learning for each student, but she can see having two or three locations so she can help more kids. Because while her motivation was initially to help her own grandchildren, Anita is passionate about taking what she’s learned and using it to help other neurodiverse children as well.

Friday Feature: Expression Prep Academy

Colleen Hroncich

One of the most exciting parts of the growing push for universal school choice is the new learning options that will be created when parents can direct the education funding for their children. Expression Prep Academy in Huntington, West Virginia, is a good example of this. Pastor Kevin West of Expression Church says he’d been looking for the right time to start a school. Then a friend introduced him to Don and Ashley Soifer from the National Microschooling Center.

“Their model seemed like the perfect hybrid between the homeschool and private Christian school setting,” he says. “I started researching it and put a team together. Last year, with the Hope Scholarship coming into play here in West Virginia, it made it really feasible. Rather than doing a real slow process, it helped us expedite it by making it more affordable for families.”

When the Hope Scholarship was delayed by a lawsuit, Pastor West says they decided to move ahead with the new school despite the uncertainty. “We started out with about 13 kids last year and this year we have tripled that. We’re around 43 kids now. Our biggest challenge is the scholarship application period goes from March 1 to May 15 here in West Virginia and people just don’t know about it.”

Expression Prep was K–8 in the first year with multi‐​age classrooms split into K–2, 3–4, 5–6, 7–8. This year includes a high school, which has a different structure since the students have to earn specific credits to graduate. Each student has an individualized learning plan, so they can progress according to their specific needs and abilities. The teachers work with students in small groups and one‐​on‐​one throughout the day.

Pastor West would prefer to have kindergarteners in a separate classroom, but the student body isn’t quite big enough yet. By next school year, he expects to have 100 students overall and at least one separate kindergarten class. They have a 32,000-square-foot building, an additional building, and another 3 or 4 acres that can use.

“I’m confident we’ll be able to grow. There are about 37–38,000 people in Huntington, but we’re right on the river, so we draw from Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia,” Pastor West says. “We’re a very sports‐​driven area and a lot of the private schools lose kids to public high schools because of the lack of sports and arts and music. But we are a very big arts, music, and athletic school and church. We have the facilities for it, and we’re building a sports dome right now on our campus.”

He says even as the school grows, they’ll focus on keeping the small school feel. “Our church has the same model as this microschool,” he says. “We’re a small church with lots of people. We do everything we possibly can to create small community and affinity groups. We work hard at that. So I don’t think the number of kids is going to be an issue as long as we stay true to our model.”

For parents looking for a small Christian school with strong music, arts, and athletics programs, Expression Prep Academy could be the perfect fit. Thanks to the Hope Scholarship, opportunities like this are becoming more and more accessible for West Virginian families.

Friday Feature: Bramblewood Learning Community

Colleen Hroncich

Bramblewood Learning Community founder Danika Dunn says her oldest son didn’t have a bad experience when he attended first grade in his local district. But it wasn’t great. “School was fine, but I wanted something different,” she explains. “I knew that there were ways to do it that were better and more interesting than what the public school was offering. Plus, I felt like I never saw my son. So we pulled him.”

For the next few years, Danika says she bounced between Charlotte Mason education and unschooling. Then she heard about Acton Academy and loved the idea of project‐​based education. She started researching it, but most of what she found was tailored to public schools and other five‐​day‐​a‐​week programs. Danika experimented with ways to apply what she was learning to a homeschool or hybrid setting.

Located on her family farm, Bramblewood began in 2020 with 12 boys in grades fourth through sixth meeting once a week. “We started with just 1/2 day and we did it all outside because of the pandemic,” Danika recalls. “It was intense and wild and crazy, but it was also awesome. We were finding ways that the structure worked and things that we loved about the project‐​based approach.”

The next year, the program expanded to a one full day a week—and Danika made a point to set aside a certain number of spots for girls. Since she has five kids and the mom who was helping her also had multiple children, they opened additional classes for more age groups. Last year, it expanded again and became a two‐​day program.

For the upcoming school year, Bramblewood has 40 children signed up for the TuesdayWednesday program and an additional 20 coming for a separate Monday‐​only program. The expanded enrollment was enabled in part by a VELA Education Fund grant Danika received that she used to buy a large canvas tent for an outdoor classroom.

The two‐​day program has four levels, covering ages pre‑K through early high school. Student learning needs and abilities—not just age or grade level—determine placement in a specific level. Danika works with parents to determine the best fit for each child. Parents typically volunteer for a half day each week, which helps the program run more smoothly and gives parents greater insight into what their children are doing. The one‐​day option is geared more for younger kids in grades K–4 and operates as a drop‐​off program.

Students typically focus on independent core learning (math, language arts, etc.) during the first hour in the two‐​day program. They set goals with their parents and bring work from home for that time. During the morning meeting, the kids can connect with friends and go over the day’s schedule. The rest of the morning may include workshops run by mentors (what Bramblewood calls teachers) or small‐​group work. After lunch and recess, the students often gather for Socratic‐​style discussions and then work on group projects. Sometimes different levels work together on larger projects.

Learning outside at Bramblewood.

This is the first year Bramblewood includes a high school program, so Danika has been collaborating with parents to see what will be covered at school and what will be covered at home. There won’t be a high school math course, so parents will be responsible for ensuring their children complete math at home. But they expect to be able to meet the requirements for classes like English with the various projects throughout the year. And they’re building a science course that will include lab work, which can be challenging (and less enjoyable) to do solely at home. Students will also receive some suggestions for things they can do at home to get enough hours to earn high school credits.

Danika is very enthusiastic about the project‐​based model and encourages others to try it. “We recently had a big meeting where we were talking about the future of Bramblewood because there is a lot of interest in it,” she says. “We had to decide, are we going to try and make this bigger or are we going to keep it small? And we decided to keep it small. I don’t know if we’re going to keep doing the one‐​day program forever. Our goal would be to have somebody break off and make that a separate thing. I would love to help people who are interested in doing project‐​based co‐​ops. I think there’s a lot of interest in it, but there’s not a lot of literature out there for and by homeschoolers. It’s such a great way to homeschool—it’s natural, it’s real world, it’s passion based. It’s also collaborative and can be very rigorous if done the right way.”

The growth of microschools, hybrid schools, and homeschool co‐​ops around the country shows that many families are looking for different ways to educate their children. And education entrepreneurs like Danika are stepping up to provide those new options.

Friday Feature: Stossel in the Classroom

Colleen Hroncich

Continuing last week’s theme, Stossel in the Classroom (SITC) is another great resource for educators regardless of your schooling model. The program had a very simple origin. John Stossel was a long‐​time consumer reporter who turned his attention to government corruption and waste. After he learned some basic economics, he started doing TV stories that explained economic principles. Soon teachers were writing to him to ask for copies of his shows to use in class. That eventually resulted in Stossel in the Classroom.

For many years, Stossel in the Classroom produced a yearly DVD that included around a dozen short videos, along with a teacher’s guide with discussion questions and a quiz. Teachers or homeschoolers could register to receive a free copy of the DVD by mail. The videos are completely online now, with a convenient library that can be searched for specific topics.

To help students go deeper on specific issue areas, some of the SITC videos are grouped into modules. Categories include “The American Constitution in Our Lives,” “Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” and “Global Issues.”

SITC also has a “Both Sides of the Issue” series to help teachers present balanced lessons on the topics covered by Stossel’s videos. The series includes a video from someone championing one side of an issue like minimum wage, socialism, and climate change, with a corresponding Stossel video that supports the other side. An accompanying discussion guide has questions to help students understand the arguments made in both videos.

When my older kids were in high school, I taught a homeschool co‐​op class using Stossel in the Classroom videos as the foundation. Each week, we’d select a few topics from the DVD, watch the video, and have a lively discussion. We saw a direct impact from the classes. Kids who previously weren’t at all interested in current events started following the news and wanted to get involved with speech and debate. At the end of the year—by student request—we held a small mock trial competition. Some of the former students still mention how much they enjoyed that class when I see them.

While the videos and discussion questions are great, one of my kids’ favorite parts of Stossel in the Classroom has been the essay contest. When my oldest competed in it, there was a different topic each year. She won the contest when she was in 11th grade, and the prize was a trip to New York City to meet John Stossel and film a segment for his show. The contest has changed a bit over the years. There are now three topics to choose from with a top prize of $2,500. There is also a video contest using the same topics. In all, SITC awarded over $25,000 in prizes this year. For parents or teachers trying to encourage students to write, essay contests with exciting prizes can be a great incentive.

Stossel in the Classroom has more than 300 videos and new ones are regularly added. More than 150,000 teachers have used SITC as part of their lesson plans. If you’re looking for a way to get your children or students engaged on the important issues of the day, you might want to check out Stossel in the Classroom.

Friday Feature: izzit​.org

Colleen Hroncich

It’s hard to believe it’s already “back to school” season. But the displays in every store are impossible to miss. This year’s back to school experience could be a new one for many teachers, parents, and students as they have the chance to choose their own educational path for the first time. Finding high‐​quality resources is likely top of mind for many parents and teachers. That’s where izzit​.org can come in handy.

izzit​.org is a non‐​profit that provides educators with engaging educational resources designed to help students develop critical thinking skills. I first learned about izzit​.org in 2015 through our speech and debate league, and I’m amazed at how many new resources are available every time I visit the website. Happily, these resources are available at no cost to anyone who is interested in teaching or learning—parents (including homeschoolers), grandparents, teachers, tutors, librarians, and more.

The video lessons were my first exposure to izzit​.org. Most of them are geared toward students in sixth grade and older. Subject areas include Business & Economics, Career Technical Education, Constitution & Civics, and Social Studies & Humanities. There is a special subset of videos aimed at elementary‐​aged students that features “Pups of Liberty.” (I just watched my first Pups of Liberty episode, The Dog‐​claration of Independence, and was quite amused by Spaniel Adams, Paul Ruffere, the Minute Mutts, and the Red Cats.)

In keeping with’s educational mission, these aren’t just standalone videos. There are short, online comprehension quizzes students can take at the end of each video. Some of the videos are part of Teaching Units that include teacher’s guides. There are also Learning Modules, which are online, interactive collections that cover about a week’s worth of material. Teachable Moments are short—typically five minutes or less—videos that focus on one topic and can be easily added to other lessons. Since the website allows you to sort by topic and grade level, it’s easy for educators to find the content that will work best for a specific lesson.

More recently, izzit​.org has expanded to offer full courses. Civics Fundamentals is hosted by Judge Douglas Ginsburg, a senior judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He answers the 100 questions in the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services naturalization test with two‐​minute videos that include an explanation of each answer. The course is supplemented with additional materials, including a Jeopardy‐​style game and flash cards.

izzit​.org also boasts a first‐​in‐​the‐​nation career readiness course—Workforce Innovation Now, or W.I.N.. This unique course blends financial literacy, employability, skill mastery, and work‐​based learning experiences. It’s divided into nine units that include videos, quizzes, essay prompts, and other student assignments (including resume‐​drafting guidance).

To help teachers make the most of the incredible izzit​.org resources, the website includes free Professional Development (PD) webinars. Teachers can receive certificates of participation for each PD they complete.

In addition to the video resources, izzit​.org offers two current events lessons each school day. The lessons feature articles from various major news sources to encourage debate and critical thinking. Typically one is easier to read and the other is more challenging. The articles may include uncomfortable or unpopular topics. The goal is for students to read, process, debate, and think critically about these issues. The lessons include questions to help drive discussions.

Whether you’re a full‐​time teacher, a homeschooler, or a parent looking for additional learning opportunities for your children, izzit​.org is an amazing resource. As I really explored the site for this post, I realized we missed out on some great content by not using it more. So learn from my mistake—and check it out today!

Friday Feature: Colossal Academy

Colleen Hroncich

Just like one size doesn’t fit all students, one size doesn’t fit all teachers, either. Shiren Rattigan experienced this first‐​hand. A fourth generation educator, Shiren says she was destined to be a teacher. It just took her some time to find the right environment.

“As an educator for over 10 years, I taught at public schools, private elite international schools, and a Montessori school, but none of them quite reflected my vision of education,” she recalls. “I saw myself as Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus—whisking the students away on some great unforgettable adventure. I wanted to ignite the love of learning in children with deep connections, hands‐​on activities, and soulful experiences.”

Then came COVID-19. Shiren’s three daughters were doing remote school while she was trying to teach her Montessori classes online. Some families asked her if she would tutor their children for the upcoming school year and she agreed. She created kits and dropped them off for the students every Sunday so they could have the Montessori environment right in their homes instead of trying to create it on a screen. She would then direct them to get the appropriate box for each lesson.

“This was working pretty well,” she says. “We decided to meet once a week, then twice a week, and then three times a week. I wanted to offer this opportunity to more children and be accessible to a diverse socioeconomic background. I decided the best way to do that was to become a licensed private school and participate in Florida’s school choice scholarship program.”

Colossal Academy focuses on what Shiren calls 21st century foundational skills—literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy, cultural and civic literacy, and financial literacy. The more traditional academic classes are in the morning, and the students all have their own individual learning plans. They have an hour of unstructured time for lunch where they’re able to just be together as a group. After lunch, they have specials, which can include farming, cooking, and textiles. While Colossal Academy is an official private school, Shiren welcomes homeschoolers as well with her three‐​day a week hybrid option.

The initial focus of Colossal Academy was middle school, but Shiren is adding a high school starting with ninth grade this year. “We are working towards relevancy‐​based education,” she notes. “As we bridge into high school, all students will graduate as the CEO of their company. By junior year they will have decided formally what their business will be, created business plans, launched a website, and gone to pitch and raise money for their ventures or non‐​profits.”

Shiren has also gotten external validation—Colossal received a Next Step Grant from VELA Education Fund and was a Yass Prize quarterfinalist. No wonder she’s looking to help others start their own microschools. The Colossal Architect Accelerator assists with securing a space, designing a project‐​based curriculum, marketing, enrollment, and more. This will help teachers as well as other students.

“One exciting aspect that I’ve grown to understand is that I’m also creating a fertile ground for educators. A place where they can be creative, have deep connections, and thrive,” Shiren explains. “I want to fortify teachers to be the professionals that they aim to be—that they thought they were signing up for when they went into education. So it’s kind of two‐​fold: serving learners, but also creating a better environment for teachers.

The excitement and passion Shiren has for Colossal Academy is impossible to miss. She sees it as the learning sanctuary she wishes she’d had, the vision she had in becoming a teacher, and the educational environment she wants for her own children.

“In many ways, Colossal Academy is completing a circle,” Shiren says. “My great‐​grandmother taught in a one‐​room schoolhouse on a farm. My grandma and mom taught in public schools like we see today. And now I’ve created a modern version of the one‐​room schoolhouse that lets me individualize education for my students. I guess it’s true that everything old is new again.”

Friday Feature: Institute for Catholic Liberal Education

Colleen Hroncich

In the United States today, the word “liberal” is often linked to Democrats and others on the political left who favor using government to implement social change. But the word actually comes from the Latin root liber, which means free. And that is at the heart of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE), which was founded in 1999. ICLE’s mission is to renew Catholic schools “by drawing on the Church’s tradition of education, which frees teachers and students for the joyful pursuit of faith, wisdom, and virtue.”

According to the Institute, most modern schools are based on a pragmatic, utilitarian, secular philosophy that is fragmented and focused on skills, job training, and standardized tests. A Catholic classical liberal arts education, on the other hand, emphasizes wisdom, independent thought, and discovery while focusing on the whole child created in the image of God.

ICLE provides a number of resources for schools that want to adopt the Catholic classical educational philosophy. For schools that are considering this path, ICLE offers presentations for parents, clergy, and boards as well as training for teachers and school leaders. There are also conferences, workshops on various topics, publications, and site visits.

New this year after a pilot program in Denver, ICLE is launching a Catholic Educator Formation and Credential (CEFC) program. This 18‐​month program, delivered online and in‐​person, is designed to be an alternative to state licensure that can be used by Catholic dioceses across the nation.

Emily Zgonc is the principal at St. Michael School, a Catholic school in western Pennsylvania that was founded in 1899. This year, the school is embarking on a new ICLE partnership that Emily is very excited about. “ICLE has been working with Catholic schools across the United States to support a refreshing renewal of Catholic education,” she explains.

“We’re going back to our roots of what made Catholic education so effective and vibrant: the importance of story and wonder. Our students will be reading great stories that they can delve deeply into, befriending and learning life lessons from the characters. Instead of bland ‘social studies,’ our students will learn the history of western civilization and where they fit in that story. Going beyond a typical science class, we’re going to incorporate nature studies so our students can ‘get their hands dirty’ and dig into what they are learning about, awakening a sense of wonder and leading to deep questions. Our newly revamped curriculum will help our students grow to become intelligent, curious, and engaging adults.”

St. Michael School is not alone. Interest in classical education, including ICLE, has exploded in recent years. Earlier this week, ICLE hosted its national conference at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. While the Institute expanded conference capacity by 25 percent compared to last year, the event still sold out quicker than in the past.

I attended the ICLE conference to participate on a panel about school choice and Catholic schools. One of the topics I discussed was how the government largely monopolized education in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which crowded out many other models. School choice policies, like tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and vouchers, are helping to correct that problem. As interest grows in education options beyond local district schools—including interest in classical Catholic schools like ICLE partners—the expansion of school choice programs will help families access these options.

Friday Feature: Tapestry Academy and Microschool Florida

Colleen Hroncich

“Helping parents and educators with non‐​traditional education options.” This is the phrase that greets you when you visit the Microschool Florida website. And that’s exactly what Candace Lehenbauer set out to do when she founded the organization.

Candace says her degree in graphic design has helped her think creatively and solve problems. This came in handy when she and her husband decided to homeschool their oldest daughter as she was entering kindergarten. After around 10 years—and six kids—Candace started having some homeschool burnout. She wanted a little more structure, and her kids wanted to be able to see their friends on a regular basis. While doing some research, she learned about microschools and decided to create her own: Tapestry Academy.

Like many microschools, Tapestry Academy isn’t an official school. Rather, it’s a homeschool resource center that blends in‐​person and at‐​home learning. They meet Monday through Thursday for academics, projects, farm days, field trips, and more. Tapestry uses Prenda for curriculum, which allows students to go at their own pace and focus on mastery. The microschool has been serving grades K‑8, but a new high school program is launching this year.

As Candace shared what they were doing over social media, people began reaching out to her to learn more and asked to tour her microschool. She sometimes heard from people who lived an hour away, and she realized that wasn’t going to work for them long‐​term. She started keeping a list of programs she knew of in the area. “At first, I actually put the list on my own website. But I quickly took it down,” she recalls. “Why would anybody tell you where their competition is located? So I decided to start a new website and call it Microschool Florida. It was an Excel spreadsheet that literally just listed the ones I knew, their websites, and how to find them. I started sharing it, and pretty soon it grew to around 100 listings.”

Candace included microschools, homeschool co‐​ops, unique learning programs like Surf Skate Science, and all the other activities that her kids had participated in or that she knew about. “I thought, there are tons of opportunities out here. I’d hear on Facebook ‘Oh, I can’t ever find anything,’ and I thought, are you kidding me? They’re everywhere. So, by just kind of writing them down and telling people about them, it felt like I was sharing this big gift with everybody,” she says.

After receiving a VELA grant earlier this year, Candace began focusing more heavily on the directory. She’s had booths at several homeschool conferences and has hosted or co‐​hosted networking and outreach events. Candace especially enjoys introducing microschooling to people who weren’t familiar with it. “I think that’s kind of my main goal in doing these things,” she says. “I’ll do YouTube videos where I’ll interview different microschool owners. Some will be panels with three of them at the same time, and then we pick a topic that we all have in common. One of them was field trips; that was one of my favorite episodes. We all talked about our different favorite field trips that we went on in Florida, and we became friends. I thought any new homeschooler or a parent wanting a different type of education could watch this conversation between new friends who all had similar education mindsets and think ‘That’s really cool. I didn’t know you could do that. Maybe we should give this whole idea of jumping off the conveyor belt a try.’ So that’s kind of why I started doing those.”

The Microschool Florida directory is growing so quickly that Candace doesn’t even know how many are currently listed. It seems like every time she posts about a microschool, some of her followers will comment with ones she didn’t know about yet. “Anybody who holds any classes can join the free directory,” says Candace. “It doesn’t have to be a microschool. It can be a homeschool, a tutor, or pretty much anything. I just want to give parents lots of choices. And then it’s $99 if they want to get their logo and be in the featured directory.”

When she first started Tapestry Academy, Candace felt invisible. By founding Microschool Florida, she’s able to connect education innovators so they don’t need to feel that way. She also gets to support and encourage people who are new to the space. “You’re never going to be fully prepared,” she explains. “There’s just no way, and that’s actually part of the process. You have to start to make mistakes. And then by making the mistakes, you learn how to become better.”

Friday Feature: Kind Academy

Colleen Hroncich

“I’m not happy in my position as an educator at a school, and my son’s not happy going to school.” When Iman Alleyne realized this, her next thought was “What can we do?” This question ultimately resulted in Kind Academy, a microschool in Coral Springs, Florida.

Iman had looked for a play‐​based preschool for her son without much success. “I chose the closest thing that I thought was play based,” she recalls. “But even there, developmentally, there were moments where I saw things that just didn’t make sense—like forcing three‐ and four‐​year olds to write three sentences before they could go play.”

Similarly, she saw things she disagreed with at the school where she was working. She was particularly troubled by mandatory silent lunches and kids losing recess for misbehavior. To Iman, these were the kids who really needed recess for a chance to burn energy during the school day.

She pulled her son from his school at the end of the school year and began homeschooling him. “I started getting into the homeschooling groups, and I quickly recognized that this is the way education should be done. The kids were interested. The parents were engaged in their kids’ learning. Everything was very passion based,” says Iman.

Since she’d been conventionally trained, Iman was shocked by some of what she learned from the other homeschoolers. “They would tell me things like ‘you can just do school for an hour a day, maybe 45 minutes for kindergarten.’ My mind was blown by the things that these homeschoolers were doing,” she says. But Iman’s experiences were also beneficial to the homeschoolers, and some started asking her to help them plan their children’s educational paths. Before too long, Kind Academy was born.

In creating Kind Academy, Iman incorporated the best parts of what she’d learned in her education career and from homeschoolers—and left out the parts she found objectionable. There’s also a strong Montessori influence. Children are in mixed‐​age classrooms with a good degree of choice and freedom of movement throughout the day as they learn through discovery.

The school day generally starts with unstructured social time and then moves to a morning meeting where they discuss their goals for the day and what’s happening that week. They also talk about the character trait they’re focusing on that month. “We focused on assertiveness during the last month of school—learning how to speak up and how to ask for things, but in a way that is appropriate,” Iman explains.

The students then shift to academics, with every student working through an individualized learning path. “In the beginning, they take a diagnostic so we see where they are. So no two kids are really doing the same thing. Even the curriculum might be different for different kids,” says Iman. “We also put them in small groups where they’ll do personalized learning—it might be a one‐​to‐​three or one‐​to‐​four ratio with kids who are doing similar things for math, writing, and reading.”

Kind Academy at Gumbo Limbo

After academics, they do project‐​based learning, which is usually an enrichment activity in things like nature, art, play, science, or stem. The children take a field trip nearly every day. They usually go to a nearby park, but they’ve also visited forests, wetlands, and a nature preserve. To wrap up the day after the field trip they have quiet time, which usually means reading, puzzles, or games.

To support parents and kids during COVID-19, Iman started offering virtual classes. “Probably within a week we went online. First we started teaching our circle time online, and then within about two weeks, we started sending out kits to everybody. We put all of our sensory, nature, art, play, math activities, and reading activities into a box, and we shipped it to parents or they came and picked it up,” Iman says.

When she began offering classes on Outschool​.com, Iman says it took off. “We went global, where we had families coming in from all over the world and seeing what we did. We did a lot of our same classes that we were doing in person, but then we started doing a lot more for older kids. Middle school is where we exploded.” At its peak, she had 3,000 kids from around the world taking Kind Academy classes during COVID-19.

Iman now offers Kind Online School as well as individual classes on Outschool. She’s also started a “Launch Your Kind” program to help education entrepreneurs open their own Kind Academies. Through that, she offers support with curriculum, marketing, enrollment, payment systems, and more. She currently has 10 “baby” Kind Academies planning to open for the upcoming school year—seven in Florida and three in other states.

When asked what advice she has for others considering a similar path, Iman points to the three Ps: passion, purpose, and a plan. On the planning front, she says, “Try to find a way to make an income. A lot of people jump into it right away and don’t have any sort of idea of how they’re going to earn income. In Launch Your Kind, I always stress budgeting—going in there and understanding that it’s going to cost money to do things.”

Iman has a new Launch Your Kind cohort starting July 27, 2023, so it’s a great time to check it out if you’ve been considering starting your own microschool.

Friday Feature: Leaders to Legends Homeschool Co‐​op

Colleen Hroncich

LeDonna Griffin spent nearly 30 years in Omaha public schools as a teacher and administrator. So she’s seen it all—the good, the bad, and the ugly. She knew the challenges in the system, and she was pretty sure she could help families create better options for their kids.

“One of the powerful things I often saw was that children were in their safest place—I mean emotionally, physically, ability to learn new information—in the home,” says LeDonna. “With COVID happening and parents feeling very flustered in marginalized communities and looking for alternatives, Leaders to Legends came into existence out of a need. It was a need first. And then it all naturally took place.”

Leaders to Legends started out as a consulting company assisting families with various education issues. The homeschool co‐​op came about from parents who were frustrated and told LeDonna “I can no longer have my child experiencing a lack of success.” She started with one family asking for homeschool support and it grew from there. “We began in the public library at no fee and started to meet with multiple families. Within three months’ time, we outgrew the library and are now housed in a building that we call the Parent Resource Center,” she recalls.

The co‐​op currently meets three days a week, Tuesday through Thursday, year round. The families have a lot of control over the co-op—they vote on which curriculum to follow in each subject as well as different aspects of how the co‐​op is run. The school day often starts with affirmations, where they talk about why they attend Leaders to Legends—to grow to be their best self and make the world a better place. “Our whole model is based around ‘how can I make the world a better place?’” LeDonna explains. “We have a whole mission and vision of building a healthy community that goes out and builds other healthy communities. So it just becomes a natural thing and doesn’t take work—it’s just ‘this is who we are.’ And that is the goal of Leaders to Legends.”

The co‐​op also covers traditional academic subjects. For history, they typically use some type of unit study. “We just completed a George Washington Carver unit study,” LeDonna says. “And then we had an open house where parents were invited, and they explained to the parents everything they learned—although parents are learning right along with them and doing some of the curriculum at home. It was a great way for them to practice public speaking.” Each day there’s a different special class, too: martial arts is on Tuesday, Wednesday is music class, and sewing is on Thursday. For music class, the students got to pick which instruments they’re learning—half chose piano and half chose drums.

Leaders to legends music class.

In this past school year, there were seven families with 17 children participating. LeDonna is hosting homeschool information sessions over the summer and has had quite a bit of interest. She expects to have 15 to 20 families enrolled by August. “The tides are definitely turning where parents are saying my child deserves a quality education and this is how I’m going to get them there,” she says.

When asked what advice she would have for anyone who is considering starting a homeschool co‐​op, LeDonna doesn’t hesitate. “The nature of homeschool itself is parent driven, right? My advice would be to allow the parents to drive this thing. Parents have a lot to say; it’s unfortunate that not often enough are they asked. Coming from the public school sector, not often enough are they asked. If they’re given that space, you’d be amazed what they can do and put together and invest in providing a quality education for their child.”

Friday Feature: THRIVE Christian Academy

Colleen Hroncich

Education entrepreneurs come from all walks of life. Monica Hall, founder of THRIVE Christian Academy near Atlanta, didn’t set out to start a school. She was serving as an Army chaplain and gradually realized her soldiers needed more support. This prompted her to open a community center focused on well being. She was also a youth pastor at a nearby church, and people started asking her to add tutoring at the center or start a school. Monica was initially reluctant, but after a few different people suggested something similar, she realized maybe this was what she was meant to do.

In 2013, Monica opened THRIVE Christian Academy, which stands for Truth, Humility, Respect, Integrity, Victory, and Excellence—the six pillars of the school. There were initially just two students—both children whose parents helped inspire her to create the school. Because she only had two students, Monica met up with homeschoolers throughout the year for various activities. She finished the school year with three students and gave them each a “brag book” that compiled some of the things they’d done during the year.

One of the parents shared photos of the brag book on Facebook where a local teacher saw it. The teacher showed up at Monica’s door one day and said she wanted to be part of the school. “I don’t have any kindergartners and you teach kindergarten,” Monica recalls telling the teacher. The teacher said three of her fellow teachers also wanted to join THRIVE and assured Monica that students would come if she hired the teachers.

She was right—THRIVE opened the new school year with 56 students, pre‐​K3 to 5th grade. Enrollment kept growing. Monica added a middle school and then a high school. The first graduating class was 2020—the COVID class they called themselves. In Georgia, things started opening back up from COVID-19 restrictions by the end of May, so they held that first graduation on Juneteenth. Monica expects to have around 300 students when school is back in session this fall.

THRIVE utilizes a unique blended curriculum that pairs high‐​quality video lessons with in‐​person instruction from dedicated teachers. This allows students to have a more tailored, individualized experience. Monica estimates that around 40 percent of her students have special needs. Most of them just need extra attention and are integrated into the general education population.

“Some have a significant educational delay, like maybe they’re in 6th grade but they read on a 2nd grade level,” she says. “So, let’s figure out where the stepping stone was missed. Let’s fill in that gap, and let’s just watch you accelerate.” 14 students have more intensive needs and are in their own classroom with a dedicated teacher and aide, which is pretty impressive for such a small school.

THRIVE kids on the road.

The school also offers a variety of extracurricular academic activities, including debate, robotics, geography and spelling bees, a science fair, and math, history, and quiz bowls. Each year, they take an enrichment trip; previous destinations have included Washington D.C., New Orleans, Memphis, Niagara Falls, Baltimore, and Chicago.

THRIVE graduation.

Monica wants to make sure THRIVE alum have plenty of options in the future. “We make sure that they apply to at least three colleges, and we have a 100% acceptance rate now,” she explains. “So far from the senior classes, probably about 60% of them are in college.” The others are pursuing various careers like the Army, EMT, modeling, and entrepreneurship. “For me, the point of requiring them to apply is that they know they always have that option,” says Monica. If they start down one path and it doesn’t work out, they’ll “forever know that push comes to shove I’ve been accepted to schools before. I can go back and go to college if I decide to do that.”

Like most of the education entrepreneurs I talk to, Monica says if you have the urge to open your own school, just do it. “It wasn’t the ideal time for me when I started THRIVE—my son was two weeks old on the first day. I carried him in there in a car seat, fed him, burped him, put him down, and went next door to welcome two 1st graders for the first day of school,” she says. “But the feeling isn’t going to leave. You’re going to keep feeling this tug until you do it, so you’re going to be sleepless anyway. You may as well just go ahead and jump out there and trust God to catch you.”

Friday Feature: Black Minds Matter

Colleen Hroncich

Denisha Merriweather Allen says her life would be very different today if not for school choice. She grew up in an impoverished community in Jacksonville, Florida. Her family had lived in poverty there for at least four generations. They were well‐​known in the community and in the local schools. “She’s a Merriweather,” teachers would say, with the implication being not to expect anything from her.

Not surprisingly, Denisha’s behavior reflected these expectations the adults had of her. “I remember days when I would walk into the classroom and everyone would sigh, including my teacher,” she shared with The 74. “I grew disheartened. To hide my hurt, I often lashed out in physical fights with my classmates. The principal’s office became my new classroom, and I got used to being suspended. D’s and F’s filled my report cards.” Denisha failed 3rd grade twice because she couldn’t read.

As she entered 6th grade, Denisha’s life changed. She began living with her godmother, who used a tax credit scholarship to send Denisha to Esprit de Corps Center for Learning, a private school her church had started. “The nurturing environment at Esprit de Corps made a huge difference,” says Denisha. “They didn’t just see me as a person who came to school with a lot of baggage and not the best outlook. I was a challenging student and spent a lot of time in in‐​school suspension. But they were so nurturing and consistent that it changed my attitude. They encouraged me to use my voice and gave me ways to channel my strengths. I went from making D’s and F’s to graduating with honors, going to college, and getting a master’s degree. I don’t think that would have been possible if I hadn’t been given a different opportunity.”

Denisha became a school choice advocate because she witnessed first‐​hand the tremendous impact it had on her own life. Fast forward to 2020. The country is in the midst of social unrest after the killing of George Floyd. “The entire country was looking at our systems and thinking about how we can become more equitable,” says Denisha. “But I was frustrated that there wasn’t enough focus on the inequities in our education system and the reforms that really could make a difference in the lives of students and especially Black students. The academic outcomes for Black students nationwide according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress are really dismal.”

But Denisha didn’t just complain about the situation or sit back and hope someone else would do something. She created Black Minds Matter, a national movement to celebrate black minds, support excellence, and promote the development of high‐​quality school options for black students. “There’s a lot of research that shows when Black students have choice in education, their academic outcomes improve drastically. And not just academics—even crime and teen pregnancy rates improve when students have school choice,” Denisha points out.

Black Minds Matter works to “encourage and empower elected officials, community members and families to be innovative, demand excellence in education, and increase the number of schools founded by Black individuals.” A key piece of this effort is a Black‐​Owned School directory, which is the first online directory to promote schools founded by African Americans and currently includes 416 schools.

Last week, Denisha hosted the second annual Black Minds Matter Summit. It gave parents, students, teachers, school leaders, education reformers, and lawmakers a chance to connect with and inspire each other in their efforts to transform education for black students. The participants included founders of homeschool co‐​ops, microschools, charter schools, and traditional private schools. Students from a local black‐​owned school surprised the audience with a lesson on financial literacy. And former school choice beneficiaries shared their stories along with ways to activate and engage communities.

Prior to this year’s summit, Black Minds Matter partnered with the State Policy Network to host a mini launchpad with black school founders who are looking to expand. It was a great opportunity for the founders to receive feedback and tips from a diverse group of entrepreneurs, innovators, and education reformers.

In her journey from school choice beneficiary to advocate, Denisha has been an inspiration to countless people. But she’s also been inspired herself—by the parents who are finding better options for their children, the students who are working to improve their futures, the school founders who are creating new opportunities for those students, and the lawmakers who are willing to face strong opposition when they pass school choice programs that help disadvantaged kids escape bad environments. Through Black Minds Matter, she’s created a way to help cultivate and sustain a growing movement centered around ensuring every black student has access to a high‐​quality education they’ve chosen.

Friday Feature: Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Program

Colleen Hroncich

Oklahoma parents will soon have an easier time affording the educational options that work best for their children. On May 25, Governor Kevin Stitt signed legislation creating the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Program. Previously, Oklahomans had access to vouchers for students with disabilities and tax credit scholarships that were limited to students who met income guidelines or were assigned to a lower performing public school.

The new tax credit program, which will take effect in 2024, is different from the existing tax credit scholarship program. With tax credit scholarships, businesses and individuals can receive a tax credit for donating money to scholarship‐​granting organizations that then provide scholarships for students attending private schools. With the new program, parents and guardians can receive a credit toward their own income taxes for education expenditures they’ve incurred.

Another key difference is that the new program is universal—any Oklahoma resident who is eligible to enroll in a public school qualifies for the tax credit.

The private school credits will incorporate a sliding scale based on income and can only be used for tuition and fees at eligible private schools. Families cannot receive credits beyond the tuition and fees they pay for each student. However, the credits are refundable, which means families can receive the full credit even if it is more than their state tax liability.

  • The maximum tax credit, $7,500 per student, is reserved for families with household incomes below $75,000.
  • Families whose income falls between $75,000 and $150,000 can receive a $7,000 credit per student.
  • Those with income between $150,000 and $225,000 are eligible for a $6,500 credit per student.
  • Household with incomes of $225,000 to $250,000 can receive a $6,000 credit per student.
  • Families earning more than $250,000 get a $5,000 credit per student.

Homeschooling families are also eligible for the new tax credit program, but their credit limit is $1,000 for eligible expenses per child regardless of income. Eligible expenses include tuition and fees for nonpublic online learning programs, tutoring services, and textbooks, curriculum, or other instructional materials. Like the private school credits, the homeschool credit is refundable.

With this new program, Oklahoma has chartered a new path—joining a growing number of states with universal school choice eligibility but taking a different approach. In recent years, West Virginia, Arizona, Utah, Iowa, Florida, and Arkansas have adopted education savings accounts that are at least on a path to universal eligibility. While nine other states have some form of an education tax credit or deduction, Oklahoma’s is the first refundable tax credit that is open to all students.

The states are often referred to as “laboratories of democracy.” We’re seeing this play out real time when it comes to educational freedom. Just last week, Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen signed the state’s first private school choice program—a tax‐​credit scholarship. Educational freedom is on the move, and that’s only likely to increase as more families understand the tremendous diversity of educational models that are now available. Oklahoma’s universal tax credit will provide a new framework for lawmakers to consider in states where there has been resistance to ESAs and other programs.

Friday Feature: Sweetwater Scholé

Colleen Hroncich

Like many creative educational options, Sweetwater Scholé is evidence that necessity is the mother of invention. Despite a career working to advance educational freedom and school choice, Randan Steinhauser’s original education plan for her children was pretty typical. “When it came time for my husband and I to buy a house, the first thing we looked at was the local school district,” she recalls. “I grew up in public school. My husband did, too. So, I’m fighting for school choice for other families. But I never thought of it for myself.”

When her oldest daughter was one, Randan had twins. She sent her daughter to a part‐​time preschool to give herself a bit of a break. She was shocked when the teacher said her daughter was doing well but should be attending five days a week—as a two-year-old—to get kindergarten ready. Randan says that was a moment of clarity. She pulled her from the preschool, which for them was meant to be a fun outlet and a break for Mom. “That really led me on a journey to start to educate myself on what my choices were,” she says. “It was like a light bulb went off. No one knows my child better than I do, and I want to be a part of that educational journey for them. I started researching home education and fell in love with everything I was reading. I fell in love with the wild and free unschooling, all of this education by choice, not by coercion and child‐​led learning. And that led us to where we are now.”

Fast forward a few years. Randan now has four children and decided to take a year off work when her youngest was born. That gave her more free time, so she decided to start a homeschool co‐​op that she calls Sweetwater Scholé. Inspired by Charlotte Mason, the co‐​op is designed around hands‐​on and creative learning. Children are introduced to an idea or concept and then use nature‐​based play, books, art, poetry, music, and conversation to explore it.

Sweetwater Scholé just wrapped up its first year in operation. There were more than 50 families involved, with around half of those attending on a weekly basis. “My goal was to have maybe a dozen kids. I thought it would be super quaint and intimate,” says Randan. “When we finished our school year—we did 10 weeks in the fall and 10 weeks in the spring—we ended up with 49 kids who consistently came, representing over 20 families.”

Sweetwater group photo.

Randan notes the co‐​op has a wide range of diversity including various religions, ethnicities, homeschooling styles, and ages. But they’re united around a desire to see their children thrive in a learning environment that puts them at the center. Many families joined who had pulled their kids from public school for a variety of reasons, including to have more time together, foster a love of learning, escape bullying, avoid wasted time, and allow their children to learn at their own pace.

As Randan has gone back to work, other moms have pitched in. This spring, a different mom took the lead each week—one focused on space, one did oceans, one did weather, and so on. The group will continue to meet for free play over the summer with no lessons planned. “For the fall, I have some moms who want to continue to step up and lead,” Randan says. “The other cool thing about this is that as our group got so big—there were families driving to our co‐​op from 30–40 minutes away—I really started to cultivate those moms. I said ‘Hey, just take the leap. Put something out on your neighborhood page. Put something out in your local community.’ So from our co‐​op, we now have two new co‐​ops. Our little babies.”

Randan is very reflective about her experiences. For years, she worked to advance education freedom for children with special needs and lower income families, but she hadn’t thought of it in terms of her own family. “It really weighs on me that I was oftentimes talking about how other families should have choice or other families should have freedom. And it was only when I started to evaluate our own children’s education that I realized we, too, should be able to have that freedom. And that is really what has led me personally into being an advocate for universal education freedom.”

Friday Feature: Challenger School

Colleen Hroncich

The late Barbara Baker left behind quite a legacy. She was a first grade teacher in 1960 when she realized her incoming students were unprepared because her school district had dropped phonics. Despite being pregnant with her fifth child, Barbara quit teaching and started her own preschool in 1963. “I figured that if they learned phonics in preschool, no one could take that away from them,” she said.

That modest beginning—half of the students in the first class were family and friends—ultimately launched Challenger School. Jeff Davis, whose own children attended Challenger, now serves as marketing strategist for the school. He says Barbara had a huge waiting list the next year and couldn’t build fast enough to keep up with demand.

“Barbara was a powerhouse,” according to Jeff. “She recognized that there was a window of opportunity with children that you really don’t get again. She had worked as a public school teacher and had been on the Moreland School Board in California. She’d done what she could to try and improve things. But she realized these children’s opportunity was passing and the slowness of the bureaucracy didn’t satisfy her.”

Because she wanted to focus on ensuring young children learned to read, Barbara stuck to preschool and kindergarten the first few years. But parents kept asking her to expand, so she did. She added elementary grades and opened new campuses. By the 1980s, Challenger School had added middle school classes as well.

“We built our own curriculum,” says Jeff. “We’ll pull in other sources as well from the main curriculum houses. We’ve had Saxon Math for years, for instance. It’s all tailored by grade to fit what we are expecting our students to accomplish. Quite often the publishers are out of alignment with what we want to be accomplishing—usually several years behind where we’re trying to be. So we customize it for where our students are based on testing we do.”

Challenger’s course of study is designed to form a foundation for students’ future education. In keeping with Barbara’s original vision, there is a heavy emphasis on reading since that is what equips students to pursue future interests on their own. Composition is stressed to ensure students can communicate clearly. Math, according to the Challenger outlook, is like literacy for numbers. Studying history helps students understand human action and its impacts. And a focus on logic gives students the tools to evaluate new ideas. Students don’t learn these concepts in isolation—they are reinforced at multiple levels and across subjects. As students master these subjects, they get stronger in other areas.

Parents clearly like what Challenger School offers their children. There are now 27 campuses educating around 11,000 children across five states—California, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, and Utah. Some locations offer only preschool and kindergarten, some go through 8th grade, and some offer something in between. The preschool/​kindergarten locations typically act as feeders for the other campuses initially and then may expand to additional grades.

This year, Challenger is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Barbara Baker remained active and involved with the school as CEO until she passed away in 2012. She was a pioneer in the realm of education entrepreneurship, and many thousands of children have benefited from her vision and tenacity.

Friday Feature: Compass Educators and Ellemercito Academy

Colleen Hroncich

“Prior to the pandemic, I had never considered microschooling or delved into out‐​of‐​system learning environments,” says Lizette Valles, founder of Compass Educators and Ellemercito Academy in California.

Lizette and her husband Oscar were long‐​time private school teachers. After COVID-19 regulations closed schools, they founded Compass Educators: A Holistic Tutoring Company to help parents and students deal with distance learning challenges. Their goal was to meet students where they were and equip them to thrive in the new environment. It succeeded so well that some parents asked Lizette to privately homeschool their children.

Creating a microschool was the “natural next step” says Lizette. “We were already custom tailoring instruction for our students and growth was inevitable at that point. Families were seeing that a smaller, student‐​centered, and family‐​like environment was absolutely needed and something they wanted for their children.” Ellemercito Academy opened in 2021.

Lizette and Oscar don’t take a conventional approach to education. “We use a proprietary blend of tools and instructional strategies inspired by Erin Gruwell, Charlotte Mason, and Paulo Freire’s problem‐​posing educational approach coupled with place‐​based learning and a literature‐​rich curriculum,” says Lizette. They follow the Los Angeles Unified School District’s curriculum for English, math, science, and history because their parents want that link. But they supplement heavily with novel studies, hands‐​on projects, and student‐​driven opportunities. For example, they are working to incorporate Drone Legends in their STEAM curriculum after students requested it.

According to Lizette, “It’s when our students know that they have a voice and are heard, that they begin taking ownership and investing in their own learning. They become co‐​creators of their educational experience, and that’s an incredibly meaningful and empowering realization for any student. They are given encouragement and guidance to extend their learning through various self‐​selected activities and discovery.”

Ellemercito follows a very flexible schedule. They meet for full days Mondays through Wednesdays and half days Thursdays and Fridays. But each student’s schedule is personalized, so they may come to Ellemercito some days and learn elsewhere other days. “For instance, one student attends our school for three days and then goes to surf school the remaining days. Another participates in a home dual immersion program learning Spanish and then attends our school. Each family sets their own schedule and amount of homework that best suits their child’s needs,” Lizette says.

“School days” at Ellemercito don’t entail just sitting in the classroom while a teacher lectures. They incorporate a lot of experiential learning, real‐​world experiences, and time outdoors. They have regular nature days and field trips to get their students out and about. “Our next nature day involves taking our kids to a regional park in an RV, hiking, cooking together, fishing, and cycling for the day,” says Lizette. “There will be time to paint the landscape, learn a new recipe, or simply lie down and listen to the sounds of nature. However our students choose to spend the day will hold meaning, and that is the desired goal—to be saturated in nature. It’s only when kids grow up climbing trees or building sandcastles, that they’ll want to save forests and oceans. In attuning themselves to the natural world, they’ll seek to preserve it for generations to come. Our goal is to reintroduce nature as part of their daily lives. It’s in doing so, that their awareness of its complex beauty and gratitude for it will increase.”

It’s amazing that Lizette and Oscar have adopted such a decentralized, student‐​focused approach to education since they had a very traditional educational background before COVID-19. “I come from the traditional private school sector, and as a fully credentialed teacher with a Masters in Education, I am unlearning so much of what has been ingrained in me for years,” Lizette explains. “Oftentimes, we stay in the illusionary box because we’ve settled into complacency. We may tell ourselves that the learning environment or school may not be all that we envision for our kids, but it’s ‘good enough.’ We are conditioned into accepting cookie‐​cutter methodologies that are no longer serving anyone well. Our children deserve more than mediocrity. We were on the precipice of accepting a standardized education with standardized children in a standardized setting that is antiquated. However, if you allow yourself to reimagine education, what would it look and feel like?”

At its current location, Ellemercito’s enrollment cap is probably 10 students to maintain the character of the school. But they are interested in opening other locations if it becomes feasible. Lizette strongly encourages others who are considering creating a new educational option to go for it. “Microschooling offers a different pathway to learning in a fully customizable environment,” she says. “The questions it asks have more to do with what brings your child joy, peace, excitement, and creativity than rigidity, regurgitation, and standardization. This type of schooling is the most natural and freeing option given that it fuses the best practices of public, private, and homeschooling with new research‐​backed practices that take into consideration the whole child—mind, body, and soul. How would you inspire and be inspired by the next generation of thinkers, creators, and world changers to dream big and take action? We have all been waiting for this! Jump in!”

Friday Feature: Taking Charge of Your Children’s Education

Colleen Hroncich

My oldest child is graduating from college tomorrow, so it has me thinking about our educational journey—which could best be described as eclectic. At various times, we used private school, district school, and cyber charter school. But we ultimately landed on homeschooling. That doesn’t mean they were literally learning at home every day. My kids participated in co‐​ops, hybrid classes, dual enrollment, athletics, and more. This gave them access to experts and plenty of social time.

It can be scary taking charge of your children’s education—I remember feeling very relieved when my oldest received her first college acceptance. But today there are more resources than you can imagine to help you create the best education plan for your children’s individual needs and interests. And with the growth of education entrepreneurship, the situation is getting even better.

For starters, you don’t have to go it alone. The growth of microschools and hybrid schools means there are flexible learning options in many areas that previously had none. One goal of the Friday Feature is to help parents see the diversity of educational options that exist. To see what’s available in your area, you can search online, check with friends and neighbors, or connect with a local homeschool group.

If you don’t find what you’re looking for, the good news is that there’s also more support for people looking to start new learning entities. The National Microschooling Center is a great starting place if you’re considering creating your own microschool. The National Hybrid Schools Project at Kennesaw State University is also a tremendous resource. There are businesses—like Microschool Builders and Teacher, Let Your Light Shine—whose focus is helping people navigate the path to education entrepreneurship. And grant opportunities, like VELA and Yass Prize, can help with funding.

We were fortunate to be in an area with a strong homeschool community and therefore had plenty of activities to choose from. But I’m still a bit jealous when I speak to parents and teachers each week and hear about the amazing educational environments they’ve created.

There’s also an abundance of online resources available, from full online schools to à la carte classes in every subject imaginable. If you like online classes but want an in‐​person component, KaiPod Learning might be just the ticket. These are flexible learning centers where kids can bring whatever curriculum they’re using and work with support from a KaiPod learning coach. There are daily enrichment activities, like art, music, and coding, as well as social time.

One of the best parts of taking charge of your children’s education is that it puts you in the driver’s seat. If your children are advanced in particular subjects, they can push forward at their own pace. In areas where they struggle, they can take their time and be sure they understand before moving ahead. (One potential downside is that this takes extra discipline and can be challenging. But it’s tremendously beneficial overall.)

These nonconventional learning paths can be great for kids who don’t want to go to college, too. Flexible schedules free up time to pursue a trade, music, performing arts, sports, agriculture, and more. As kids get older, they can increasingly take charge of their own education. This lends itself to developing an entrepreneurial outlook, which is vitally important in a world where technology and public policy are constantly changing the workforce and economic landscapes.

“One size doesn’t fit all” is a common saying among school choice supporters. But this is more than just a slogan. It’s an acknowledgement that children are unique and should have access to learning environments that work for them. Public policy is catching up to this understanding—six states have passed some version of a universal education savings account that will let parents fund multiple education options.

If you’ve considered taking the reins when it comes to your children’s education, it’s a great time to act on it. Whether you choose a full‐​time, in‐​person option, a hybrid schedule, or full homeschooling, you’ll be able to customize a learning plan that works best for your kids and your family. And you may even become an education entrepreneur yourself and end up with a fulfilling career that you never expected.

Friday Feature: Boone Prairie School

Colleen Hroncich

Like many newer educational options, Boone Prairie School began because parents were looking for something different for their own child. “My husband and I started the school because we were looking for an option for our son,” recalls Shawna Reinhardt. “My daughter was in a hybrid type option and my son was not really interested in learning. I was looking at what their options were going to be for him when he started school—we homeschooled him for the first two years. And I just needed something where he’d be able to be hands‐​on and able to get up and go outside for recess a couple of times a day.”

The Reinhardts found an amazing school in Florida, but that wouldn’t work because they lived in Indiana. They learned that it was affiliated with Hillsdale College, so Shawna’s husband Bret took a trip to Hillsdale to find out more. He toured Hillsdale Academy, and they showed him how everything worked—the classrooms, the lunch room, the assembly, and all the operations of the school. When he came home, he told Shawna they should start a school. She agreed—despite having a newborn at the time.

They built their new school on their family farm in Whitestown, Indiana, and opened in 2017. Shawna says Hillsdale was very helpful as they got up and running, connecting them with other schools and helping them avoid some pitfalls that others experienced. “We started with K – 5th grade and now we have a junior this year. Next year will be our first graduating class,” says Shawna. “We’ve just been adding on each year as we grow.”

Boone Prairie School is a Christian school that blends classical and Charlotte Mason approaches and follows a hybrid schedule. The classical method is based on “great ideas, great books (including primary sources when possible), foundational truths and principles, and enduring traditions and skills.” Pairing that with a Charlotte Mason‐​inspired philosophy means students learn through living books, cultivate good habits, and spend time outdoors as weather permits. Classes are held three days a week—Wednesday through Friday—and the kids learn at home the other days. This gives families both support, since the primary instruction is done at the school, and flexibility, since they can control their own schedules the other days.

Shawna is committed to meeting children where they are and helping them move ahead. For example, they place kids into whatever math level they need to be in, not one matched to a specific age. “When a new student comes, we start them at their level. We don’t try to force them into a level that’s not appropriate for them,” she says. For some, that level is higher than is typical for their age, and for others, it is below. But Shawna says it’s working well and there isn’t any sort of stigma with not being in your “grade level.” It’s all about putting them where they need to be. For kids who struggle with math, she’s found, “Once you can give them that confidence, then sometimes they don’t think they hate math so much anymore. Oftentimes they’re just missing a couple of key concepts that are kind of holding them back.”

According to Shawna, the whole school stays on similar tracks for history and science, except for high school because their requirements are a little bit different. This allows the families to be able to read the same chapters together and stay on some of the same topics for the at‐​home days. This year, for example, they’re studying Africa in geography, even the high schoolers. So they’re all listening to the same songs at home, learning the same trees, and cooking foods from various African countries. The whole school also learns a Bible verse together each month that usually relates to a character trait that they’re learning that month.

Boone Prairie also offers a variety of extracurricular activities, including chess, archery, yearbook, a skiing/​snowboarding club, and an outdoors club (fishing, hiking, camping, shooting sports, kayaking). For children who are interested in music or sports, the school will help connect them with local options.

For others who are considering starting a hybrid school, Shawna recommends connecting with the Hybrid Schools Project at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. She attended their conference last year and said they did a great job organizing it. She thinks it would be very helpful for anyone in the early stages of starting a school. Unfortunately, it’s too late for this year’s conference—it was held last weekend and was a terrific event. But KSU is launching a new Hybrid Schools Society, which is sure to be a wonderful resource for hybrid school founders and operators.

Friday Feature: Nevada School of Inquiry

Colleen Hroncich

Christina and Eric Threeton have a lot of experience in education. They both taught in the Clark County School District in Nevada before moving to the charter school sector. When they moved into charter administration, they expected to really be able to shake things up and make an impact.

“We were always trying to do new things in the classroom, always kind of innovative,” says Eric. “The higher we got, we realized the less you can actually do. Your hands are tied more. It got to the point where, in order to do what we know is best for children, we needed to do something different. So we saved up some money and took a leap.”

The leap was starting their own private microschool, the Nevada School of Inquiry (NVSI). They decided to focus on middle school because there are great elementary and high schools in the area, but they found the middle school landscape to be lacking in good options. Christina and Eric plan to do things differently than most traditional schools, allowing kids to explore their passions through self‐​directed learning, incorporating field trips and hiking, and using units of instruction to teach thematically.

This is the first year of operation for NVSI, and there are currently 11 students enrolled—up from three at the beginning of the year. The cap they’ve set for the program in their current location is 30 students. This will allow them to maintain the family‐​like atmosphere and student‐​centered approach.

While the group is small, they still separate for some classes to ensure each child is at the level that’s right for them. “There are a couple of subjects that we teach all together because they need to have the state standards mastered before they leave 8th grade,” says Christina. “So we wrote a three‐​year program for those. The kids are together for science, social studies, health, and PE. When it comes to math and ELA, it gets a little bit different.” Christina works with the 6th graders to ensure they build a strong foundation for the future. Eric works with the other groups for 7th and 8th grade math, pre‐​Algebra, and Algebra 1. For English/​Language Arts, the students all read the same novel, but Christina differentiates their assignments based on their level.

NVSI focuses on mastery, so they use a hybrid grading approach. Students are rated based on their mastery of a subject and then that rating is converted to a traditional letter grade. This helps parents understand how their kids are progressing and gives them a regular report card to use for high school applications.

Before a student enrolls, they meet with the family to make sure the school is a good fit for them. They also help to set up a plan for each incoming student to help them achieve their goals when it comes to high school. According to Christina, a student’s plan will be different depending on their expected path—for example, they may want to attend an International Baccalaureate school, a performing arts school, or one of the elite private schools in the area. “Really starting to get them thinking early has been helpful because then we can meet those expectations and set them on the right trajectory,” she says.

Eric and Christina plan to eventually build a new school so they can hire other teachers and enroll more students. But for now, they just want to fill their current location and get on a sustainable funding path so they can go back to earning salaries. “It’s scary to leave,” Eric notes. “We went from both of us making good money to making nothing, but it’s absolutely amazing.”

What advice would they offer other teachers, parents, or entrepreneurs looking to start their own school or learning center? Eric says, “Start saving up some capital because it’s very capital intensive—more so than we thought. We thought we’d saved enough. We did not save enough. Though the initial capital investment is high, you’re going to be not making money for a little bit. But hopefully in the end you’ll come out on top. We’re still kind of waiting for that.”

Christina and Eric are confident NVSI will flourish. Growing from three to 11 students in the first year helped bolster that confidence. Other than three students graduating, all of their current students are returning next year along with several new students who have already registered. Their growth has been through word of mouth, which is evidence that their families are happy with this new learning environment for their children.

Beyond the financial challenges, Eric and Christina had to deal with a lot of hurdles to get NVSI up and running. There were zoning issues and code issues that fell under separate government agencies and were time‐​consuming to deal with. They had to be “squeaky wheels” to make sure things moved along quickly or else they wouldn’t have been able to open on time—and even then, it was down to the wire. They got their final approval two days before the first day of school.

These hurdles keep some good educators from branching out to start their own school. “It’s a shame there isn’t a clearer path for people to be able to do something like this without all those barriers, because we need more options,” Eric laments. Fortunately, there are people like Eric and Christina who are willing to take the road less traveled. Future entrepreneurs will benefit from the lessons they’re learning.

Friday Feature: Gather Forest School

Colleen Hroncich

On average, kids today reportedly spend fewer than 10 minutes a day playing outside—and more than seven hours a day on screens. That’s one of the reasons I love learning about forest schools, like The Garden School, Barefoot University, and today’s feature, Gather in Decatur, Georgia.

A former teacher, Ashley Causey‐​Golden was caring for her newborn son and trying to figure out her next move. She didn’t want to put him in daycare when he was so young, so she decided to try creating her own school. Ashley had interacted with Shelby Stone‐​Steel on Instagram through Ashley’s Afrocentric Montessori page. She knew they shared a lot of the same ideas about education, so she reached out to her about partnering. At that point, they’d never met in person.

“I gave birth to Anthony in March and was not even a month post‐​partum,” Ashley recalls. “We did a lot of talking on the phone because we were just trying to get to know each other. In July, we started touring spaces. Trying to find a space was the hardest hurdle because we were trying to prove a concept. But one place took a chance on us and really loved what we were doing for black kids — having children outdoors and learning through nature. We do academics in this space, but there’s also something to be said just being present and existing in nature for longer than a few minutes.”

As a forest school, they spend nearly all of their time outdoors. Ashley says Gather has “a Montessori and Waldorf flow.” She adds, “We do math, literacy, writing, science, geography, social studies, history, and cultural studies. We use some worksheets, but we also use things like acorns and leaves because with those things you can do pattern work with our younger students.”

In the first year, there was a mixture of families. Some wanted the nature approach just for preschool and then were going to a more traditional program. But the homeschooling families really embraced the whole program. “We found out that we really like partnering with homeschoolers,” says Ashley. “They see this journey as long term because it is sometimes hard for them to find consistent community. So we said this is our lane—partnering with black homeschooling families.

Gather operates Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m.­–12:30 p.m. Parents can choose full‐ or part‐​time participation with tuition prorated based on how many days their children attend. “Since we work with homeschooling families, each family has their different flow,” Ashley says. She asks families to sign up for particular days to ensure they have sufficient student‐​teacher ratios. In addition to Ashley and Shelby, they recently hired another teacher – which will be particularly helpful since Ashley’s second child is due any day.

Ashley says she would encourage other teachers who are interested in creating something new to give it a shot. “If you have a dream of doing something else, try it,” she says. “It is a lot of hard work—because now you’re an administrator and a teacher. That was the biggest learning curve for Shelby and me because before, we were teachers. But the administrators were handling all the other moving pieces like dealing with parents, complaints, marketing, and fees. When you’re running your own program, you have to do all of that and still teach. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade it in.”

Her message for parents is to truly know your child and try to find a place that’s a good fit. She advises, “Be really honest about who your child is—the good and the beautiful parts of your child, but also the parts that are growth areas. Because you want a program that’s able to speak to both—that keeps pushing the good but also helps challenge where they need it.”

Friday Feature: St. Martin’s Academy

Colleen Hroncich

“Boys thrive when they’re challenged and when they’re doing hard things. Especially when they’re doing hard things together.” This is some of the insight Daniel Kerr has developed after founding and running St. Martin’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for boys on a sustainable farm in Fort Scott, Kansas.

Daniel’s dream of founding a school was inspired by The Restoration of Innocence: An Idea of a School, an unpublished work by John Senior. After years of dreaming and then planning, St. Martin’s Academy opened in 2018.

“The school is situated on a 5‑acre parcel that was part of the Kerr family estate,” says Daniel. “So the school is literally in my backyard. This is the land I was born and raised on and the school now shares a part of that.” The total acreage on the family farm is around 200 acres, but they have access to additional land for agricultural and recreational use.

The school started with 17 students, all freshmen or sophomores. They added on each year and are now at capacity with 63 students. Daniel is firm on the max size based on his and his co-founder’s own time in boarding schools. “It’s small by design,” he says. “We’ll never get bigger than mid‐​sixties for enrollment because 15 students per class is ideal. In our experience, the cohesiveness and integrity of the classes break down once you get north of 15–20 students.”

St. Martin’s Academy is a rather unique place. As a Benedictine institution, it is robustly and authentically Catholic. They follow the Benedictine practice ora et labora – pray and work. Students attend daily Mass and pause for prayer at regular intervals throughout the day.

Classes are held five hours a day each Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The school has a rigorous academic curriculum that includes Latin, Greek, logic, physics, and natural history. While classes can be held in the classroom, they’re frequently in the field. For example, in the natural sciences classes, they spend time outside on things like birding, falconry, and beekeeping.

On Wednesdays, they take a break from academics for Work Wednesday where they do larger work projects on the farm. The boys also have the opportunity to pursue other interests on Wednesdays, including the mastery program, which is like merit badges in Boy Scouts.

Daniels calls the farm the “living laboratory” for much of the school’s educational approach. Faculty and students work together on the farm, growing seasonal vegetables, tending the orchard, and raising a variety of livestock. Some people have questioned the value of farming and suggested it distracts from intellectual pursuits, but Daniel disagrees. “I would contend that farm work, far from being a distraction, is as indispensable a pedagogical component as anything else at St. Martin’s. Without this work, we simply aren’t able make good on our vision to educate the whole person.”

The farm also contributes to the overall economy of the school. According to Daniel, “At this point, probably 25 percent of our food comes from the work we do on the farm. Our goal is 80 percent self‐​sufficiency within three years, and I think we’re going to get there.”

Tuition at St. Martin’s, which includes room and board as well as an opening trip, is $21,500. This is impressive when you consider average per pupil spending is U.S. public schools is more than $15,000 without room and board or a trip. And the average annual cost at seven‐​day boarding schools in the United States is $66,500.

The opening trips are significant and intentional. For freshmen, they go out west to Wyoming or Utah and do a mountaineering expedition. Daniel says this trip “is a good way for the boys to start forging friendships, which—especially for the younger guys—is the best antidote to homesickness.”

Seniors start the school year with a three‐​week trip to France. It’s centered around a retreat at Fontgombault Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in France. The trip includes a visit to Tours, where the school’s patron saint is buried. They also travel to Normandy, Lisieux, Mont‐​Saint‐​Michel, and Paris. “It’s really a great trip for the boys, who have been studying the foundations of western civilization,” says Daniel. “For them to go over and see the incarnation of what that looks like, it’s a very important experience for them.”

St. Martin’s Academy has had two graduating classes so far with around 18 graduates between them. Some have gone to college, one is becoming a Benedictine monk, and some have gravitated towards working with their hands and looking to strike out in business for themselves. This doesn’t surprise Daniel. “I think there’s a kind of entrepreneurial spirit about the place that is intentional,” he says. “We really encourage them to be entrepreneurial, which we basically define as just taking responsibility for the outcomes in your life. In the economic sphere, that means you have to have some control over the means of production that you have. I think they get that message—that these sorts of things are not only possible, they’re desirable.”

Daniel frequently hears from people who want to create something similar. “I have folks reaching out nearly every week who are interested in what we’re doing, want to do something similar, and are looking for support, encouragement, and ideas. I think there’s a broader awakening to the fact that our educational models are tired, unimaginative, and they don’t work. And they really don’t work for boys. We’ve got to do something different. Through God’s providence, we’re at the tip of the spear in heading into a new direction. It’s pretty exciting.”