Silicon Valley Is Jumping on the Microschool Bandwagon

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When San Francisco Unified School District announced that fall classes would be virtual earlier this month, Jill Gilbert worried about her five-year-old son. He’d been having depressive episodes since he left preschool at the start of the pandemic, and she feared they’d only worsen if he entered kindergarten without peers. A single mom, she also wasn’t sure how she’d juggle remote schooling for such a young child with her full-time, work-from-home job. So she turned to the Internet for help.

There she foundCareVillage, an online platform that aims to match families to share the Covid-19 child care load by sharing playdates, nannies, tutors, and other resources with households. Gilbert filled out the website’s brief descriptive survey, describing what she was looking for and rating herself a “5” on a 1-5 scale of how seriously she’s working to avoid infection. A nearby family with a five-year-old son was sent to her as a match: They hoped to form what the company calls a “SchoolPod” — that is, a pact to pool costs, space, and responsibilities for instructing their kids, while hewing to the same anti-virus precautions. 

“What my son needed most desperately is not being away from other children,” Gilbert said. “For tons of parents, the idea of having a group where kids can develop some relationships that are going to stick, and do it safely — that’s what is coming to mind.”

It is also what is coming to market. As working parents in the U.S. stare down another semester of classroom-free chaos, tech companies are hustling to fill what seems to be a bottomless demand for child-minding solutions, with platforms for pod-seeking families, daycare providers, and options to form what are sometimes known as “microschools.” The loose umbrella term refers to what are generally very small clusters of students, led by parents or educators following pedagogies and operational structures as an alternative to public education. Known for smaller class sizes, flexible schedules, and alternative learning methods, pre-Covid examples of microschools range from Montessori-style programs that equip a handful of students with personalized curricula from infancy to middle school, to outdoor “forest schools” where kindergarteners learn through exploration at parks and beaches. 

Interest in this model has been growing in the U.S. for years, with some of the most vocal boosters coming from school choice and homeschooling advocates, as well as tech circles eager to turn their disruptive energy on public education (see the free online course platformKhan Academy, orWeGrow, the now-shuttered educational arm that co-working company WeWork launched in 2018). Microschools have also been an area of interest for right-leaning and Libertarian political groups such as theHeritageFoundation and the Reason Foundation.U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, an ardent school choice advocate, is also a fan of the model. On Tuesday shetweeted her support for legislation that would provide $5 billion in tax credits for families opting for homeschooling or private school, proposed by Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Tim Scott. The pandemic has dramatically boosted the profile and appeal of microschooling, as desperate parents scramble for options amid long-term closures of in-person instruction: Google search interest for the term “microschool” has grown fourfold since early July, around the time many major U.S. school districts were announcing their plans to stay virtual for fall. 

CareVillage is hoping to ride that wave. The self-funded startup was launched in late June by Michael Beckmann and Eline van der Gaast, a San Francisco couple with an infant daughter and roots in the tech world. Within days of their family-matching site going live, more than 100 families — mostly in the Bay Area — signed up, and their numbers have been growing daily, Beckmann said. While the platform is free for parents, Beckmann believes it could eventually be monetized, perhaps through training instructors and facilitating payments. 

“My basic intuition is that if I solve a real problem for people, I can find a way to capture some value out of that,” he said. “Right now, I’m just focused on solving this huge issue.” 

The scale of the school crisis can be partly measured by the dozens of U.S.-based Facebook groups where parents and educators are frantically assembling themselves into modern-day one-room schoolhouses. Drained by juggling households responsibilities and the myriad challenges of remote learning from the spring, some members are trying to create child care co-ops or playdate pods, while others wish to transform backyards and garages into educational spaces and split the cost of hiring a nanny or tutor to lead them. Several purveyors of “ed-tech” are using these parent forums to advertise their products and services, and are adapting to meet new demands.  

One of those players isWinnie, a Yelp-like search platform founded in 2016 that lists about 200,000 child care centers and pre-kindergartens nationally. This week it launched a search function that enables its providers to signalwhether they accept school-aged children, and helps parents find them. CEO and founder Sara Mauskopf said that in a survey of Winnie providers, about 75% of respondents were licensed and willing to accept older kids. 

She expects they’ll offer a range of services: For kids in higher grades, “some of these providers might just have a quiet space with an internet connection, some might have a lot of resources to support kids in distance learning, others might be just reserving space just for school-aged kids so that they can be involved with this demo,” Mauskopf said. “We want to allow for parents to see what providers are doing in order to differentiate their options.” 

As they do for younger students, instructors and caregivers will set different price points, with extra services and options for parents who are able to pay more. A San Francisco-based search turned up providers mostly offering programs for $1,200 to $2,500 per month; many programs in lower-cost cities in other parts of the country seemed to be priced at about 30% to 50% of that range. Most of the recent demand has come from dual-income families with both parents working from home, Mauskopf said.

There are still other options.Wonderschool, a platform that specializes in helping pre-K and daycare instructors create early child care centers — guiding them through state licensing requirements, marketing, enrollment, and payments — opened up its school-creation software for parents and teachers of K-12 students seeking to create microschools. While Wonderschool already had a few programs serving older students on its platform, they mostly rely on their own curriculum, or follow online educational content from companies such as Prenda and Outschool. Now it can accomodate students following the curriculum from their existing school —  something that many pod-seeking parents are keen to do.Weekdays, which offers a similar software to help educators set up microschools, also recently launched a service to help parents match with each other and find open slots in affiliated programs. 

“We’re looking for ways to support the current movement,” said Wonderschool’s CEO and founder Chris Bennett. “I’m very concerned about how this time will set back a generation of children. I hope that kids who get access to the right supports from teachers, tutors, and people working on this full time — I think those kids will have a significant advantage compared to kids who aren’t getting this.”

That’s precisely the fear that many microschooling critics are now voicing. Educational policy experts warn of profound social equity implications as well-off parents rush to pod themselves off from public school systems, leaving behind families that lack disposable income, can’t access broadband Internet, or live in crowded homes unsuitable for sharing child care responsibilities. Microschools also threaten to widen racial gaps: Research on school voucher programs and charter schools has also shown that, when given the choice, families tend to self-segregate by income and race.

“Even in more diverse school settings and districts, my hunch is that you’ll have increasing segregation in those pods,” said Katy Bulkley, a professor of education at Montclair State University who studies school choice and privatization. “It’s hard to envision a scenario in which that does not increase inequities, rather than even holding steady” —  an all-too-familiar pattern in a pandemic that has exacerbated racial and economic inequalities in health care, labor and housing, among others. 

Bulkley said that she hopes to see school districts getting involved — they could lead pod formation and help guide where these groups ultimately assemble as a way to help overcome the discriminatory effects of self-selection as well as provide some regulatory oversight. Shauna Causey, the CEO and founder of Weekdays, said that she has been in contact with administrators at Seattle Public Schools, discussing the possibility of a public-private partnership to test that idea there. 

Janelle Scott, a professor in the graduate school of education and African American studies at University of California, Berkeley who researches educational disparities, said that she is sympathetic to all parents, school districts, and students trying to survive a chaotic situation. Yet she echoed Bulkley’s concerns that pods and microschools are likely to widen existing gaps in achievement and school funding, particularly in communities of color that have been hardest hit with coronavirus infections and deaths. She lays blame on the lack of federal guidance and support for the education system. 

“We’ve taken away any deep collective approach to this,” she said. “Without rigorous public policy support, people are going to turn to what is closest to them in crisis. But I don’t believe we’re going to individualize our way out of this problem.” 

Yet investors have been keen to propel the burgeoning ed-tech sector, and the pandemic has provided a powerful new incentive. The firm Reach Capital has been investing in learning and instruction technology since 2015, when it debuted with a $53 million fund. It has since raised an additional $82 million, which it poured into startups including Winnie and Outschool. Wayee Chu, a general partner at Reach, has witnessed a recent swell of interest in the space among other investors now that billions of households globally have been forced to try remote education. “Parents around the world have now had a window into their child’s learning (and with varied results and success),” she wrote in an email.  

Chu and every ed-tech CEO — as well as every parent and teacher — interviewed for this article acknowledged the potential negative impacts for students that don’t receive the supplemental benefits of pod-time during the upcoming semester. Many executives also pointed to the school choice vouchers available to low-income families in many states, and said that they are looking for other ways to close achievement gaps and increase the diversity of students they reach. The pandemic has clearly created a less-than-ideal state of learning for everybody, Chu said. But she sees more microschools coming: “I do think the trend is inevitable, as parents are now looking to take learning in their own hands,” she wrote. 

Not everyone is sure. Scott has doubts that the tens of thousands of parents posting on Facebook will ultimately all take the leap of faith to put their children in someone else’s care, especially as a pandemic surges to new heights of infectious danger. 

Indeed, Gilbert is currently unsure if she’ll be joining her proposed SchoolPod. It helped her to know that there were like-minded parents out there —  her CareVillage match family rated themselves a “4” — but she is waiting to see who else is in her son’s new class before picking her partners. She’s holding out to find the best match for her son’s social needs, as well as for their health. It is a fraught and stressful situation all around.  

“Trust is the hardest part of all of this,” Gilbert said. “We want to trust the people we’re getting together with. You want to find people that feel the same way as you do.”

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