How microschools are reshaping K-12 education in South Florida | Kerry McDonald – Foundation for Economic Education | Team Cansler

Nestled in a warm and colorful classroom in a sprawling Salvation Army building in Fort Lauderdale is the Permission To Succeed Education Center, one of more than two dozen private microschools and similar small, multi-age co-learning communities in South Florida. Felicia Rattray decided to launch Permission To Succeed in the summer of 2020 after schools closed due to the pandemic and the switch to distance learning gave her a close look at her nephew’s classroom.

Her sister had died in a car accident when Rattray’s nephew was just eight days old and then lived with his grandmother for several years until she became too frail. Rattray and her husband, Amnon, cared for the boy, who was in third grade at a nearby public school. Rattray, a board certified teacher, has worked as a social studies teacher and school counselor at Florida public and charter schools since 2007. She knew her nephew was behind with school and had had one-on-ones with him in the afternoons and weekends to help him catch up, but Covid has changed everything. “During the pandemic, I saw how behind he was,” Rattray said. “The spotlight was such that I could see how much he was suffering in the classroom.”

Rattray decided to start a micro-school to help students like her nephew, who she discovered worked in a pre-kindergarten level, create a more personal, mastery-based learning environment. “The public schools can’t slow down the curriculum enough for the kids to catch up,” she said. “I’ve always had a desire to combine school counseling and education in my way, in my non-traditional way. In our micro school, each of our students has a different curriculum that is individually tailored. I buy different math syllabuses, different reading syllabuses, depending on what’s right for each kid.”

Parents are increasingly looking for a more personalized educational environment for their children, with instruction tailored to meet the diverse needs of each learner. “We attract the families that want a truly personalized experience,” said Rattray, who sublet the space for her microschool from Laurel Suarez, another microschool founder who opened the Compass Outreach and Education Center in 2019 with a small group of kids. Now Suarez has 48 students with eight teachers plus additional trainers.

Laurel Suarez, Founder of Compass Outreach and Education Center | by KERRY MCDONALD

Like Rattray, Suarez of Compass was a homeroom teacher early in her career and then worked as a senior administrator for a charter school management company in Florida before deciding to become an education entrepreneur. “Teachers in traditional schools have been smothered. They didn’t have time to be creative,” said Suarez, who started homeschooling in 2014 before opening her microschool a few years later. “I decided to try something different. My kids were grown and when I had the chance I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to create something.”

She also wanted to help others create. “I’ve always wanted to do something of my own and help others start their own businesses,” said Suarez, who was born and raised in the US Virgin Islands. Helping young people develop a creative, entrepreneurial mindset is also a big part of the Compass learning community which, like Rattray’s micro school, prioritizes individual, mastery-based learning and plenty of free time.

Your students take traditional standardized tests to identify academic strengths and areas for improvement that help teachers adjust learning plans accordingly, but there’s no classroom scrutiny and no student stress over assessments. Still, Suarez notes that her students speed up quickly, often exceeding class levels.

“I was nothing and now I’m great!” exclaimed eight-year-old Justice during my last visit to Compass. “Compass made me what I am!”

“I like Compass because it is of such good quality. I love it!” added nine-year-old Daniela.

Annual tuition at Compass is $13,500, which is cheaper than traditional private schools in South Florida but still financially prohibitive for many families. Fortunately, the majority of Suarez’s students attend their microschool on scholarships through one of Florida’s generous school choice programs, which give parents greater access to a variety of educational options beyond an assigned district school. “A lot of our micro schools are thriving because we have these grants,” Suarez said. “More and more people, not just homeschoolers, are becoming aware of microschools. Parents are much more open-minded. They know they have a choice.”

For Permission to Succeed’s Rattray, ensuring families have access to their new microschool in 2020 was a crucial part of their launch strategy. She knew she needed a building that met certain requirements in order to be a recognized sponsor of the government grant programs. Working in an additional classroom at Suarez’s micro school gave Rattray the opportunity to quickly open her micro school and begin with students immediately. “If I hadn’t had their space to start the process, this school would never have come about because I needed a building to accept scholarships,” said Rattray, who incubated her program at Compass for a year before moving into the space the Salvation Army crossed over less than two miles down the road.

Rattray’s micro school fees are $700 per month, but most students only pay about $50 per month or nothing at all due to school choice programs. “Without these grants, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do with our students, except maybe two students,” she said. Instead, Rattray now serves about 20 students from kindergarten through middle school in two classrooms with four teachers. She has other high school students choosing to study virtually.

While Rattray believes the advantage of microschools is their small size and personalized approach to learning, she believes small is scalable and is committed to expanding Permission To Succeed microschools across the state. “My goal is to have these little schools all over Florida, one in each county,” she said.

To achieve this goal, Rattray was recently encouraged by Compass’s Suarez to apply for a micro-grant through the VELA Education Fund, a non-profit philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting the growth of microschools, co-learning communities, homeschooling collaborations, and similar non-traditional educational models. Suarez received a VELA grant that offered financial resources and recognition for her efforts with Compass while connecting her to the growing ecosystem of educational entrepreneurs in the greater Fort Lauderdale area.

“I just fell into this community through the VELA grant,” said Suarez, who notes that local microschool founders often network and collaborate, share resources, and even recommend families rather than being competitive. “I have referred families to other micro schools. Nothing works alone. There is a lot of sharing, collaborating, copying. I want everyone to thrive,” she said.

Suarez believes this collaborative, entrepreneurial atmosphere has led to the rise of microschools in South Florida. As more people realize that microschools and similar non-traditional learning models are thriving and their students are happy and successful, it will prompt more education entrepreneurs to start these microschools and more parents to seek them out. “Parents are now concerned about the welfare of their child. They want a holistic approach to education because they realize how much better off they would have been,” Suarez said.

She believes microschools will dramatically change US education in the years to come, led by parental demand for innovative choices. “What we’re doing is the future,” said Suarez. “I want people to see that microschools are not just a thing of the moment. They are here to stay and will continue to grow.”

This Forbes article is republished with permission.

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