How Micro School Networks Are Enabling Education Entrepreneurs – Forbes | Team Cansler

When Katelyn Shore opened the first Wildflower Montessori microschool in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2014, she hoped it would be the start of something big. The vision, presented by Sep Kamvar at the MIT Media Lab, was to create an open source network of intentionally small neighborhood Montessori micro schools that would provide the tools and technology to empower teacher-entrepreneurs across the country to enable them to set up their own microschools. Shore’s school would be the prototype.

“When we first started imagining what would be possible for the opening of the first Wildflower school, I was most inspired to start a small school where the teachers are the decision-makers about what’s in store for their school community (children and families). would be best since we were closest to the needs of our community,” Shore said. “Back then we dreamed of what could be possible within a larger network of micro schools, but to see it happening and growing as it is is just amazing.”

Today, the Wildflower Montessori network consists of more than 60 micro schools across the United States and Puerto Rico, including public charter micro schools in Minneapolis, New York City and Washington, DC. Most of the network’s micro-schools focus on early childhood education, but some serve primary and secondary school children.

Wildflower Montessori supports entrepreneurial, Montessori-trained teachers who wish to open their own affiliated micro-schools. The non-profit Wildflower Foundation provides grants and soft loans to these startup founders and connects them to the vast network of Wildflower Montessori educators who share resources, offer encouragement, and provide advice and insight.

Whitney Harrell founded her wildflower daughter school Magnolia Blossom Montessori in Louisville, Kentucky in 2017. A licensed educator who had previously taught in both public and private schools, Harrell wanted to challenge entrepreneurship with the child-centered ideals of the Montessori educational philosophy. Wildflower provided that opportunity and connected her to the community that needed her to start and grow. “I think one of the critical things about Wildflower is that nobody is doing this alone,” Harrell said. “I could not have imagined starting a school without the support of Wildflower, especially the emotional and philosophical support.”

While many microschool founders today launch their programs independently of any national network or affiliation, some find great value in being aligned with a network. For Tobin Slaven, a longtime entrepreneur who recently founded Acton Academy Fort Lauderdale in Florida, being part of Acton Academy’s larger micro-school network has been tremendously beneficial.

“When we first found out about Acton, my instinct as an entrepreneur was to think we can find out. Why follow anyone else’s example?’ said Slave. “But what I didn’t realize until we were internal and accessed the network multiple times a day was the speed of learning from collaborative experimentation and optimization that’s happening behind the scenes.”

Acton Academy was founded in Austin, Texas in 2010 by Laura and Jeff Sandefer. It has become one of the most popular and fastest growing K-12 microschool networks, encompassing approximately 280 affiliated schools in more than 30 states and 25 countries. Like Wildflower Montessori, each Acton Academy is independently owned and operated, but founders have access to the dynamic global network that allows them to gain a better understanding of key principles and best practices, and to communicate easily with others when issues arise to work together.

“With what we now know, we would never have taken on this challenge if we were not connected to the network. It feels so important and has changed the way we look at what’s possible,” Slaven said.

Wildflower Montessori and Acton Academy were among the earliest microschool networks, emerging well before the educational disruptions caused by the pandemic response brought microschools into the limelight. These small, mixed-age learning communities, with staffed educators and personalized, learner-centered curricula, have gained mainstream appeal since 2020, with some estimates suggesting as many as two million U.S. children are now in microschool full-time.

Realizing the growing demand for micro schools, Amar Kumar decided to launch a new micro school network, KaiPod Learning, in 2021. Kumar, who worked at McKinsey and Pearson prior to founding KaiPod, saw an opportunity to bring the best features of online learning to a small, co-learning community. At KaiPod, about a dozen students of various ages join an experienced educator to work through the family’s chosen online learning plan in a supportive, face-to-face micro-school environment. Parents gain maximum autonomy over what their children learn, while their children benefit from daily social interactions with their peers, along with academic support and enrichment from trained educators.

After participating in the acclaimed Y Combinator startup accelerator program, KaiPod opened in the Boston area last fall with a micro school and two students. Today, the company supports micro schools in five states with over 180 students. Kumar now aims to help other entrepreneurial educators start their own micro schools using KaiPod’s resource-rich network. Last week he announced KaiPod Catalyst, a startup accelerator program for new and aspiring microschool founders looking to connect to a recognized national network for community, inspiration, support and guidance.

“Starting a micro school is incredibly rewarding and hard work. We want to encourage more educators to do this,” said Kumar, who sees three key benefits of his company’s new accelerator program. “First, we learned the hard way what it takes to start microschools and we want to share that with everyone. The second benefit is access to the largest network of online schools and homeschool organizations. Finally, we are committed to working long-term with our founders, standing by them through any challenges they face in launch and scaling. All of this is possible on our own, but we believe we can help improve the odds of success.”

Today’s microschool founders, many of whom are former public school teachers, are well positioned to thrive as educational entrepreneurs. Not only is parental demand for small, low-cost, personalized learning options soaring, but the resources available to entrepreneurs are also becoming more varied and plentiful. They can join a national network that reflects their educational preferences and goals, or they can create their own independent micro-school model. Regardless of the path a microschool founder chooses, connecting with others, be it formal or informal, will help ensure organizational success and satisfaction.

“Look for an affiliation or community of like-minded schools or educators any way you can,” urges Wildflower’s Harrell. “There is no reason to keep reinventing the wheel.”

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