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A School Sector in Search of a Name


Microschools and hybrid schools (and fully virtual schools) don’t fit easily into a single slot on the spectrum, because they are more flexible and identity-based than conventional public and private schools, yet they have more institutional aspects than full-time homeschools. These schools diverge from the norm either in terms of time (hybrid schools), size (microschools), or both. They span a gamut of school types and may feature a variety of school characteristics.

Consider a school that started as a group of homeschoolers meeting in someone’s home. More local families decide they are interested and want to join in. Eventually this group decides to become more formal and open its doors to more local residents. Or consider a church that wants to develop a school that can charge substantially lower tuition than others in the area. The program is intended as a ministry of the church that serves the community.

Here are three examples of schools that started through demand in their local communities and whose programs feature innovations in time, size, or both. These schools are identity-based and focused on a specific purpose, and their missions differ from those of conventional schools:

Veritas Academy. Community members in Austin, Texas, came together to craft a school that provided academics but also valued family leadership and togetherness. A group of families worked to develop a “collaborative” hybrid school that opened with more than 100 students in 2005 and has grown consistently since.

Colossal Academy. During the pandemic, a teacher recognized her frustrations with the existing system, believed she could do more for her students and her community, and opened a microschool that remains small. The academy has inspired other education entrepreneurs to start similar schools in their communities.

Julian Charter School, near San Diego, started as a way to “meet the needs of students underserved by traditional delivery systems of education or for families with a strong desire to home school.” This public charter now delivers its hybrid-style programs to more than 2,000 students through homeschooling and small academies located in southern California.

 

What to Call Them?

In the April 1971 issue of Stanford Law Review, Jack Coons makes a distinction between two definitions of “community.” Often, the word refers to a defined geographic area—what Coons calls “communities of territory.” But when school-choice models draw students from multiple school districts, as many microschools and hybrid schools do, another meaning is called for. Coons describes this kind of community as

an interacting group of people with shared values and/or a willingness to cooperate to attain long range objectives. This definition has no geographic content; indeed, the congruence of any such community and a defined locale may be relatively rare with the obvious exception of the traditional family. One hesitates to call such communities ideological, since the informing values may be cultural, social, or simply practical. A preferable term is “community of interest.” In speaking about the structure of educational institutions, however, it is a fact that the relevant communities will often be ideological in some respect.

The term “community of interest schools” does fit hybrid and microschools, but that label would be a mouthful. Perhaps “community schools” would work? No, because that already applies to other concepts. The National Education Association, among others, uses “community schools” to mean those that offer not just education but also wrap-around services such as health and social services, community engagement, and economic development. Public school districts also often use “community education” to describe their evening course offerings.

An unlikely but apt analog can be found in the craft beer industry, which of course includes microbrews. In the 1970s, the 10 largest beer companies sold more than 90 percent of the beer consumed in the nation, according to the Economic History Association. But when the American beer industry was deregulated in 1979, craft brewing took off. Today’s stores offer a tremendous array of craft beers in countless styles and flavors—yet the mass-market options such as Budweiser and Miller remain popular.

Similarly, for well over a century, most Americans had little choice but to attend the public school assigned to them by virtue of where they lived. The affluent could choose where they lived—or choose private schools. Some families homeschooled their children, providing the foundation on which this new school sector is being built. Individuals, small groups of families, and education entrepreneurs today are crafting all kinds of microschools and hybrid schools. Yet the “mass market” options—conventional public and private schools—remain popular among many.

Despite the neat analogy to the craft beer industry, we can’t very well call these new schools “craft schools,” because again, that term already applies to something else: schools that teach particular vocational skills. Microschools and hybrid schools are (usually) not craft schools, though they are built by their founders for particular purposes, such as focusing on Montessori education, trying out new methods of science and technology education, or for a church or other place of worship to serve its local community. One reason these new-model schools have been so successful is that they are specialized, unlike large-scale conventional schools that are supposed to be everything to everyone.

And so I would like to propose a new term that captures the unifying features of the diverse options that exist between pure homeschooling and conventional schools: “community crafted schools,” or perhaps “community crafted education.” Here’s why:

  • Like microbreweries and home-brewing, these schools are usually hyper-local, and can even be done at home.
  • The term is ideologically neutral and indeed has positive connotations for most everyone.
  • These schools between homeschools and conventional schools fit perfectly with Coons’s conception of “communities of interest.” He predicted that a system of schools that supported an “organic community of interest” would “provide a broad enough spectrum of educational styles and content to satisfy every significant parental interest.” The hybrid and microschool sector organically strives to craft such schools.
  • The term “crafted” implies some smallness, which is usually but not invariably true. (Wooden sailing ships, for example, require significant craftsmanship, but they aren’t all small.)
  • “Crafted” also implies that a thing has been created by someone (or some group). It is through careful and thoughtful craftsmanship by particular, dedicated people that these schools come to be. The hybrid-schools and microschools sector did not spring up because a school district’s board voted for it to. These schools have evolved from homeschool communities, and the do-it-yourself aspect is integral.
  • Large brewers sometimes buy “craft partners,” but once this happens, it is clear that the brewery has become a different kind of thing—much larger and more corporate. While conventional charter and private schools may share some similarities with hybrid and microschools, there are meaningful differences between a local operation and a franchise of a large corporation. Thus, some microschools that expand regionally or nationally may eventually become a network of conventional private schools.

Again, an umbrella term may matter little to parents, students, teachers, and school leaders. But it may provide a unifying identity and focus to schools in this growing sector that helps them retain their original mission: to serve a purpose-driven community of interest. And that might increasingly matter as state legislators and local regulators become more aware of these schools. The value of an overarching name is that it can unify the families and schools in this sector—and unity will be important if government regulators come looking for them. Unity will also allow these schools to learn from each other.

“Community crafted schools” is just one possible name for schools that fall between fully parent-directed home-based schooling, and conventional five-day-a-week schools. I, for one, think it aptly describes this phenomenon that is emerging across the United States. But unlike France, with its Académie Française, America does not have a ruling body that dictates grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. Words and terms come in and out of the common parlance because people use them—or don’t. Whether my suggested label will catch on, no one can foretell. It may be that people will latch on to a term such as “next generation schools” or “alternative learning models” or something else entirely. Or maybe they won’t see these schools as forming a “sector” at all and will stick with more specific descriptors such as microschools, hybrid schools, and homeschools. For all the reasons I’ve enumerated here, I think that would be a lost opportunity to unify the disparate strands in an emerging confederation of new school models.

What do you think?



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