BOWDON: What’s So Great about a Micro-School? Everything.

A slew of otherwise very different communities are being connected by one thing in common -- parents want something different for their kids' education.

Learn at your own pace? Check.
Build lifetime friendships with classmates? Check.
Participate in the design of your own curriculum? Check.
Be creative every day? Check.
Get social and emotional needs met? Check.

Call it a homeschool, but with classmates. Call it a Montessori school, but with smaller class sizes. There’s one thing you can’t call it: Unpopular.

Prenda is a new kind of micro-school, rapidly expanding across Arizona. From the Phoenix suburbs to Native American reservations, a slew of otherwise very different communities are being connected by one thing in common — parents want something different for their kids’ education. And considering Arizona’s highly competitive education landscape, popularity there is saying something. Arizona enrolls a higher percentage of students in charter schools than any other state.

Having personally spent a few days interviewing parents and students, I was struck with the wide variety of rationales I heard for why families made the switch to Prenda. Some students loved the self-paced academic progress after enduring traditional curricula that went too fast or too slow for them. Other students loved being free from the anxiety they experienced in large chaotic classrooms. Others said they loved Prenda for the creativity, or the friendships, or the field trips.

Prenda teachers are called “Guides,” and their role is long on facilitation and short on lecturing. It makes for a stark comparison with the top-down, highly delineated dictates that most school districts and state departments of education shovel on teachers, which predictably wrench so much of the joy out of the profession. By contrast, the Prenda guides I met seemed as happy as the students. Turns out, the sense of personal agency or creative control over their own efforts affects the guides’ motivation as profoundly as the kids’. Constantly imagining new subjects to study, new places to go and new ways to teach ultimately produces a very different type of adult-in-charge than reams of regulations.

It’s worth pointing out that Prenda wouldn’t have been as instantly successful just anywhere. Arizona’s sandy deserts offer especially fertile soil for Prenda’s rapid growth because of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts and Online Charter School funding mechanisms. Those simply don’t exist in most states. But the Prenda team is already working on a purely privately-funded version of the micro-school that could be started anywhere.

I wouldn’t bet against them… unless you don’t think there’s much more demand for smaller classrooms, lower costs and happier, more educated kids.

Bob Bowdon

Bob Bowdon has been a television producer, reporter, political commentator, documentary filmmaker and satirist. He is currently the Executive Director of Choice Media, an education news service, website and smartphone app.
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