When her daughter began kindergarten in the public elementary school to which she had been assigned in Louisville, Kentucky, Emily Duke quickly realized it was not a good fit. The environment was very stressful for the five-year-old, whose parents had recently divorced. The rigidity and top-down instructional methods, combined with her emotional turmoil over changes at home, were too much for the little girl. She began to have meltdowns at school, the school police officers tried to get involved and the teachers and administrators wanted to put her in therapy. “It is the structure of public school I just don’t care for,” says Duke. “They were like ‘this is what we are going to do and we really don’t care if you’re having a breakdown.’”
Duke knew that the public school wasn’t working well for her child but she had few options. A single mom living in a low-income inner city neighborhood, Duke couldn’t afford private school tuition, which starts at $18,000 a year. Kentucky has no voucher programs or other educational choice mechanisms for families, and charter schools only became authorized in 2017. Duke wasn’t sure if there was anything she could do for her daughter. Then she heard about City Schoolhouse, an independent school in her neighborhood that strives to be an accessible, nurturing learning environment for local children. “When I met Christina,” Duke recalls, speaking of the school’s cofounder and head of school, Christina Poole, “she was just so comforting, so motherly. It was a whole different atmosphere, more relaxed, more caring. I signed my daughter up right away.”
The little girl thrived in the new school, with small classes and an individualized, project-based approach to education. Her meltdowns disappeared, she enjoyed going to school and her learning soared. “She was more excited to learn,” recalls Duke. “She would come home and say ‘this is what we learned about today!’ It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. It was so nice having a place where she’s safe and happy.”
Christina Poole didn’t intend to create a school, but when she and her husband moved back home to Louisville after spending several years in Los Angeles, Poole started working with a local non-profit organization and began running afterschool programs for disadvantaged youth in the city. Within six months, Poole was bombarded with requests from parents to expand her program and create a full-time independent school in the same urban neighborhood. “Moms were disappointed with the choices they had in their neighborhood, and both public elementary schools nearby were failing,” says Poole. “I looked at these moms and said, well, I’m planning on homeschooling my own kids, let’s do this together!” She opened City Schoolhouse in a nonprofit space in early 2017 with nine students, in addition to her own five children at the time. (She has since had a sixth.) By the fall of 2018, Poole had 42 children enrolled in the school, and had to move to a bigger space in the neighborhood. By 2019, she had 59 students ages three to 12 and a long waiting list.
As a recognized independent school with three full-time teachers, City Schoolhouse meets a need for local parents seeking a safe, welcoming and academically-enriching learning environment for their children, in their neighborhood. Most parents also pay nothing in tuition. “We do a financial assessment for all of our incoming families, and most of our families cannot pay anything. But they do pay with their time,” says Poole, noting that parental involvement in the classroom and school operations is a vital component of the school’s success.
City Schoolhouse relies on private donations and grants from local charities to subsidize the $4,500 per student tuition cost for an 11-month extended school year, compared to the county’s public schools that average over $16,000 per student for a standard 10-month academic cycle. Most City Schoolhouse students come from low-income households headed by single moms. Several have incarcerated or drug-addicted family members and many are on government assistance. Some of them come to City Schoolhouse multiple grade levels behind their peers. “We have one 12-year-old,” says Poole, “who recently came to us at a third grade math level and a second grade reading level. She was able to make huge progress in a very short amount of time with structure, focus, accountability and an individualized learning approach.”
Some City Schoolhouse learners have special education needs, and Poole brings in licensed occupational therapists, speech therapists and physical therapists who volunteer their time to serve these students. “We take a personalized, whole child approach to education,” says Poole, explaining that each child meets one-on-one with a teacher-mentor every week to set academic goals, assess mastery and determine areas for improvement. The teacher-mentor then gives a written summary of each child’s progress to the parents every week. Each morning at City Schoolhouse is focused on core skills in reading, writing and mathematics, using a variety of curriculum resources and online diagnostic tools, such as IXL and Khan Academy. Each afternoon is centered around project-based learning emphasizing certain themes, such as a fall focus on cultural traditions around the world that culminated in an elaborate exhibition of student work to the larger community.
With parental demand mounting, and Poole’s desire to operate City Schoolhouse on a microschool model emphasizing small class sizes, a homelike atmosphere and individualized attention, the school founder is hoping to launch additional microschools in other low-income neighborhoods throughout Louisville—and perhaps help others to do the same elsewhere. “If somebody contacted me today and wanted to open one of these in Ohio, or California or anywhere else, I would definitely be open to the conversation,” she says. For now, though, Poole is committed to broadening City Schoolhouse’s impact locally and then likely expanding elsewhere in the next five to eight years.
For Emily Duke, City Schoolhouse’s neighborhood influence has been positive and rewarding for both her daughter and herself. She volunteers her time to the school as its lunchtime cook, nourishing the students while also involving them in cooking lessons several times a week. “A lot of kids here just need a lot of love,” says Duke. “They have a hard time at home and need someone to care. The schools are rough down here. There are a lot of kids who struggle in public school. This school is so much more relaxed, more homey. It’s more about the individual person, and how they learn and caring more about the children.”