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Saturday, April 8, 2023

Entrepreneurial Teachers Create New Education Options For Rural Families

Founded earlier this year by former Kansas public school teacher Devan Dellenbach, this rural microschool currently serves 10 children.

Devan Dellenbach. Photo by Kerry McDonald

On a quiet street in the tiny town of Abbyville, Kansas, population 83, lies Re*Wild Family Academy. Founded earlier this year by former Kansas public school teacher Devan Dellenbach, this rural microschool about an hour outside of Wichita currently serves 10 homeschooled children of varying ages from the local community. It is expanding this fall to include more children and more offerings.

I recently visited Dellenbach’s microschool that she runs from the main level of her home, a beautifully renovated small church with tall ceilings and bountiful natural light. She and her husband, who is also a Kansas public school teacher, purchased and restored the building over a decade ago after their previous home in a nearby town was destroyed by a tornado.

When her oldest child, now 14, was born, Dellenbach decided to leave teaching to be a stay-at-home mom. As kindergarten approached, she didn’t like the idea that her five-year-old would have to spend 45 minutes on a bus ride each way to get to the nearest public elementary school. Homeschooling seemed like a better idea. 

“Just the thought of putting her on the bus at 6:45 in the morning and not seeing her again until 4:30 in the afternoon, it really began to pull at me,” Dellenbach told me. “And I thought, well, I’ve been taught how to do this, certainly I can do this. So my journey began as a homeschool mom.” 

That journey has been deeply rewarding for Dellenbach. She quickly connected with other local homeschooling families, forming deep friendships and gathering regularly for shared learning experiences. 

Then last year she was at a crossroads. She felt the financial need to re-enter the workforce and thought about taking on a role as a substitute teacher in the local school district. “Living on one income is difficult. I mean, that’s a sacrifice that you do as a homeschooling parent,” said Dellenbach.

But a dear friend of hers, Dalena Wallace, who is also a homeschooling mom, saw things differently. Rather than teaching elsewhere, Dellenbach should open her own school, Wallace urged.

“She had a vision for me before I did,” said Dellenbach. “As I let that idea sink in, I began to get excited about what it would be like to be an educator that could teach however they wanted in an environment that they wanted without all the constraints of the public school. And that got me really excited again about teaching, which is what I believe I was really born to do.”

A boy works on an individualized lesson at Dellenbach’s microschool. Photo: Kerry McDonald

The atmosphere in Dellenbach’s microschool is calm and nurturing. Classical music plays in the background. Light streams through the large windows. There are cozy nooks, comfortable couches and rustic tables and chairs. A fire glows in the living room fireplace.

On the day I visited, the children learned about impressionist painters and did a lesson on bird habitats. Those lessons led into personalized learning time in which students worked peacefully on their individual curriculum goals, geared toward their own level of mastery. Parents select the curriculum, with Dellenbach offering suggestions when requested and supplementing with theme-based lessons for the entire group. “I really want the parents to have the choice to decide what program works best for their student,” said Dellenbach. “And I’m just coming along as a guide to help and facilitate that.”

Some students read books in quiet corners while others used instructional software on laptops. Dellenbach moved from student to student, checking on their progress and offering support. Lesson and curriculum times were interspersed with abundant outdoor play, and group walks to the local post office or nearby senior center. 

Dellenbach currently charges $25 a day per student, which includes drop-off instructional time, enrichment and curriculum support from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. It also includes a nutritious, homemade lunch that Dellenbach prepares. Her program is currently offered one day a week but will be growing to three days a week this fall. Dellenbach tried to price her program based on what local families could afford, and she offers flexible options, but $25 a day is still financially out of reach for many families.

A mixed-age group of learners works on individual lessons at Re*Wild Family Academy in rural Kansas. Photo: Kerry McDonald

School choice policies that enable education funding to follow students can help to make programs like Re*Wild more accessible to more families. Expansive education savings account (ESA) programs, such as those recently created in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Utah and West Virginia, enable families to find the right educational fit for their children. 

Last month, the Kansas legislature also passed a major school choice bill that would provide an ESA up to $5,000 per student each year to use on approved tuition expenses, as well as tutoring and related fees. If the bill included microschools like Dellenbach’s, that amount would enable families to attend her program at no cost. 

“I definitely think it would take down so many boundaries and limitations financially,” said Dellenbach about school choice policies. “Even the amount that I charge is still difficult so I’d love for them to have the freedom and finances to come here. Also, for students who have significant disabilities, like dyslexia, tutoring outside of the public school system can be very expensive as well. So just all of that would be so much more accessible with the financial help.”

School choice policies would also catalyze the growth of education entrepreneurship and increase the supply of various education options, including in rural areas like Abbyville. More educators would have the opportunity to create small schools and similar programs that serve the distinct needs of their community. School choice not only empowers parents and learners, it empowers teachers too. “I’ve already met with some teachers who are eager to get out of the current system,” said Dellenbach. “They love the teaching, but it’s the system that they want to leave.” 

Even without school choice policies, everyday entrepreneurs like Dellenbach are expanding learning options for families living in rural areas. With school choice, these options would be even more diverse and abundant. 

Education advocates in Kansas are committed to encouraging entrepreneurship and promoting greater access to new learning models. “The trend of educational decentralization has only accelerated since the pandemic and Kansas should be doing more to encourage this kind of innovation,” said James Franko, president of Kansas Policy Institute, a Wichita-based think tank that supports student-focused education. “Everything from the ESA and other choice programs in the legislature to zoning or simply knowledge of existing non-conventional educational opportunities is essential to making sure that our kids have a chance at educational excellence.” 

Dellenbach is optimistic, not only for the ongoing growth of her small program, but also for the positive educational changes she sees emerging in Kansas and across the country. “The whole landscape of education is changing,” she said. “It’s exciting because I know parents and teachers alike have been frustrated for so long.”

To hear more about Dellenbach’s experience running a rural microschool, listen to our recent podcast conversation:

This article was republished with permission from Forbes.com.