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Friday, October 21, 2022

How Microschools Are Reshaping K-12 Education in South Florida

Parent demand for personalized learning options, along with a collaborative, entrepreneurial atmosphere, is contributing to a surge of microschools in South Florida.

Felicia and Amnon Rattray at Permission to Succeed microschool. Photo credit: Kerry McDonald

Nestled in a warm and colorful classroom space in a sprawling Salvation Army building in Fort Lauderdale is Permission To Succeed Education Center, one of more than two dozen private microschools and similarly small, multi-age, co-learning communities in South Florida. Felicia Rattray decided to launch Permission To Succeed in the summer of 2020 after schools shut down due to the pandemic and the shift to remote schooling gave her an up-close look at her nephew’s classroom.

Her sister had died in a car accident when Rattray’s nephew was just eight days old and he then lived for several years with his grandmother until she grew too frail. Rattray and her husband Amnon assumed care of the boy, who was a third grader in a nearby public school. A certified teacher, Rattray had been working as a social studies teacher and school counselor in public and charter schools in Florida since 2007. She knew her nephew was behind in school, and had worked with him one-on-one during the afternoons and weekends to help him catch up, but Covid changed everything. “During the pandemic, that’s when I saw just how behind he was,” said Rattray. “The spotlight was on it enough for me to see just how much he was suffering in the classroom.”

Rattray decided to create a microschool that would help students like her nephew, whom she discovered was working at a kindergarten grade-level, to have a more personalized, mastery-based learning environment. “The public schools can’t slow down the curriculum enough for the kids to catch up,” she said. “I’ve always had the desire to marry school counseling and education my way, my non-traditional way. In our microschool, each one of our students has a different curriculum that’s customized. I purchase different math curriculum, different reading curriculum depending on what is right for each child.”

Parents are increasingly seeking a more individualized educational environment for their children, with tailored instruction to meet each learner’s distinct needs. “We’re attracting the families who want a truly personalized experience,” said Rattray, who sublet space for her microschool from Laurel Suarez, another microschool founder who opened Compass Outreach and Education Center in 2019 with a small group of children. Now, Suarez has 48 students with eight teachers, as well as supplemental instructors.

Laurel Suarez, founder of Compass Outreach and Education Center | by KERRY MCDONALD

Like Rattray, Compass’s Suarez had been a classroom teacher early in her career and then worked as an executive administrator for a Florida charter school management company before deciding to become an education entrepreneur. “Teachers in traditional schools were stifled. They had no time to be creative,” said Suarez, who had begun tutoring homeschoolers in 2014 before opening her microschool a few years later. “I took my leap of faith in wanting to try something different. My kids were grown and once I had the chance, I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to create.”

She also wanted to help others create. “I’ve always wanted to do something on my own, and help others start their own businesses,” said Suarez, who was born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Helping young people develop a creative, entrepreneurial mindset is also a big part of the Compass learning community which, like Rattray’s microschool, prioritizes individualized, mastery-based learning and ample outside time.

Her students do take traditional standardized tests to identify academic strengths and areas for improvement that help the teachers to tailor learning plans accordingly, but there is no teaching to the test and no student stress surrounding assessments. Still, Suarez finds that her students quickly accelerate and often score above grade level.

“I was nothing and now I’m amazing!” exclaimed eight-year-old Justice during my recent visit to Compass. “Compass made me who I am!”

“I like Compass because it’s such good quality. I love it!” added nine-year-old Daniela.

The annual tuition at Compass is $13,500, which is less expensive than traditional private schools in South Florida but still financially out-of-reach for many families. Fortunately, the majority of Suarez’s students attend her microschool on a scholarship through one of Florida’s generous school choice programs that enable parents to have greater access to a variety of education options beyond an assigned district school. “A lot of our microschools thrive because we have these scholarships,” said Suarez. “More people, not just homeschoolers, are becoming aware of microschools. Parents are a lot more open-minded. They know they have choices.”

For Rattray at Permission to Succeed, making sure families could access her new microschool in 2020 was a crucial component of her launch strategy. She knew that in order to be a recognized provider for the state’s scholarship programs she would need to have a building that met certain requirements. Working out of an extra classroom space at Suarez’s microschool provided Rattray the ability to open her microschool quickly and begin serving students right away. “If I had not had her space to start the process, this school wouldn’t have ever happened because I needed a building to accept scholarships,” said Rattray, who incubated her program at Compass for one year before moving to the Salvation Army space less than two miles down the road.

Rattray’s microschool tuition is $700 a month, but most students only pay about $50 a month or nothing at all due to school choice programs. “Without those scholarships, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing with our students, except for maybe two students,” she said. Instead, Rattray now serves about 20 students in kindergarten through middle school in two classrooms with four teachers. She has additional high school students who choose to learn virtually.

While Rattray believes that the benefit of microschools is their small size and personalized learning approach, she thinks small is scalable and has her sights set on spreading Permission To Succeed microschools throughout the state. “My goal is to have these small schools all over Florida, one in every county,” she said.

To help reach this goal, Rattray was recently encouraged by Compass’s Suarez to apply for a microgrant through the VELA Education Fund, a nonprofit philanthropic organization that seeks to support the growth of microschools, co-learning communities, homeschooling collaboratives, and similar non-traditional education models. Suarez received a VELA grant that offered financial resources and recognition for her efforts with Compass, while also connecting her to the growing ecosystem of education entrepreneurs in the greater Fort Lauderdale area.

“Through the VELA grant, I just fell into this community,” said Suarez, who finds that rather than being competitive, local microschool founders frequently connect and collaborate with each other, share resources, and even refer families. “I’ve referred families to other microschools. Nothing can be done alone. There is a lot of sharing, collaborating, copying. I want to see everyone thrive,” she said.

Suarez thinks that this collaborative, entrepreneurial atmosphere is what is leading to the surge of microschools in South Florida. When it becomes clear to more people that microschools and similar non-traditional learning models are flourishing, and their students are happy and successful, it prompts more education entrepreneurs to create these microschools and more parents to seek them. “Parents now are looking out for the well-being of their child. They want a holistic approach to education because they realize how much better off they would have been,” said Suarez.

She believes that microschools will dramatically reshape U.S. education in the years to come, led by parent demand for innovative choices. “What we’re doing, this is the future,” said Suarez. “I want people to see that microschools are not a for-the-moment thing. They are here to stay and will continue to grow.”

This Forbes article was republished with permission.