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Sunday, April 14, 2024

How ‘The Learning Lounge’ Is Bringing Educational Entrepreneurship to Arkansas

It doesn’t look or feel like a classroom—it looks like a lounge—and that’s what the kids like.

Image: Kanesha Adams, the founder of The Learning Lounge | Image Credit: Kerry McDonald

In 2023, Arkansas joined a growing list of states to pass universal school choice legislation, eventually enabling all schoolchildren in the state to find their best educational fit. The Arkansas LEARNS Act, which provides families with an education savings account (ESA) of about $6,600 annually per child, went into effect this academic year for eligible students attending a state-recognized private school. The continued roll-out of the program to include microschooling and homeschooling students in the upcoming school year is catalyzing education entrepreneurship and expanding the supply of innovative learning options.

“Our families want choices, but they can’t afford choices,” said Kanesha Adams, founder of The Learning Lounge in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Adams is helping to create those choices. She spent most of her childhood and adolescence in Pine Bluff, a city ranked among the most dangerous in the US, with one-quarter of the population living in poverty, according to the US Census. She attended the local public schools, eventually returning to the city during and after graduate school to work as a certified teacher and instructional facilitator in the public schools.

It was her time teaching in the local public schools that led her to experiment with different learning approaches. She invented fun, hands-on activities for math class to engage her students, including many who had special needs and were on an individualized education plan (IEP). Most of her students weren’t reading at grade level, so she introduced creative strategies to foster greater interest in reading by introducing more culturally relevant books, with Black and Brown characters who looked like her students. “It put me in the mindset of always doing something outside the box in education,” Adams told me when I visited The Learning Lounge last week.

During the 2020–21 academic year, when education was rattled by the pandemic, Adams and her sister, who was studying to be a school counselor, began thinking about opening a microschool with Prenda, a national network that helps entrepreneurial parents and teachers launch microschools—or intentionally small and flexible, low-cost, highly-personalized learning communities. But when her sister tragically died in a car accident in early 2021, and Adams assumed care of her young niece, those plans were tabled. It wasn’t until last fall, when her niece entered kindergarten in the public schools, that Adams decided to revisit those microschool plans.

“I felt like kindergarteners should love going to school,” said Adams, “but many days I would drop off my niece with tears in her eyes, crying because she didn’t like school. So I started building. I asked: ‘What would it look like to have a space where kids are able to get the best education?’”

She opened The Learning Lounge in October 2023 as an after-school tutoring center with plans for it to be a full-time, Christian faith-based microschool for homeschoolers this fall. Adams received a microgrant from VELA, a philanthropic non-profit organization that supports and connects education entrepreneurs who are creating individualized learning models outside of conventional schooling, and launched her program in a standalone building near the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Inside, the space is calm and colorful, with a welcoming, at-home atmosphere. “It doesn’t look or feel like a classroom—it looks like a lounge—and that’s what the kids like,” said Adams.

In February, the Learning Lounge was approved by the state as a recognized tutoring provider, enabling students to receive tutoring services tuition-free as part of the state’s literacy and learning loss recovery initiatives. Adams is hopeful that she will now be approved as a microschool provider and is encouraging her tutoring families to apply for an ESA—known in Arkansas as an Education Freedom Account. Applications for microschoolers and homeschoolers opened this week.

Despite doing almost no marketing, Adams says she already has nearly 25 students planning to attend her microschool full-time this fall, and expects to quickly outgrow her current space. She says that many of the parents who are interested in her microschool have children with ADHD, autism, or other types of neurodiversity. They are looking for a smaller, more personalized, less distracting learning environment for their kids.

“I value that parents are asking for something a little different,” said Adams, adding that with the LEARNS Act, more families will be able to access programs like The Learning Lounge. “I went to public schools and still love traditional public schools, but I think it’s important to think of how to serve all students, and right now some of our students are being missed. I believe that access to funding will really help families have more choices.”

“Microschools are bringing the original intent of the schoolhouse back,” said Laurie Lee, chairman of The Reform Alliance, an Arkansas school choice advocacy organization. “We are educating children in a setting that works for them, involving their communities. LEARNS has now brought innovation to Arkansas by allowing parents to have options that they didn’t before due to their zip code or income.”

Adams says she hopes to launch more Learning Lounges across Arkansas in the coming years to serve more students. She may eventually operate these spaces as regular private schools rather than as microschools for homeschoolers, but that is currently a lengthy, cumbersome process that can delay the introduction of new, creative learning models. “The process is longer, with lots of qualifications and building requirements that you need to meet,” said Adams. “Our students need solutions now. We can’t wait. Many of our parents want to homeschool but can’t because they work. Maybe someday we’ll become a private school, but right now microschools are a solution for families who don’t otherwise have one.”

This article originally appeared on Forbes.