The one-room schoolhouse calls to mind pastoral scenes from an older, more rural America, but many of its ideals are once again becoming the schooling reality for a handful of students in some of our most tech-forward cities today. These students attend micro-schools—small, independently-run education options for families that want personalization for their children but cannot or do not want to homeschool them. Micro-schools come in a variety of flavors but frequently do away with grade-levels in favor of technology-enabled, student-customized pathways to learning. Because online learning can deliver content to students at the level they need, teachers spend the bulk of class time on project-based learning for deeper exploration of concepts.
To better understand how these schools serve their students and families, I visited two of them: AltSchool Fort Mason, one of four micro-schools in San Francisco that the startup AltSchool runs, and the Khan Lab School, which Khan Academy opened this year in Mountain View to be a working model of how to integrate the technology platform’s inquiry-driven, self-directed philosophy with schooling.
AltSchool Fort Mason is located in San Francisco and sits within view of the picturesque San Francisco Bay. It boasts a multi-level space that was formerly a Gold’s Gym but has since been transformed into open learning spaces. The school serves 60 students between the ages of four and 14. Rather than dividing students into grades, the school clusters them into lower elementary, upper elementary, and middle school groups. Two certified teachers head each of these three groups, and a seventh certified teacher, who also acts as the head of site, supports those teachers as a mentor, development coach, and substitute as needed.
During my visit, I watched as the middle school group succeeded in building a weight-bearing wood structure and crawled on top of it to celebrate. Meanwhile, the lower elementary students filed into their learning space after returning from recess in a nearby park and dutifully began working independently online on iPads.
Although the school has limited space and staff, it has found ways to expand its students’ educational experiences by inviting parents and other professionals to present to the students on topics ranging from computer engineering to woodworking. In addition, the school has taken advantage of its neighborhood resources and community. One parent excitedly told me about a project in which teachers gave students real money to shop in the grocery store across the street from the school in order to learn about nutrition, math, and money management.
In addition to offering a customized student experience through a personalized playlist of learning resources, AltSchool fosters a culture where parents play an integral role in helping to shape the school culture. Azra Mehdi, a mother of a six-year-old at AltSchool Fort Mason, said, “For us pioneering parents who are just in the second year, we have to come up with a lot of the ideas. It’s pretty empowering to come up with the direction of the school—not just the educational part of the schooling, but also the developing of the community within.”
At the Khan Lab School, this same sense of community ownership was prevalent not only in the parent community but also among the students. Located on the first floor of the Khan Academy offices in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Khan Lab School has a large open space with colorful walls where 35 students between the ages of five and 12 gather to participate in various learning activities. Surrounding the open space are several breakout rooms where students can create their own decorations and rules. One room, for example, was designated as a relaxation space. Students had hung curtains and placed pillows on the floor to create a calm environment; they had also hung a sign on the door stating that the room had a capacity of three people.
Because it is a new school, the Khan Lab School has been able to involve its students in its creation. During my visit, I watched as students of all age levels worked on different aspects of planning and building a school garden as part of the year’s food theme. The younger children filled out charts on what they desired to plant while the oldest student, Malaina, wrote a grant to fund the project.
At 12 years old, Malaina balances this grant-writing project with an independent project to create an NGO focused on local food issues. No longer tied to the curriculum deemed appropriate for her grade level, she has the opportunity to learn content at her level online while exploring real-world interests. When asked if the lack of traditional classrooms, bell schedules, and grade-level peers in the school made it difficult to stay on task, she said, “No, it’s actually easier because everything is so interesting here.”
Although students are typically divided into three main age groups, the school’s three certified teachers and two associate teachers help guide classroom activities with a variety of age groupings, sometimes involving a mix of the youngest and oldest students. Students also tutor each other outside these structures. Malaina’s mother, Shaila, who also has a seven-year-old son at the Khan Lab School, said that once when she visited the school, she couldn’t believe her eyes as she watched her son mentoring an even younger student.
Mandeep Dhillon, who has two children at the Khan Lab School, offered a similar sentiment. “The kids feel like cousins,” he said. “They’re helping each other in a way that normal schools don’t encourage or accommodate.”
By letting go of traditional school structures and bringing together students across grade levels, micro-schools like AltSchool Fort Mason and the Khan Lab School are able to foster this sense of community and collective ownership. With the help of 21st-century tools and visions toward developing individual student thinking, these schools are small in size but big in unlocking student potential.