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Omaha parents, former teachers take education into their own hands with 'microschools'

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Omaha-based nonprofit Autism Action Partnership is launching a two-year, post-high school independent living program this fall for young adults with autism.

Rachel Benson grew up attending a small public school in Kansas, a place where she was a classic achiever — all A’s, valedictorian, a teacher’s star pupil.

She moved to Omaha for college, became an elementary teacher and spent a decade trying to find the right fit at schools around Omaha. But after being laid off, dealing with escalating behavioral issues and eventually leaving education altogether, Benson said she started to miss working with children.

In 2018, she decided the best way to get back to helping students find their calling was to create her own school — a place where children could experience a new learning model, "one that would help them discover who they are," she said.

“When I said yes, I felt really nervous, like, ‘Can I do this?’” Benson recalled. “And with my husband and a few other people around me, I just kept whispering to them, ‘I’m going to start a school.’ They helped pour fire on my vision and validated me.”

Benson is among what one advocate says is a burgeoning number of parents and former teachers banding together to create their own schools — commonly referred to as microschools — around the Omaha metro area. Many of them have popped up since the pandemic began.

Former teachers say they couldn’t thrive in the public or private school systems, while parents were seeking alternative education styles or curriculum.

The learning style isn’t feasible for all families though, particularly those who can’t afford tuition and other costs. They also lack the ability to convey meaningful certifications or diplomas to their students, according to a state official.

As far as the state is concerned, there’s no such thing as a microschool, said David Jespersen, spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Education.

Schools are either accredited or exempt from state standards, he explained. Home-school students who are taught by just their parents are labeled as an exempt “single family” and home-school families who come together to learn, like in a microschool, are deemed an exempt “multi-family unit.”

“A microschool isn’t really a school, it’s just people helping a student learn different subjects,” Jespersen said. “It’s a more common term in that industry. There is no requirement for them to be registered with the state because they don’t have any students necessarily, they are basically working as a contractor for a group of exempt families.”

As of Aug. 19, there were 35 multi-family units registered for the 2022-23 school year in Nebraska, Jespersen said.

While those numbers are similar to pre-COVID statistics, Kathryn Dillow, president of Nebraska Homeschool—The Home Educators Network, said she has seen an increase in microschools since the pandemic began.

“I think it’s because families have experienced learning can happen in a different way,” she said.

The term “microschool” is a bit of a gray area.

Dillow said the format can vary from two families coming together to help teach their children, to a hybrid learning model, to a full five days of school in a specific location.

Benson’s school was created under Acton Academy, an international learning program that boasts more than 275 schools worldwide. It meets five days a week and its academic calendar is similar to that at a public or private school.

Several other microschools around Omaha operate under a hybrid format.

Rebecca Kennedy opened her own last year after tutoring for more than a decade. Kennedy said she wanted to create her own school for a variety of reasons: She didn’t want students to be forced to follow a mandated curriculum and she wanted to provide a space where “politics are off the table.”

“I tell parents (their) kids won’t know who we voted for, and anything controversial or political, I say go home to talk to mom and dad about it,” Kennedy said. “Knowing a lot of parents were looking for that, I wanted to help.”

Kennedy’s school, E3 Modern Learning, meets in the basement of Faith Christian Church in west Omaha. It offers a hybrid format that requires the close participation of parents — each family has to register their own child as an exempt home-school student and use their own curriculum.

Students bring their work to the church on Tuesdays and Thursdays for Kennedy to facilitate lessons and help them complete their own tasks. Then they head home on other days of the week to go through the learning with their parents.

Kennedy started her last school year with two students and ended with nine. This year, she has about six in kindergarten through fourth grade in a “one-room schoolhouse concept.”

Kennedy said her whole motto is for the students to be the drivers of their own learning.

“I base it on personalized learning and where they are at,” Kennedy said. “I don’t move on if a child is struggling and I don’t have this baseline where they have to be at. I move at the students’ pace and not like a district’s pace.”

Many microschools differ drastically from public or private school in curriculum. There are no grade levels — like in Kennedy’s school, students of all ages learn alongside each other with work catered to their skill level.

Students don’t advance to another grade once the school year ends, but instead have their own set of requirements needed to move onto another level of curriculum.

In Benson’s school, teachers are called “guides” and children make their own decisions of what they learn every day.

“What sets us apart, and it’s not for everybody, is the belief that children can do big things. And they can even learn how to lead themselves. And they can learn how to lead each other,” Benson said. “The role of the adults is different. In traditional schools, the role of the adult is the central role in the class. It’s the role with the most power. And the children don’t really have a choice in what they’re doing.”

Dillow said this type of education offers freedom and flexibility. And because these schools don’t have to follow state standards, the curriculum is up to the owner or parents, depending on the microschool format.

The state doesn’t provide oversight of curriculum for those exempt from state standards, Jespersen said. They are required to submit a plan of what they are teaching students, but it can be as short as a couple of sentences describing what subjects parents or tutors will be going over that year.

“Once we get that it’s basically, OK, good luck,” Jespersen said.

Microschools are also not allowed to issue high school diplomas. If they do give a student a certificate of completion, it basically means nothing in the eyes of the world and state, Jespersen said.

Hannah Holguin, owner of Masterpiece Academy, said while she intends to use Nebraska state standards, she will incorporate her own format of learning and additional faith-based instruction.

Holguin’s school is in its first year this fall. She previously worked in the Omaha Public Schools before moving to the Council Bluffs district in 2021 as her last try to teach in public school.

Holguin said she didn’t thrive as a teacher in OPS and Council Bluffs because the districts didn’t prioritize students’ academic needs.

“We had goals that needed to be met and we had timelines, so I remember feeling rushed by the curriculum,” Holguin said. “It was always, ‘We are behind,’ but it was never about the kids. It was always about the curriculum. And so I found myself staring at my kids and realizing they’re not ready to move on.”

Masterpiece Academy offers full-time and part-time learning based on parent needs. Right now she has three students, but is open to having more and hoping to eventually grow to K-12. She bases the academy out of her home to make children feel more comfortable.

The individualized learning a microschool can offer comes at a cost and some are charging tuition that is far more expensive than many people can afford.

Holguin said she realizes that she won’t be reaching the students who really need her, at least initially, because she has to charge tuition.

“I’m not reaching the kids yet that need me. But I’m optimistic for fundraising efforts from other people who will jump on board and support it,” Holguin said. “That way people can get scholarships and still get this type of education without having that financial burden.”

Holguin’s prices range from $650 to 850 a month depending if the student is full time or part time. Kennedy charges $300 per month for her two-day-a-week model, plus a class fee of $180 for software and supplies. Benson’s school, which meets five days a week, is $8,800 a year.

Julie Desrosiers, the owner of New Heart Christian School, is one of the few nonprofit microschools in the area that is donation-based. She said parents are expected to pay a monthly fee but they can choose their contribution amount.

Desrosiers is also a former OPS teacher who decided to quit and start her own school for the 2021-22 school year. She said being a public school teacher was boring because the entire year is mapped out for each educator, not allowing personal creativity with the curriculum.

“Students can’t advance too quickly, but they can’t fall behind. They have to stay with their peers,” she said. “By fourth grade, kids have outgrown their curiosity and now they hate school. They have learned to hate school because they can’t be creative and learn at their own pace.”

New Heart Christian School resides in the same church as Kennedy’s school. She offers as much learning as a parent wants.

A parent can drop their child off every day or a couple hours for a day. Desrosiers prides herself on the project-based learning she provides, plus hands-on assignments and field trips on a regular basis.

This year, Desrosiers is giving the reins over to her students’ parents, who will be volunteering at the school as she cares for her daughter, Esther, who was diagnosed with brain cancer earlier this year. She said the school year should still begin Sept. 7.

Desrosiers said making the jump to her own school has unearthed a different community committed to giving children freedom in the classroom.

“We have a choice to take it easy. We don’t have to be hitting the books hard all day, every day, certain minutes a day because the state tells us we have to,” she said. “It’s not my school — it’s everyone’s school.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article had the incorrect tuition rate for Acton Academy. This article includes the correct amount and updated information about the microschool.

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