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Inside Florida’s growing movement of non-traditional micro-schools

Tiny schools are gaining popularity with big government money
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Posted at 10:51 AM, Oct 16, 2023

Tucked inside a church on Florida’s west coast, a handful of kindergarteners begin their day reading and singing in Spanish, with two teachers leading the way.

For founder Linda Rozo, this kind of microlearning is all by design.

“The inspiration was definitely my goddaughter,” Rozo said. “I knew that as she got older, what was out there with just traditional way of education, I just wasn’t content with what that looked like, and neither was her mom,” Rozo explained during a recent visit.

So Rozo, who has a master’s degree in education, opened a preschool. With her goddaughter starting kindergarten this year, she decided to expand by opening her first micro-school.

Part of the growing movement of non-traditional schools, micro-schools are often characterized by student-led learning, small class sizes, and almost no testing or homework.

“For us, it's connection. Our kids are needing more connection than what they're receiving in these traditional settings with one teacher to 20 or 30 kids,” Rozo said.

“They are free of stress and pressure. There's no pressure to perform here,” Heather Howell told us about her microschool also on Florida’s west coast. Howell’s school was born out of the pandemic in her garage.

“I went into this as a passion project, something that brings me joy,” she said.

Today, she also rents space at a local church, has three teachers on staff, and has 15 students enrolled, ranging from four to 11 years old.

“I think that a lot of us are realizing what's more important is to have that village again and to educate our children in a way that we see fit,” said Howell.

It’s unknown exactly how many micro-schools are operating in Florida.

“There are a lot. They’re kind of hidden, just like homeschooling is hidden. That's why I started putting the list together,” said Candace Lehenbauer. She opened her own micro-school in Boca Raton after homeschooling her six kids.

Lehenbauer recently founded Microschool Florida, a group dedicated to connecting families seeking non-traditional education options.

Today, her list of Florida micro-schools has topped 200 and counting.

Lehenbauer explains why she thinks the concept is becoming more popular among parents in Florida.

“You have a lot more say. When we have a new parent that comes in, and they've been in public school this whole time, suddenly, they're getting emails, pictures, and texts stating here's how your child's doing. They're getting a lot more feedback, and they're a part of the journey,” Lehenbauer said.

In a state where the fight over parents’ rights has inspired culture wars, political campaigns, and several new state laws, it’s no surprise that micro-schools appear to be having a macro impact on the Sunshine State.

And that impact is only expected to grow as the state offers its blessing over micro-schools and the money to back them.

This year, micro-schools became eligible to receive public dollars under Florida’s universal school voucher program. The expansion means parents who send their kids to these tiny schools can now get thousands of taxpayer funds to help pay for it.

Tuition at micro-schools can range.

Heather Howell charges just under $ 1,000 a month for her school. She told us most of her students are now on state vouchers.

“It’s wonderful, now there's no barriers to entry for most families in our county,” she said.

Linda Rozo’s school costs about $1500 per month.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Rozo said about being able to accept vouchers. Her own goddaughter is among her small class on students who attend on a state voucher. “This wouldn't have been an option for my goddaughter had we not received the vouchers for her,” she said.

But critics caution while the idea of smaller classes appeals to most parents, the reality of publicly funded schools that often self-govern and answer to no one could be risky.

“I just think that we have to have more checks and balances,” said Damaris Allen, Executive Director of the advocacy group Families for Strong Public Schools.

“We have tons of regulations when it comes to our public schools to ensure our kids are receiving a quality education. Our teachers are certified, they have an education, none of those things are required in our private schools or micro-schools,” she said.

“I could not go back into a traditional setting,” Shayla Hightower told us recently. Hightower left her job as a teacher at a traditional school to work at Rozo’s micro-school.

Hightower is not certified but has a childhood development associate (CDA) credential and told us working at Rozo’s school saved her from leaving the profession altogether.

“Every problem I saw walking into a classroom as an educator, feeling burnt out, feeling exhausted, and feeling like there were too many kids and not enough time to give them what they need, Linda is trying to fix. She's healing education by healing the educators,” she said.

Linawa Shaffer is a parent whose children just started going to a micro-school after being homeschooled.

“They love it there,” she said. Shafter believes these tiny schools are providing what, she thinks, public schools simply can’t and will never be able to

“I think there's a frustration that the parents are not getting what they instinctively know what the child needs and the school system is not responding,” she said.

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