The Best of Both Worlds: Change Grade Levels and Courses to Microschools

By Devin Vodicka

Imagine a world of education ecosystems where all learners know themselves, thrive in community, and actively engage in the world as their best selves. In this vision for the future, we incorporate the best of what we know from the integration of learning sciences, from psychology and sociology, from personalization and inclusive and equitable approaches, from knowledge and skill development as well as habits and dispositions, and from both classroom and community-based learning experiences. Teams of educators would creatively collaborate with students, families, and communities to ensure authentic and meaningful learning. We would leverage the science of networks and the best of change management to ensure ongoing learning and adaptability. The process of learning and development would be a vibrant, respectful, elevating experience that would build on the best of our strengths, interests and values. 

Photo by Engin Akyurt on

Unfortunately this is far from our current reality. We remain entrenched in an institutional, factory-model of schooling that was designed for a different era and its orientation to assembly-line efficiencies has resulted in a dehumanizing, disconnected, and dispiriting experience for so many. Public school systems have been slow to adapt and change in spite of a rapidly changing environment. With those caveats, they have been tremendously effective at serving millions of students with impressive efficiencies in terms of resources (including people) and we have also seen an ability for schools to take on additional responsibilities ranging from child nutrition and food services, after school care, adult learning, and a variety of health services. 

There is hope that new models, including “unschooling” and other out-of-school experiences, will blaze new pathways to a better future of learning. Unfortunately these unstructured and fragmented models are still rare, unproven, and often inaccessible due to economics or geography. 

The truth is that if we want to scale new models to the masses that stand a chance to level the playing field, we need to find ways to incorporate the best features of our industrial model with the creative potential of new models. It can’t be either/or and it must be both/and if we are going to achieve our vision of a brighter future for ALL learners. 

Shockingly, an actionable and accessible change is possible now that leverages industrial-era efficiencies as well as human-centered community-based innovation. The change that we need is to shift away from Prussian-inspired grade level cohorts and Committee of Ten, Carnegie-Unit courses and to instead organize our students into microschools that are connected to existing school campuses. 

Industrial-era SchoolsInstitutional EfficienciesExisting infrastructure, including buildings, transportation systems, food services, health servicesHubs for families and communityOutdated grouping of studentsOrganized around self-contained classroomsSlow to adapt and innovate
MicroschoolsSmaller communities create opportunities for co-design with students, families, and educatorsRequires new grouping of studentsCompels professional teaming among educatorsEncourages contextualized problem-solvingLegitimate operational inefficienciesChallenges to ensure access to health services and other specialized needsLack of existing infrastructure

As an example, a neighborhood elementary school that currently houses 600 students organized into grade levels could be organized into 4 microschools of 150 students each on the same campus. The microschools could be multi-aged, incorporating looping and team teaching to develop strong relationships, and held accountable to locally-developed outcomes as well as family choice among the microschools. 

We also can envision that the aggregation of microschools can help us address one of the most pressing challenges of our time to dramatically improve early literacy rates that we know are foundational for future success. An early-literacy focused microschool with clear competencies could be the initial placement for all students until they demonstrate mastery of those competencies at which point they would matriculate out into one of the other site-based microschools. This early-literacy microschool could be deliberately resourced with extensive expertise, personnel, and programming to ensure that ALL learners have a strong and stable language and literacy base to set the stage for lifelong learning. 

A middle or high school could take the same approach and allow for modularity where each microschool is a 3-hour block and students could organize a modernized “master schedule” by selecting the microschool blocks that meet their needs while also ensuring socially-embedded, contextualized and relevant learning. Secondary microschools could incorporate career pathways, civic responsibilities, and other critical elements of whole-learner development. 

By connecting these microschools on existing school campuses, many of the shortcomings of a small learning environment are addressed to provide the benefits of institutional efficiencies related to administration, food services, health services, and even access to specialized supports. In addition, there are opportunities for cross-functional collaboration and learning across the microschools as a result of the proximity.  Finally, the bundling of microschools on current campuses leverages existing community assets and it extends efficiencies to families of multiple children who are interested in different models. 

While the shift from grade levels and courses to microschools is accessible right now, there are a number of steps in the change process that would need to be navigated, including local development of clear performance frameworks, learner profiles and learning models, as well as meaningful delegation of responsibility to the microschool teams so that they would have both the accountability and the creative space to develop and improve new models. Principles for innovative, human-centered innovation from other industries that have made dramatic changes, including manufacturing and others, would need to be shared and cultivated among educators.  Family and community engagement at every step of the change process would be critical and we would need support from state and federal agencies to elevate local priorities through meaningful collaboration. 

We are already seeing some of these emerging models and this is just the beginning. For example, Synergy High School in Mineola (NY) was created across the street from the comprehensive high school as an example of the benefits of co-locating a microschool with an existing site. Vista High School’s Personalized Learning Academy (CA) which resulted in an XQ Superschool Prize is another example of creating flexible microschools within a comprehensive high school setting. Kettle Moraine School District (Wisconsin) created multiple microschools within their community through creative use of authorization of district-led charter schools co-located on existing campuses.

Given the distance from current reality to our aspirational future and the dynamism of our current context, we simply do not have the luxury of waiting and we must embrace our individual and collective responsibility to co-create a new future of teaching and learning. We have the option of integrating the best of what we have been doing with the best of what is possible together if we combine existing assets and capabilities in parallel with equipping teams of students, families, educators, and community members into agile microschools. The time to do it is now and the way to make it happen is together. Let’s get to it.

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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