One recent morning, Kelly Smith’s 10-year-old daughter told him that in addition to the ukulele, which she already plays, she was interested in learning the harmonica. Smith asked if she was willing to do some lessons and learn through YouTube tutorials. She said yes, and just like that Smith’s daughter began to learn about the harmonica.

That’s what an empowered learner looks like, says Smith, and that’s what microschools help foster. Smith’s four children have all attended microschools, which involve roughly 5-10 children learning together — in a house, a church, a community center — while being supported by a learning guide, a trained adult who is often the parent of one of the participating child. Their overwhelming emphasis is on self-directed learning.

Smith founded Prenda in January 2018 to help more students attend microschools, and they now support 1,700 students in grades K-8. Like the homeschooling model, microschools focus on student agency, autonomy, and accountability, but it’s a more communal approach. Students have the opportunity to engage with peers beyond their own family, as is typically the case in a homeschool.

Prenda is committed to offering a free education, so they currently only operate in Arizona, where tax dollars can go to support the microschools and adult learning guides. The grant from VELA will help Prenda serve families from low-income and rural communities in Florida.

With COVID-19 leading to closed school buildings, many parents are planning to start their own microschool, which are now often being referred to as “pandemic pods” or “home schooling pods.” Smith says Prenda is working to bring the microschool model to everyone, focused on kids who have not traditionally been offered these types of options.

Ultimately, Smith said pursuing a microschool is about adopting a different worldview of what learning is all about.

“It’s not ‘Sit here and we’ll educate you,’” he said. “School is not a thing that happens to you, school is where you go to practice being a learner.”

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