Ashley Soifer on Microschools, Pods, & Homeschooling

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This week on The Learning Curve, cohosts Cara and Gerard speak with Ashley Soifer, Chief Innovation Officer of the National Microschooling Center. They discuss the rapid growth of these innovative schooling options, in which families and innovators are using a side array of education choices that offer parents flexibility and greater control over how, where, what, and when their children learn. Soifer discusses how microschools predate the pandemic, saw rapid expansion during COVID-19, and are here to stay. She also touches on the role of technology in homeschooling, microschooling, and pod models, and how families, including many parents of color, are taking advantage of these exciting new approaches to K-12 education.
Stories of the Week: Cara discussed a story in The 74 about the surprising findings of one journalist who worked closely with parents in New York City, many of whom were low-income families of color, to learn what their education priorities really are—and found that transportation, safety, afterschool programming, and special needs are ranked ahead of academics. Gerard discussed a story in USA Today about the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously siding with a deaf Michigan student whose family sued for damages over profound lapses in his education, “a case that experts say could give parents of students with disabilities more leverage as they negotiate for the education of their children.”


Ashley Soifer is the Chief Innovation Officer of the National Microschooling Center, where she leads microschool supports, the development of new programs, and parent and leader outreach. She guides the Center’s movement-building work with parents, educators, and community members, including helping organizations and individuals launch microschools. Ashley has served as the Chief of Staff at Nevada Action for School Options, a nonprofit organization that supports the growth of diverse choices of rich, high-quality, and personalized educational opportunities for all students across Nevada. In this role, Ashley led efforts in building and managing the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy, the first of its kind public-private partnership with the City of North Las Vegas. She and her husband, Don, are raising three microschooling children in Las Vegas.

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Gerard Robinson: Learning Curve listeners, welcome back to another exciting conversation about education, about policy, about the world we live in. And of course, I can never make this happen without my wonderful cohost, Cara. Cara, how are things going in your world?


Cara Candal: Slowly. No, they’re going slowly. Gerard, I don’t know. As you know, a lot of my life, my professional life revolves around like watching bills move in different states around cool things that states should be doing, hopefully will be doing in education policy. And I think we’re at that point in the spring where you just want a lot of these things to come to fruition. Like, and I’m looking at Montana, which might finally get a charter school law. Shout out to our friends there. So, good stuff. But I’m ready for a little more action along with the sunshine, please. Gerard, if we could have both of those things together, I would be one happy woman. How about you?


Gerard: Things are good on my end. I had a chance to have dinner in Richmond last week with Kerry McDonald from FEE, who’s also my cohost. Yeah. and she invited several leaders who created micro-communities here in Virginia. And it was a good chance for me and several other people to just talk to them. What was your aha moment. What kind of school do you have? How many parents, how many students? How do you fund it? And this is my, let’s see, 32nd year in the school, I should say, in the parental choice movement. And it’s wonderful to hear an aspect of choice, very different than what I’m used to. And it’s not only choice, but it’s voice and it’s organic and it’s local, and no one asks for anyone’s permission.

[00:02:08] People just did it. And so it was just good to look, listen, and learn. So thank you Kerry for putting that together. Thank you, Stand Together for being one of the sponsors and I’m gonna do a tour, some of those schools in the next couple of months. So it was good. So that part, uh, I always enjoy learning new things.

[00:02:25] Cara: Yeah, that’s really cool. I mean, I think our guest today is gonna speak to a lot of this too. There’s just some, there’s some really neat stuff going on out there that I think it’s up to folks like us. I hope to elevate that work. Because, you know, parents are lucky if they can start a microschool or find a really cool like, collaborative school in their own backyard. But hopefully we can elevate these stories and people like Kerry can continue to elevate these stories. So more and more parents realize that this is totally within their power to make happen. So,

[00:02:56] yeah, I’m eager to hear more about that both from Kerry and from today’s [00:03:00] guest, Gerard.

[00:03:01] Gerard: Absolutely. So I will kick off with my story and it is from USA Today. And the author is John Fritz, and it’s actually a subject that we’ve discussed on this show before. It’s about a young man named Miguel Perez who was enrolled in the Sturgis Public School District in your state of Michigan at the age of nine, he was bringing home the kind of grades that would make both of us proud. A’s and B’s. Well, I’ll take a B. My wife, of course, only was A’s and he was moving along. Well, lo and behold, by the time he reached high school and he was ready to move forward he got the well, things don’t look as great as we thought.

[00:03:44] And his family said, what do you mean? Well, he actually won’t receive a high school diploma because he didn’t have the right requisite courses and materials to make it happen. They’re like, wait a minute, you’ve removed this kid along. And so, they initially sued the school district under IDEA.

[00:04:00] He has a disability and before things moved down the pipeline, the school system said, Hey, guess what? Let’s just settle. And they decided to settle. They provided him with a tutor. The tutor was there and then the tutor wasn’t there, and the tutor was there and not there. And to make things worse, the tutor actually created a version of American Sign Language that only those two knew. And so when the aid isn’t there or the educator isn’t there, guess what? No one can communicate to the student. And so the family decided to sue again this time under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Long story short, it made its way to the Supreme Court and in an education case, in a rare education case where you have a unanimous decision, the justice is ruled in favor of the family, saying that we have to do something for the student. Now, why is this decision really important? Well, it’s unanimous, so that’s gonna send a signal to the lower courts in the country and more importantly, to school districts. Number two, while this took place in Michigan, as we know, we’ve shared the stories all 50 states as well as Guam and Puerto Rico, marine islands and others. They’re students who have disabilities. What do we do? This case, you’re gonna have to work out a plan and make it happen. Third thing is while I won’t say this is the Brown v Board of Education for disability children—I think there are other cases that play a role as well—this is gonna be a big one. Now, on the other side of the fence, the school system who said, listen, we’re trying to do all we can to help one thing they said about this decision is that it’s going to open up the door for families to sue through ADA particularly looking for monetary compensation.

[00:05:43] So it’s an important case. I look forward to seeing how we’re gonna respond to it, but kudos to the Perez family for sticking with it. We’ve had guests on this show who’ve taken their case all the way at Supreme Court where our listeners may not know and things that you and I have an opportunity to learn from the families is, it takes a toll on families personally, financially, morally people are often excited, they say you’re tech in the system. So that is my story.

[00:06:10] Cara: I’ve got a question. In your opinion, when are we gonna get to a point where parents don’t have to sue, which by the way, I don’t know, you know, what this family’s means were, whatever. But at least where I sit, it’s usually parents with resources that, number one, can even begin to hire people and, have the kinds of connections that one might need to be able to like, get in and start demanding what they want from the school district. And then when they don’t get it to hire a lawyer, I mean, it’s an implicit understanding where I live around a lot of folks who have kids who need IEPs or are navigating the system for services that is just like, well, I better lawyer up. That’s not a possibility for most  families. So to your point, it can be expensive, it can be time consuming, it can be horrible for families to navigate this when all you’re trying to do is get your child what they are due under federal law. So do you think that we are gonna get to a point, Gerard? where we don’t have to use the courts for this. I mean, it seems to me that this begs really big questions around what is not working too often.

Sometimes the system does work very well. I’ll have to say my, one of my kids needed a 5 0 4 plan. I go to a private school. I still got it through the local district, and they were lovely about it. But there’s too many families out there for whom it’s not going well, and they have to resort to these means. Do you think we’re ever gonna see a day where that’s not necessary?

[00:07:38] Gerard: Not in the next 25 years. Part of it is a, we are a very litigious society. It’s just not school systems being sued over disability or choice issues. You have school systems sued over breach of contract, so they’re business concerns. You’re in Massachusetts, home of John Adams, and he said we’re a nation of laws. So I don’t see that changing any time soon. I also don’t think it’s going to change because, even if you don’t win the case, you win in public opinion battle for many, that’s what matters. You get in front of the camera, you’re on social media and you make your case. Fortunately, we have donors who donate money to the Institute for Justice, who have represented a lot of families dealing in areas of choice. You also have ACLU, NAACP, people who donate to those organizations, who represented families in a host of ways. And we also know for our own Pioneer Institute, they now have a growing legal piece.

So, I think Pioneer’s example of creating a division to focus on litigation is because there is a role for litigation. But I hear what you’re saying. Can we get away from basically making people do what they do through the court when they should simply do it because they’re the agency to do it now, not at least for the next 25 years. I just don’t see it.

Cara: I’m telling you, because this one really sticks in my crawl. Is that what they say? So, we had a, I would love to have a guest on could who could help us talk about processes and procedures, because not only is it very difficult to understand, oftentimes parents don’t even know. I certainly didn’t until I had advice from my kid’s private school, what questions to ask. So it’s a really thorny, thorny topic. I wanna talk about parents too. This is like, this is the day of the parent on the Learning Curve, I think. Because there was this really cool article I thought I found it very interesting by Alina Adams in The 74 published yesterday. And I just love the title of this article, My Humbling Education in What Families Really Want from Their Kids’ Schools. So, you know, this is somebody who writes blogs about schools, has studied, schools, has written a book about getting into, I think New York City preschools was this woman’s book which wow. You could probably write volumes, let alone one book about that. But you know, what I really like is the premise of this article. You policy wonk or maybe she includes herself. We policy wonk, spend a lot of time sort of speaking on behalf of parents and saying like, parents centered and this is what, and I’m guilty of this, right? Let me tell you what parents want. Well, I might know what my kids want, but my kids probably also have different things than the kids a couple times over. Right. So she set out to sort of figure out in New York exactly what priorities are, and a lot of the assumptions that wonks make about what parents’ priorities are, are not necessarily on point.

So let me tell you what she did. She went out and  she talked to a sample of family. The same sample of families that she talked to is representative of the breakdown of. In New York Public schools. Now, I didn’t realize this was the breakdown, so I’m gonna tell y’all, 72% economically disadvantaged, 21% students with disabilities, 14% English learners, 41% Hispanic and [00:11:00] 24% black.

[00:11:00] And then of course we’ll put, we’ll put the rest in the category that is left over as we do with statistics, which is strange, but how we do it. And so she, she talked to parents in these demographic groups and here were the. that came out on top in this order and academics was not at the top, Gerard. So, the first one is transportation. The second one, safety, top of mind. all the time. Unfortunately, more and more every day that goes by. Third after school, four special needs and five academics. I wanna go up and talk about transportation for a minute because one of the things that we talk about so much on this show is how do we give parents more options and access to the kinds of schools that they want?

[00:11:44] One of the things that we almost never talk about is just that simple how you’re gonna get there. I have an example from my own life, is that when we chose private school for my kids, we actually moved closer to the school because getting there was such a problem. It took time away from my day. It took me away from work at times when I couldn’t be away from work. It was a really, really big deal. So, we had the resources and the ability to pick up and move. Right now, not every parent has that. And one of the things that just gets me, we go over this a lot in Boston and other urban centers, is this reliance on the old yellow school bus sort of thing. It’s like here in Boston, all they talk about is like, we’re gonna update the school bus system. And there’s a part of me that’s thinking, you know, folks, it’s 2023 and there are other ways to do things So ,we see in some states, Arizona really set a great precedent with this during the pandemic offering parents transportation grants, right? So saying like, it’s almost like having just. a amount of money that’s in a state managed account, or you could do it through a tax credit. That’s probably not my preferred way, because people need the money upfront a lot of times. But imagine if parents had the ability to say, I’ve got some funding that I can spend on a variety of transportation issues.

[00:12:57] Imagine or like I could get my kids to school using public transport. That’s not for me because I don’t like it or my kids are too little. Maybe some of these places like Washington, DC I believe have these like sort of safe Ubers for kids. There are all sorts of innovative options that are popping up, but we need to make sure that if parents have choices, they can get their kids to those choices and that they have the ability to afford that kind of transport safety.

[00:13:19] This surprises no one. And so safety, to the extent, I think when parents think about day-to-day safety, they’re thinking more about, is my kid gonna be bullied at school? Is my kid going to be safe on the way to school? Right. All of the things that come with it. Parents want, I mean, I’m sure most of us feel this way. You wanna walk into your kid’s school and feel like, okay, this is a warm fuzzy place. This is a place of learning. This is a place where my child is. Seen and my child is cared about. The third one after school, this gets me every single time. My kids are in school until 3:00 PM every day at about noon or 1:00 PM every Wednesday. I watch all of the kids from the public schools around us, get out of school in the middle of the day. Why? Because teachers need a professional development day. I don’t dispute that. I don’t begrudge teacher professional development, but I ask myself constantly, what on earth would I do if once a week I had to pick my kids up at noon?

[00:14:18] And this is a situation that so many parents find themselves in. And so what do you do? You look for some sort of care option, which usually costs money. You try and find a neighbor, right? There are all of these things that parents have to consider. So, parents are saying, if I have to work a job—and many parents are working more than one job—I need to know that my kid’s gonna be safe somewhere.

[00:14:40] And by the way, are there no-cost after school programs? I would add. Are there no-cost after-school programs where my kid could actually also be learning something, engaging in physical activity, doing something that’s going to be good for them. Special needs, I think you have spoken to it. Parents wanna know that their kids’ needs are gonna be served and they wanna know that their kids’ needs are gonna be served in a way that they can trust and they don’t have to litigate. So I’m gonna leave that one there. And the final. was academics. So, this is not to say, of course we all care about whether our kids are learning. We all care about academic outcomes.

[00:15:15] But what this particular journalist learned from parents is parents said, and this is in sort of italic quotes, she’s paraphrasing here, parents want a school that doesn’t underestimate children. I can absolutely feel that that’s something that every parent wants. I think it’s really important to point out what the author points out is that there’s something that’s missing from this  list, or that at least wasn’t named as a top five priority, and that’s school diversity. And she sort of comes to the table with her own bias that, wonks always assume that if we could integrate our schools more. If kids were going to school with kids who don’t look like them more often than they do in our country, that that would solve a lot of our problems with school. And not to say that it wouldn’t, I think that there is data out there on both sides, and I think that diverse schools can benefit every single kid, but it’s not necessarily the thing that parents are most concerned about, and the article specifically says most parents don’t want their kids to be the only child of color in a school, or the only girl in a school, or the only person who doesn’t speak English in a school. But that doesn’t mean that these other things that we’ve just talked about are more important.

[00:16:28] And these are things that I think increasingly are becoming part of a conversation, but just aren’t there enough, and boy did I appreciate this article. I think it’s the title is My Humbling Experience. I think it should be humbling for all of us who work in education reform to learn these things from parents. What do you think?

[00:16:44] Gerard: We should share this with school board members, we should share this with state representatives and senators and we should write op-eds about it. We know that in the parental choice movement, some of the items you identify are exactly why families choose a school of choice. In my household, yes, academics are up there as well, but safety, a loving caring, giving, teaching and leadership staff also matters. So, it confirms what choice research has shown for years.

[00:17:18] It confirms what I’ve seen in my own work in interviewing families. interviewed with 400 families in four cities many years ago and currently working on a similar project now. And they made similar claims. It is very similar to let me see, that would be what’s our education magazine? They do a poll every year. Phi Delta Kappa. Oh, okay. I got, and they asked the public, how much money do you think we spend on schools? And for the most part, we always underestimate,and people say, wow, I’m humbled. I didn’t know.

Cara: Way, way, way more than you think. Yeah, no, it’s great stuff. Oh yeah. All right, Gerard. Well, coming up, we’re gonna be speaking with Ashley Soifer. She’s the Chief Innovation Officer of the National Microschooling Center. So, I mean, we can just continue this conversation about cool parents doing cool things, and maybe she’ll tell us how everybody gets to the microschools that she gets off the ground coming up right after.

[00:18:42] Cara: Welcome back listeners. We are here with Ashley Soifer. She’s the Chief Innovation Officer of the National Microschooling Center, where she leads microschool, supports the development of new programs. And parent and leader Outreach. She guides the Center’s movement building work with parents, educators, and community members, including helping organizations and individuals launch microschools. Ashley has served as the chief of staff at Nevada Action for School Options, a nonprofit organization that supports the growth of diverse choices of rich, high quality and personalized educational opportunities for all students across Nevada. In this role, Ashley led efforts in building and managing the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy, the first of its kind public-private partnership with the city of North Las Vegas. She and her husband, Don, are raising three microschooling children in Las Vegas. Ashley Soifer, welcome to The Learning Curve.

Ashley Soifer: Thank you so much for having me. It’s so nice to be here talking with you.

[00:19:37] Cara: Yeah, we’re excited to have you. Okay, so first question, I think a lot of people assume that microschools were sort of this thing of the pandemic, like they were somehow related to pandemic pods or something and that they might be gone, but not, that’s not really true at all. They’ve been around since before the pandemic and in fact from my read, are flourishing and you have a job helping them flourish. So, tell us, what are microschools? How did you even get involved in microschooling and, specifically where do they sort of sit on the spectrum of different schooling options that families across the country have?

Ashley: Yeah, I think that you’re spot on, right? That a lot of folks feel like this came about in the pandemic, but you’re correct. Microschools have been around much longer than that and they are here to stay. We’re hearing from families all the time about how much they love their microschools and are excited that they found it. the thing that drew me to microschools actually was a little unexpected. I started working with Don Soifer back in March of 2020, right during the middle of the shutdown for the pandemic. And at the time we were running an educational nonprofit based in Nevada. Fast forward a few months to August, Don was talking to city leadership of North Las Vegas, the city of North Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing, hardest working poorest cities in Nevada.

[00:20:55] And they were looking for something for their residents at a time when their, their residents needed to go back to work. But schools were still shut down. And they were talking about, can we bring in a charter school? What about a private school? And we just realized that they needed to be able to act much more quickly.

[00:21:09] So we worked through the night, went back, dropped off two briefing books on microschools on the city manager’s desk the next day, and we ran microschools designed and operated microschools for the city of North Las Vegas in partnership with them. The first ever public-private partnership microschool, all during the pandemic and their rec centers and libraries.

It was unexpected for me. Don had been publishing papers on microschooling for years and knew the powerful potential that it had. So it was kind of something I found myself thrown into and was excited to be a part of. We had such a great experience working with the city of North Las Vegas, working with the families that we were serving.

[00:21:42] And from there, as we started to gain A little bit of publicity around what we were doing. We got started to get some calls from folks in Nevada saying, Hey, I really wanna start a microschool and I read what you’re doing, can you help me? And then some other calls saying, Hey, I think I’m running a microschool. It sounds a lot like what we’re doing. Can you help me? And we really just started meeting with leaders in our office, microschool founders prospective microschool founders, those that were already up and running. and getting together weekly on Thursday evenings to talk about what they were doing and what the struggles were and the barriers and how we could help.

And from there, that grew and grew. And then we started getting calls from places like West Virginia and Mississippi. And so, in August of 2022, we launched the National Microschooling Center and haven’t looked back since. So it’s been really exciting to be a part of such. A vibrant growing movement. And as far as how microschools fit into the larger portfolio of school choice and options, I just think that microschools are a much-needed addition for families. It provides one more option for their child to find somewhere where they can thrive and be successful. And microschools are so small and adaptable and, nimble that they really can move and adjust to meet the needs of the children. So, it just is, it’s one more option that families can seek out and find to create a place for their child to thrive. that’s what we’re all here for and, looking for, right? Is a chance for children to be successful and to have those opportunities in their schooling to get their needs met. and microschools are a way to do that.


Cara: Let’s push that a little bit because we’ve, had the founder of Preda on here before and a couple other folks who definitely run microschools have thought a lot about microschools. But I think that, you know, your average, I bet if I went down my block today and was talking to my neighbors most of whom use our local public school they would say, well, what is a microschool? Does that just mean it’s small? Does that mean How do microschools actually start? Can they be private schools? Do they have to follow sort of the same rules and regulations as as other schools? Can you help us define a little bit of that?

Ashley: Sure. So really microschools can be organized in a variety of different ways, and it depends on the state that they’re in and the policy framework that they have to work within. We work with microschool founders that are organized as homeschool operations. We work with microschool founders that are working at licensed private schools, some that are working with charter schools. So there’s really quite a variety of ways that they can pop up and happen. They’re small learning environments, but that doesn’t mean that there’s a cap on the number of kiddos that can attend a microschool.

We work with microschool founders who are serving eight children and microschool founders who are serving over a hundred children. So it’s really a variety of options that are available. And all. being nimble and adjusting to meet the needs of your learners. That’s a common thread that we see running among the microschools, even though each one of them is so different with a different focus and mission. They really do work to tailor education for each specific child that they’re working with. They’re also very much relationship based, so the microschool founders and educators know the families, and the families know who their child is spending their day with, and they create a team that’s there for that child’s education.

[00:24:49] Cara: That’s amazing. And I will in my, day job, we work with some microschools that are able to draw on when states have good laws, like part-time enrollment and other things, it allows kids to maybe even go [00:25:00] back and forth, like spend some time in a microschool environment, spend some time homeschooling. There’s a—it seems like there are limitless options. I’d like to ask you, so we noted that of course these weren’t born of the pandemic, so to speak. But the pandemic certainly has shown a light on a lot of the alternative options that some parents were already using because so many parents were looking for those alternatives. So I’m wondering, as you, you established this centered in the middle of the pandemic, to what extent do you think that experience that this generation of parents had at the height of the pandemic with their schools is gonna continue to. The innovations like microschools and, and that we’re seeing and, growth of these kinds of like really diverse options for parents. What’s your take?

Ashley: Just like you mentioned that the pandemic really did shine that light on these options, right? It gave families a chance to really start to consider that school and, and learning. It doesn’t have to happen inside a traditional brick and mortar building. And it’s not like, I need to drop my child off at nine o’clock and all the learning will take place until 3:00 PM and then they’ll come home and we’ll go on our day. But that learning can happen anywhere. Learning happens everywhere. And so being able to really shine a light on these different alternative permission-less options has been so beneficial for the growth of the movement. And I think that families now that we’re, you know, post-pandemic era where they’re, they’re still considering their schooling needs, not so much for health and safety concerns these days, but really what’s available and what’s out there. It’s exciting that there are so many options and that there’s a chance for real pluralism and education to evolve and, take root, where families don’t have to just send their child to the school down the street because that’s what, they did when they grew up and that’s what they know. But if your kiddo is interested in project-based learning, there’s a microschool for that. Or if your child is very focused on STEM, you can find the microschool for that. Or if you really cared most about social emotional learning, there’s an option for that. And so, now in this era of families being more open to learning happening in places that don’t look like a traditional school building. Right? Maybe you take your kiddo to a dance studio that houses a microschool during the day, or perhaps a house of worship that houses a microschool during a day. There’s so many different options out there, and they’re here to stay, and that’s really exciting to me.


Cara: Yeah. No, it’s incredibly exciting. Ashley, I need to ask you the question that I am most often asked by people who are interested in what I do for work, but don’t necessarily know what I do for work, and that is this. When you give parents a wide range of options—and interestingly, nobody ever asks us about elite private schools—they ask us about homeschooling, ESAs, microschools, pods, all of these options that are lesser known than your fancy private schools, right? They say when you have all of these options, you know, I would be all for that. But boy, they’re just not accountable and some people, and I’m on the fence about this quite personally, I see both sides, but some people aren’t satisfied at all with saying, well, parents will hold schools accountable because parents vote with their feet, et cetera. And I think that there’s some truth in that, but I think that, there’s also something to the argument that we gotta know whether or not the services that are being provided to families are on the up and up, and that parents know what they’re getting, right? That parents have enough information to make good decisions. Can you talk about how you think about accountability, especially when you’re working with parents to help them navigate services or school founders to help them, be transparent with parents?


Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. And being able to talk about growth and impact with key stakeholders is crucial to our microschool founders. They wanna be able to talk with parents about how they see their children growing and have those conversations. Oftentimes we’ll hear from parents that they feel like a more active partner in their child’s education than they ever have been before, and that they’re far more informed on, how their child is growing.

[00:28:55] But when we look at the different microschools that we have, some of them would take a state test tomorrow happily and crush it, and others would never want their children to have to experience a normed reference assessment. So it’s really comes down to what the mission is of the microschools and what they feel like their children need and how do they measure that impact that they’re having. So we’ve talked with microschools leaders a lot recently. In fact, we actually just held a really exciting—we kind of jokingly called it a contest, but everything that came in was so valuable—contest for innovative measures of impact. So microschool founders from across the country were sharing their tools with us on how they measure impact.

[00:29:33] Everything from surveys to see how the kiddos feel before and after a lesson. one example was a, a microschool founder who was teaching a lesson on fractions. And they asked the children beforehand what their confidence was in fractions and what they felt like their skill level was before the lesson and then after the lesson.

[00:29:50] And that gave them a chance to really sit down with kiddos. They still weren’t quite feeling very confident with it at the end to see what they needed to do and how to help them move forward. There are microschool founders that send out weekly surveys to parents asking about their satisfaction and what they’re seeing.

[00:30:05] But as far as like true accountability, right? What does that mean? What does that look like? and how relevant is that term for microschools? That’s something that I, think about often and something that we talk about a lot at the National Microschooling Center. We work with a lot of families that just simply reject the state academic content standards as being relevant to their child’s future.

[00:30:25] A lot of families feel like traditional schooling systems are preparing their children for a future that doesn’t exist, that they’re preparing their children for the future, that they themselves as the parent were being prepared for, that just isn’t the future that their children are going to have.

[00:30:39] We know that the world is changing rapidly and our microschool founders are keeping up with that by being able to really be innovative with their schooling and to help children become critical thinkers and problem solvers and to be able to work collaboratively. So, as we talk to employers and the skills that they’re seeking for job candidates and what they’re not seeing currently and what they wish that they were seeing. Being able to really bring those new areas to light and highlight them and, help microschools work towards measuring their impact. We tend to say measuring impact a lot more than accountability and they do love to show how their children are growing.

[00:31:14] Some microschools choose to keep portfolios. Again, some do take norm-referenced assessments. A lot of microschools use online digital learning tools that have embedded assessments in them. So, the kiddos are actually taking the assessments while they’re continuing their learning. Several microschools that we work with choose to use those.

[00:31:31] We have microschool founders that do a lot of observation and feedback, working with children, sitting down with them, talking through different assignments that they’ve done and what their quality of work is. There’s also a lot of goal setting, goal reflecting, and goal tracking. That happens in a large majority of microschools as well.

[00:31:48] So yes, measuring impact is, definitely important. And showing that growth is crucial. It’s just exciting that there are so many different ways of doing that in microschools.


Gerard: One of the best examples that I saw personally about the role the pandemic played in opening people’s minds to new possibilities is when I reached out to a friend of mine in another state. I live in Virginia, and he said, yeah, we’re getting the kids ready for a pod. I said, a pod. and he explained it.

[00:32:17] I said, well, only two months ago you were against parental choice public schools, whether it was charter or other, you were against vouchers and everything else. I said, but now that it’s your kid, he went, “Shut up! It’s my kid and I need options!” I said, “Oh, very interesting.” But in the conversation about pods, he also talked about technology, and we’ve had on this show great guests like you.

[00:32:39] Two examples are Sal Khan and Julie Young. Can you talk to us about how people you’re working with are using technology and how you think digital learning in particular is gonna revolutionize K-12 moving forward?


Ashley: Yeah, absolutely and definitely a big fan of both Sal Khan and Julie Young and the work that they’re doing and it’s exciting to see the new developments there. We have some microschools that don’t use technologies and are having success with what they’re doing, and that’s works for them and their families and that’s great and we support them and, what their choices are. The large majority of microschools do use digital learning tools and, really exciting advancements in technology that are making state of the art materials available to these children is fascinating and, and so exciting. So we love that. If you’re a microschool founder and you’ve got a kiddo that wants to learn Mandarin Chinese and you, do not speak Mandarin and you don’t have anybody in your area —maybe you’re in a rural part of your state and you don’t have anybody that speaks Mandarin that can come in tutor your kiddos, there’s an option to, find that. And that’s really bringing just quality education to parts of the country that might not have had those options before.

[00:33:54] So we definitely see technology playing a role in having a place in microschooling. It’s really pairing that the technology that’s available with the in-person facilitator or curator or learning guide or whatever, the microschool founder chooses to call themself in their microschool. Pairing those two together just brings the best of both worlds. I think it, gives the child a chance to have access to first class. learning tools, some of the, best in the world, and putting that in-person portion with it as well. So ,it just gives them a chance to experience the best of both worlds and having that in-person facilitator checking in with them, right, making sure that they really are understanding the learning that they’re doing independently with their digital tools is important.

[00:34:36] Gerard: Absolutely. 2021 was called the year of school choice, and 2023 may become the year of ESAs. What are your thoughts about ESAs and about the movement and do you think there are any particular spillover effects for microschoolers, homeschoolers, or those with their children in pods?

[00:34:59] Ashley: This is a really important question. It’s a very important topic to consider. I say that I’m cautiously optimistic. I think ESAs can be a really useful tool in advancing pluralism in education. It can be. Really beneficial to give families access to schooling options that they might not have been able to have before. We do have some microschool founders that are currently accepting ESAs, and we have some microschool founders that are not, even if they are in a, state with an ESA because of some of the strings that come attached with that.

[00:35:30] I had mentioned earlier that some of our microschool founders would never want to have their children sit for a normed reference assessment. And so thinking through what the requirements are to accept an ESA is really important for our microschool founders, making sure it’s not something that will jeopardize their mission or focus or, or change you know, what’s crucial to them and their families.

[00:35:51] I think that ESAs definitely are an important tool. They definitely play a place but being cautious about. I think sometimes our excitement to say, [00:36:00] yes, let’s do an ESA, right? Just, being cautious about what comes with it and what it really does mean to accept that ESA. But again, it can just be a great tool for families to use to gain access to a quality education that they didn’t have access to before. So I’m very excited about the developments that we’re seeing. I’m, hopeful that it, it’s something that will. be beneficial to our microschool leaders and not hinder the potential of microschools right now, even though microschools have been around for such a long time because there’s a light on microschooling right now, and so many more folks are choosing that for their children’s education, it is very much in an early adoption phase, and so there’s so much potential for the microschooling movement and we see new, innovative things coming out of these incredible microschool founders every day. So, I worry sometimes about the possibility that an ESA might have to limit that potential.

[00:36:50] And then again, we work in states that are, do not have school choice vehicles that are not school choice friendly states. And we see amazing things happening in those states too, just of microschool founders who are truly permission-less educators saying, I see a problem in my community, I’m stepping in and creating a solution for it, and I’m not waiting for anybody to give me permission to do so.

[00:37:10] They’re very creative about how they cover their costs. Equity is something that’s always on the front of their minds, and so lots of different arrangements including sharing space is a huge one to keep costs down. So, there’s a variety of ways that’ll make it work, but, to come back to your ESA question, yes, I am cautiously optimistic and I think that they’re a great tool.

[00:37:29] Gerard: So last question for you. African American parents for decades have made use of options public-private, homeschooling, microschooling, and others. It really shot up, particularly black homeschoolers, during the pandemic. And now there’s conversations about why all of a sudden are parents of color, not just African Americans, interested in microschooling. Would you talk about how this sector has worked to support those innovative models for those communities? And I also wanna give a shout out to a microschool leader in the Richmond area who I had a chance to meet at a dinner. Guess would’ve been a couple of days ago, and she’s got a microschool serving some families in Richmond. But you see this across the country and just interested in getting your thoughts about that topic?


Ashley: At the National Microschooling Center, we take calls every day from microschool founders and prospective microschool founders who are really looking to serve children that have previously been underserved by their school district or whatever their schooling experience was in the past.

[00:38:36] Oftentimes these are marginalized communities and we’re really talking with leaders who are part of the community that they want to serve. So exciting to me when we get a phone call from, whether it’s a professional, an educator, a parent, somebody who is determined to create that solution in their community they reach out to say, Hey, we’d would like to open a microschool, or just starting a microschool. Can you help us? And knowing that they’re meeting the needs of their community in ways that those needs have not been met before is important, especially because, like I mentioned so often, these leaders are members of the community that they’re serving. So, they know their families, they know what their needs are and they’re really able to create those just lasting relationships that are so crucial in, educating children.

[00:39:22] And they’re able to really know who the child is and see what their gaps have been in learning before and fill those gaps in. It’s not about this kiddo is coming to me and they’re in third grade and I’m, teaching to the whole third grade classroom. But it’s looking at the child and seeing, all right, maybe they’re a little behind in this area, maybe they’re a little ahead in this area, and truly creating a, tailored plan for each child. So it’s, really been eye-opening to see, exciting to witness the leaders in a variety of communities coming forward and saying, I am going to solve this problem that my community is currently experiencing.

And again we work with leaders from all over the country and so sometimes we’re, hearing from folks that are in rural communities that haven’t had access to quality schools before and sometimes we’re working with microschooling leaders who are helping families that are in poverty and, giving their children a quality educational opportunity. And, and we’re also hearing from microschooling founders who are working with kiddos that just weren’t feeling safe at school before. Maybe it was a bullying issue or, or other things. And so they’re, helping to give them an option where they feel like they did not have one before.

Cara: Well, Ashley Soifer, it sounds like you just have a fascinating job, and it has been a great conversation with you. Thank you so much for enlightening us on microschools and your work and I just wish you all the best in your future endeavors. Keep fighting the good fight.

Ashley: Thank you so much. It’s been so great to talk with you both. Thanks for having me today and yes, it is a fascinating job. I love what I do every day, so it’s, it was exciting to have a chance to share it with you today.

Cara: Great, Ashley, you take care.


Gerard: My tweet of the week is from Education Week from March 27th. And we have here a reading teacher makes a case for early dyslexia screening. There are 10 states that do not have universal screening. California, my former home state, and Colorado are two examples, and the teacher makes a case as to why we should make a universal, why every state should have it, and if we do so, the years of struggle we can save for children and for educators and for families. Definitely a tweet worth looking further.

[00:42:00] Cara: Waiting on legislation. This should be absolutely something that needs to be done, Gerard. Next episode. I’m not gonna say next week because this is not a joke. We’re having a special April Fools’ Day episode and guest host Mark Bauerlein is going to be there because it’s April Fools Day. So I have to spend, I don’t know about you, but I wake up on April Fools’ Day to any number of disgusting pranks. So I’m gonna spend the entire day getting my kids back. my youngest is currently, my husband probably won’t listen, so I’ll say it. my youngest is currently planning, you know, the toothpaste between the two Oreo, like taking out the cream of an Oreo and filling

So I don’t know who’s getting the Oreo, but it’s not gonna be me. But anyway, so we won’t be here listeners on April Fools’ Day, but Mark Bauerlein will, and he is gonna be speaking with Robert McCrum. And it’s gonna be an April Fools’ Day special. So, Gerard, I’m gonna tune in. I don’t know about you, but I, I don’t like listening to myself so much, but I will listen to Mark and Robert McCrum on April Fools’ Day. You be careful, Gerard. Don’t let anybody pull nasty pranks on you.

Gerard: The nasty prank last year was the youngest daughter took my bar of soap and she had clear fingernail polish and she just, I mean, just really went across and I’m taking a shower and like, where’s the lather? And I’m like, what the heck’s going on? So she really got me. I’ve, gotta get her back this year, so we’ll see.

Cara: Ah, oh, I might steal that. Shh. Okay, great. Have a great one, Gerard.

Gerard: Always a pleasure spending time with you, my friend. Take care.

Tweet of the Week: