The Tiny Schools Project

Let’s test new types of schools at a small scale.

How I Used to Think About Launching Schools

Over the last twenty years, I’ve been involved in more than 100 school startups. Until four years ago, I stuck with a pretty consistent approach to get a new school up and running:

  1. Find proven classroom teacher; sell them on serving more kids as school founder
  2. Incubate them for ~12 months in quality schools shadowing great leaders
  3. Write a charter application replicating the model of their incubation site
  4. Pray for the authorizer to approve a 200–500 page school application for school that’s never been tested by/with any of the people involved (leader, teachers, or students)
  5. Run like crazy to get the school ready (build a board, get a building, plan marketing, recruit families, get political and financial support, the list is familiar and goes on and on).
  6. Go from paper app to $1–4M operation, with 80–200 kids out of the gate. Overnight.

This works if the school you want already exists, and if you have a lot of cash and time; most investors spend $250–750k per school over two years doing it this way.

If the school you want doesn’t exist, this process won’t work. Over the last 20 years, our need for new kinds of schools has grown from nice-to-have to strategic national imperative. The world is changing far faster than our schools, and this gap is getting wider every year.

What we need — more than ever — is a systemic approach to creating new schools that prepare students for the future they will inherit while decreasing the risks and costs of testing of new ideas for schooling.

A New Approach to School Creation

My approach to school design started to change four years ago — during our first cohort of entrepreneurs at 4.0 Schools. I started the same way I always had; I asked talented people to commit a year soaking up proven concepts in existing high-quality schools before writing an app and getting into startup mode.

Josh Densen, a member of that first cohort, challenged my approach, asking for time to just listen to parents about schools that didn’t exist yet. He started hosting sessions in living rooms around New Orleans, asking parents what they wanted in a new school. He didn’t sell anything; he just listened. When he crunched the numbers from his surveys, the two things parents wanted most were socioeconomic diversity and a focus on creative thinking. So we sat and sat and googled and called friends trying to find a school he could replicate that had that stuff. But we couldn’t find one.

Around that time, the food truck craze was taking off in New Orleans and we saw how it was challenging the traditional model of restaurants. For a fraction of the cost, chefs were serving food and getting up close and personal feedback from customers. The food was great too.

Then Josh came up with a crazy idea. What if he tried a food-truck version of his school?

In this first indoor pop-up version of Bricolage Academy in 2012, Josh Densen tested a design-thinking curriculum that led to the development of an on-site maker space when the school opened.

Josh took a folding table and some new toys he thought might help kids build creative confidence and started doing what he called pop-ups at local free music weekly festivals. Josh would talk to parents about their kids as they played and jumped in the bounce house, listening to what their experience in school was like and what they worried about for their kids.

After a few festivals, Josh tuned his ideas and pushed the testing further, striking a deal with Samuel Green Charter School. He’d show up once a week with some of the kids from the pop-ups and have them join Green kids in a test run of his design thinking class. He wasn’t driving a food truck, but he might as well have been.

After a few pop up versions of Bricolage, Josh worked with First Line Schools to run a recurring pop-up at their Samuel Green campus. Students from the host campus joined in with students who’d been at the weekend pop-up sessions. This led to further refinements in the design-thinking elements of the program and gave Josh valuable insights into how to run a socio-economically diverse school.

Ever since that experiment, we’ve been trying to de-risk the process of new school creation and make it more iterative, more responsive, and more agile.

Four years after Josh’s first pop-up school, we’re formalizing this new approach to school creation.

The Tiny Schools Project 1.0

The goal of The Tiny Schools Project is to reduce the risk of creating new schools by testing promising concepts at a very small scale in intimate environments where willing families and students provide high-frequency feedback to school leaders before they build a full scale school.

L to R: The first cohort of school designers in The Tiny Schools Project (Vera Triplett, founder of Noble Minds Institute; Bahiy Watson, founder of 1881 Institute; Kim Gibson; founder of NOLA Micro Schools and Jonathan Johnson, founder of Rooted School). And Josh Densen, founder of Bricolage Academy, who’s hacks of 4.0 launch in our first cohort led us to rethink school launch support and served as the inspiration for The Tiny Schools Project.

Instead of taking two years and half a million dollars and doing no testing at all, pilots in the Tiny Schools Program are:

Well, Tiny — Pilots cost up to 10X less than traditional charter school or district led startup and include an average of 10–15 students and 1–2 teachers and

Agile — Tiny school pilot founders must collect and constantly adjust to feedback from parents and students.

Bold — Pilots must challenge a fundamental assumption about how school works today.

Sustainable — Pilots must lead to schools based on a financial model that requires zero private philanthropy after 3 yrs.

What’s the Point?

If we’re going to rethink school for the 21st century, we need to rethink how we create schools. Innovative schools coming out of the Tiny Schools Project will be battle tested and ready to scale based on clear evidence of success. And instead of spending $500k to find out in 2 years whether one school will be successful, we are able to potentially launch 4 or 5 new school models in 3–6 months. We think Tiny Schools represent a fundamental break from the established way of launching schools and present us with the opportunity to create breakthrough school models that really are the future of school.

Matt Candler is founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools, a non-profit incubator of new schools and education startups.

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