4 ways to make Tiny Schools

Small-scale pilots of new school designs


Vera Triplett of Noble Minds runs a pop up class at a local parochial school.


If you’re just joining us, The Tiny Schools Project is a 4.0 Schools initiative to pilot bold school designs quickly and safely:

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.

We’re nine months in, so here’s an update on the creative approaches to piloting devised by the members of cohort one.

Meet Cohort One

Tiny Cohort #1 (l to r): Rooted School’s Jonathan Johnson, Noble Minds’ Vera Triplett, NOLA Micro Schools’ Kim Gibson, 1881 Institute’s Bahiy Watson.

Jonathan, Vera, Kim and Bahiy are four amazing leaders working on four very different school designs:

Rooted School
Rooted School is an open-enrollment high school that prepares students for employment in high-growth, high-wage industries.

Noble Minds Institute
The Noble Minds institute for Whole Child Learning is a New Orleans-based learning lab that focuses on academic and personal development, opening in 2016.

NOLA Micro Schools
NOLA Micro Schools prepares students to pursue their passions and creativity through a blending of state-of-the-art software, quest-like projects with real-world applications, Socratic discussions and apprenticeships in diverse, student-centered, multi-age classrooms.

1881 Institute
The 1881 Research Institute is a hands-on training high school that builds community and hope while using the power of STEM.

Each is these school designs first came to life in 4.0 Schools’ Launch program, a three-month program where Jonathan, Vera, Kim and Bahiy conducted day- or week-long pop-up school experiences (think food-truck or pop-up restaurant) with parents and students in New Orleans. Based on the feedback they received and coaching from 4.0, each leader has since designed a more extensive real-world pilot of their school model — something we call a tiny school.

These tiny school pilots will last between 2 and 12 months, serve 10-15 students, include no more than 2 teachers, focus heavily on self-directed learning, include lots of data about how students are doing, and explore cost-saving approaches that improve sustainability. (Public school models should run without philanthropy after three years; private schools must aim for less than $6,000 per child.)

We challenged each founder to ask existing schools and organizations to carry as much of the operational load as possible during their tiny school pilot so they could focus on testing academic elements of their models.

Why?

Because over and over again, founders of new schools — especially founders of charter schools, which experience rapid growth for their first few years — tend to get distracted by non-academic issues. In fact, one study found that 41% of charters that failed did so do so because of financial issues, including not having enough students. I’ve lived that hell many times, as a principal and as a principal coach. The need to get kids in the door completely blinds school leaders; they can’t focus on running a proven model, much less explore a new one thoughtfully.

What if we found a way to let educators refine a new school model before having to deal with those issues? What if we tested school models at the smallest scale possible? What if we asked schools who have strong financial chops and operational experience to help with that stuff during a tiny school pilot?

These were the kind of questions in my head when I asked this first cohort to get creative about their pilot years. What they came up with is far more creative than I imagined:

  1. The Tiny Two-Month Summer School
    1881 is serving kids from schools without extensive summer programming to test 1881 this summer. They’re running a compressed, tw0-month version of their school model in borrowed (free) space. Bahiy’s also getting help from Tuskegee Institute professors off for the summer.
  2. The Tiny Low-Cost Private School
    NOLA Micro is subletting unused space from a more mature school to run a tiny version of their low-cost private school. They’re also rolling out a unique tuition structure to promote diversity and access: parents pay what they can between 6,000 and 12,000. Their very student-centric model keeps costs below $6k at scale.
  3. The Tiny School within a Public Charter School
    Rooted is contracting with a local public charter school for a year to run a tiny version of their school within the existing campus. Students and families volunteer to be in the pilot but stay enrolled at the host school. This is the most comprehensive partnership of the four. Jonathan pitched the idea of hosting his pilot to charter operators around the city this winter and chose Algiers Charter School Association. They were eager to learn about the high-wage, high-growth companies hosting internships for Rooted students. And since they run a network of schools, the demands of helping Jonathan with operations, finance, transportation, food and security were easy to take on. Jonathan and the host principal of the host school, Algiers Tech Academy, Nia Mitchell, are hammering out details on all of these fronts. They worked carefully to find the right group of students — 40 11th graders — to hear a pitch on Rooted. They are working on everything from student flow patterns and bus routes and food service to minimize friction and maximize shared learning in the pilot year.
  4. The Tiny School within a District Public School
    Noble Minds is still finalizing where they’ll pilot, but one option on the table (and the one that most fascinates me) is contracting with a local district in a format similar to the one Jonathan’s structured with Nia. Noble Minds founder, Vera Triplett, has already met with leaders of the local district about where to pilot and how the school can meet needs the district has.

I don’t know about you, but this collaboration is a pretty big deal. That leaders of existing schools — public charter, private and public, district-led — would so willingly help out on these is amazing.

It sounds a lot like what union leader, Al Shanker, and others were saying in the 90's when the charter movement first got underway. I think it is a bummer (for children, most of all) that we gave up on that vision and spent so much time yelling instead of sticking to this test small, then share vision over the last 20 years. I think chartering has become less about testing small, and more about “scaling what we already tested.”

What if, in building a tinier starting point, we got back to the original dream of chartering? Where charter operators could test new ideas and share them with their peers in larger, more established schools. Where we weren’t fighting with each other about stupid stuff, but actually learning from each other. Maybe tiny schools can get us back there.

4.0 is working with each of these founders and their host partners to craft smart agreements that maximize pilot success and host site learning. We’ll miss some things; partnering like this inevitably come with some friction. We’ll try and adapt as fast as we can during each pilot. If we get something that starts to work, we’ll what we know — maybe in the form of a model tiny school agreement that anyone can use. Let me know if you’re interested.

Is building a tiny 10–15 student version of a new school model a perfect test? No way; I can write a long list of operational and financial mistakes easily made once a school gets bigger even if their tiny pilot is amazing.

But even a few months into this effort, the overwhelming response from willing host schools has allowed each tiny school team to pay far more attention to the core work of educating students than the politics, logistics and operational details that tend to overwhelm founders of schools that have to start bigger than these four do. Because of their generosity; these pilots are going to have a better chance at testing some promising new approaches to school design — things that might make the future of school far brighter.

That’s a tiny victory I’m going to celebrate.

This post is the first in a series of field reports on Tiny Schools. It appeared originally at futureofschool.org. Matt Candler is founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools. You can find him on twitter at @mcandler. If you want to read more about Tiny Schools, check out Fast Company’s take here. If you want to try your own Tiny Schools, please let us know at 4pt0.org.