PHOENIX - As classes take place at a public school in Mesa, learning was also taking place inside the walls of a home right across the street.
Inside the home, kindergartners were busy working on their daily tasks with their teacher (also known as their 'learning guide'), Tiffany Jennings.
"It was such a new concept for me," said Jennings. "I remember hearing it's part Montessori, part online, part traditional, part homeschool, but taking the best pieces of those things, so I was definitely curious how that would work on a home, but I think it is a great model for these kids."
Jennings taught in a public school setting before making the switch to teaching in her home. Her home is what is now called a "micro-school."
Micro-school movement founded by father
The model was founded by a person named Kelly Smith. He started a micro-school in his home several years ago, and he couldn't believe the difference he saw in his own child.
Smith then wanted to share that with others, so in 2018, Prenda was created.
"From the kids that went from ‘I don’t like school’ to ‘I love school,’ those parents noticed that, and they tell their friends. So, it's been highly word-of-mouth, and this is pre-pandemic," said Smith. "Now with COVID-19, I think this question of 'here's an option that could work for a lot of people.' So we’ve seen very fast growth, and now to helping thousands of students, it's really empowering students, and that's what we’re all about."
Prenda helps organize and provide materials for micro-schools, which are in person schools with five to 10 students who are taught at the learning guide's home. The organization offers K-8 education, and Smith says their learning model is designed to empower students to become lifelong learners.
"I think the main difference is, the core of the whole thing is, I think, the default assumption in most educational settings is you sit here in this chair, and this thing called school is going to happen to you, as long as you fill out the assignments, do the things, and go through the motions," said Smith. "Our approach is very different. You are a learner, you are a participant. Even these young kindergartners. They get to step in, and they get to make choices in their day and curate along with the learning guide and full academic support staff that’s making sure these things are being done, but in a way that's really empowering to the student."
Smith says students are enrolled as remote learners, and they will learn everything a student at a traditional school will: science, math, reading and social studies, just in a different format. The education, for students, is also free.
Smith: Micro-school is different from homeschool
It may seem like micro-school is homeschool, but Smith says it's much different.
"Homeschool, for a lot of people, is scary. It's a lot of work. There's this wonder: ‘Am I doing it right? Am I giving it enough academic rigor?’ And this question of social or being around other kids. So Prenda really solves all of those. It says you're going to be in person, with other kids. It's a program focused on academic standards with the tests and things like that. So, parents aren't wondering, ‘Is my child learning what they need to learn?’ They can feel OK about that because we're doing that in our model," said Smith.
In terms of safety, Smith said that is top-of-mind.
"We have a rigorous background check and verification surrounding the adult that's going to be around the children in the micro-school setting. We also look at the physical location for safety. Things like pool, fences, and smoke alarms. The same rules you would expect if there was a pre-school or daycare in a home. Third, internet safety. We do use computers to personalize the education, and we facilitate that. Prenda provides an internet router to every micro-school that filters content, so protecting them that way as well," said Smith.
What started as a not-so-traditional way to learn has become the norm for thousands of students in Arizona. There are also dozens of Prenda micro-schools in other parts of the country. The model may not be for everyone, but for Jennings and her kinders, it is a perfect match.
"It feels like it's a good opportunity because it’s less kids, less days, less hours, great pay, in my home," said Jennings. "It totally works with my family and with my other commitments, and I love it."
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