School closures during the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in education entrepreneurship across the United States. Large declines in student performance (see here and here) both during and following the pandemic, along with increasingly bitter disputes over school content and policies, are sending still more parents in search of alternatives.
In New Hampshire, public school enrollment has fallen by more than 10,000 students since 2019. That’s in addition to a decline of 29,946 students from 2001–2019. During that same 2001–2019 period, spending on district public schools in New Hampshire rose by $1.5 billion, or $937 million when adjusted for inflation.
As public school leaders in New Hampshire and elsewhere work on improving outcomes and making educational systems more responsive to families, some parents continue to seek alternatives for either the short-term or long-term.
Whether to make up for learning losses, or to find a better fit for their children, many families are searching for something different than traditional schooling.
In New Hampshire, as around the country, education entrepreneurs are meeting this demand in what is now a growing educational marketplace by creating nontraditional learning environments for students.
Education entrepreneurship embraces a bottom-up, decentralized approach to schooling. The Live Free or Die state is home to a wide and growing range of educational alternatives offered by scrappy startups, frustrated parents, former public school teachers, and even national businesses.
In addition to private schools, which have to be approved by the state, a mix of new, private-sector alternatives are popping up in New Hampshire. They fall into the following broad categories: microschools, learning pods, homeschool co-ops/learning centers, and hybrid homeschools.
Here is how each of these alternatives differs from the others and from traditional educational offerings.
A microschool is the “catch-all” term for learning alternatives offered on a small scale and in a more traditional school style. It describes a full-time or part-time learning environment characterized by small classrooms that enable an individualized approach to education.
Think of a modern version of a one-room schoolhouse, with an emphasis on student-led and project-based learning.
Often seen as a middle ground between homeschooling and traditional schooling, microschools typically include more than two participating families who are not homeschooling. They usually hold 10 to 50 students, but they can be larger or smaller. They are typically led by hired instructors and are often set in commercial spaces or community centers.
If organized as a small private school, a microschool would be subject to state approval and regulation. In 2021, in response to pandemic-created demand, the state Education Department published a primer on how to start a nonpublic school, which lays out the laws and regulations that govern nonpublic schools in the state.
Not all educational alternatives, though, are organized as schools.
Learning pods usually consist of a smaller group of students (typically 10 or fewer) gathering together with some form of adult oversight to learn and socialize.
Pods are often created by families in a neighborhood or in a location that draws families from throughout a community. They are inherently flexible for the students and parents, gathering in convenient locations—often a participating family’s home—on certain days of the week for agreed-upon amounts of time. They can be led by parents or paid educators.
Like microschools, they often include more than two participating families who are not homeschooling, but they are less closely aligned with a traditional classroom environment than microschools.
A learning pod might be classified and regulated as a private “school,” depending on how it is organized and how instruction is offered, though these new entities do not easily fit the standard description of a school. Some learning pods involve homeschooled or pre-school-age children.
Homeschool co-ops/learning centers
Homeschool co-ops and learning centers represent a more decentralized type of educational offering. They are typically formed by groups of families meeting together to achieve common educational goals, but they aren’t necessarily organized as “schools.”
Typically consisting of more than two participating families who have chosen to homeschool, homeschool co-ops and learning centers often function as homeschool resource centers. They allow homeschooled students to meet on a regular basis and participate in classes and activities led by either the parents themselves, in the case of co-ops, or instructors and activity leaders that the group hires, in the case of learning centers.
Homeschool co-ops and learning centers can be set in a variety of environments, such as participating families’ homes, commercial or community centers, or even outdoors. These include tutoring centers, such as Mathnasium and Sylvan learning centers, and unschools, which allow for almost complete self-directed learning by the students.
Hybrid homeschools share many of the same qualities as homeschool co-ops and learning centers. Like the latter, they usually have paid instructors.
The main differences are that there’s often a curriculum in place, many are faith-based, and they usually have a yearly program with about two days a week in “class” and the rest of the week spent at home.
These are the primary options education entrepreneurs have been offering as alternatives to traditional schooling since the COVID-19 pandemic. They share many of the same features, and sometimes their offerings overlap. People often use the terms “learning pods” and “microschools” interchangeably, for example, since they can be very similar in style and structure, though they aren’t always.
Most education providers are self-identified, as rigid legal definitions don’t exist to classify them. Even within one “category,” the educational options in the marketplace vary considerably in their teaching philosophies, structures, and schedules.
Though these are the general categories of new educational offerings spreading quickly in the marketplace right now, it would be a mistake to assume that others won’t come along. Parents and entrepreneurs are constantly searching for new ways to meet children’s needs. There’s no reason to think they won’t invent even more creative options.