Editor’s note: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, educational entrepreneurship has boomed nationwide. New Hampshire has experienced significant growth in the number of entrepreneurs and innovators willing to take on the daunting challenge of building a new educational ecosystem. This year, we’ll be highlighting some of the people and organizations that have begun expanding the education marketplace in the Granite State, as well as the obstacles they face in creating nontraditional learning environments.
Our second installment highlights Acton Academy Bedford, a new microschool for homeschooling families looking for an alternative educational environment that focuses on learner agency and the Hero’s Journey.
Can you imagine quitting your job, leaving your career as a finance manager at BAE Systems behind, to start a small, nontraditional learning center on your property?
Well, that’s exactly what Will Forrester did. He and his wife, Caroline, are the founders of Acton Academy Bedford, the newest Acton Academy microschool in New Hampshire.
“Our daughter Claire started kindergarten this year. Before she started school, I was apprehensive, we both were, about her starting at public school,” Will said. “Both of us went through the motions of school, a K-12 experience, didn’t get much out of it, and we really didn’t want the same for her.”
Caroline knew they needed to make a change after the first parent-teacher conference. “One of the things that her teacher said was, ‘One thing that we’re working on is coloring things the right color, like how a horse can’t be purple.’ I was like, ‘What? That’s something that you’re calling out as part of the curriculum for kindergarteners?’”
She wondered, “What other purpose is there other than just beating the creativity out of them?”
Searching for alternatives, the Forresters discovered Acton Academy. Advertised as “one-room schoolhouses for the 21st century,” this network consists of start-up microschools across the country focused on “turning learning upside down” through “adaptive game based programs for core skills,” “Socratic discussions to strengthen critical thinking,” “hands on real world projects,” and “life changing apprenticeships.”
The problem for the Forresters was that the closest Acton Academy to their Bedford home was an hour away. So, Will, with a military background, felt another calling to serve a cause greater than himself.
“For me, I was in the military—in the Marine Corps, served overseas—[and] something that I saw firsthand: This is something where I’m serving something greater than myself, and my life has real meaning, I’m contributing, and I started to get that feeling again when I started learning about Acton Academy.”
Their decision was made: Will and Caroline would start their own Acton Academy right on their property in Bedford.
In December 2022, the Forresters applied through Acton Academy—a process they noted was “very selective”—and were soon approved. They went through the orientation with Acton co-founder Jeff Sandefer and spent the next six to nine months renovating the empty space above their garage to serve as their studio.
It made the most sense for Will and Caroline to start their Acton Academy on their residential property to help contain costs. Their property also brought the added benefit of having already been zoned for institutional use and not just residential, avoiding a headache that many other aspiring entrepreneurs must face.
However, they didn’t avoid all governmental roadblocks.
Acton Academy Bedford is registered with New Hampshire as a homeschool co-op/learning center, and the students enrolled are all recognized as homeschoolers.
This presented an obstacle for the Massachusetts families in the Forresters’ cohort. To homeschool your child in the Bay State, families must receive advance approval from the child’s school district—a requirement that does not exist in New Hampshire.
“To pull their kids out of public schools to homeschool, they need to be approved,” Will said. “So, Westford and Burlington, they want all this information on what we’re going to be covering and the hours; it’s very detailed what they’re asking for. We did give them everything. We haven’t heard back yet on if they approved it or not, so maybe there are more hurdles that we have to jump through to get these Massachusetts families on board.”
What’s more, when the Forresters registered as an LLC in New Hampshire, the state kept rejecting their application but wouldn’t tell them why. Only by using their newfound network of Actons did they eventually figure out that the state required very specific language about their operation: Theirs would be a non-degree issuing learning center.
“That would’ve taken me probably a lot of time to figure out, like I was calling the office, no one’s telling me anything,” Will recalled. “And we had to pay every time we applied,” Caroline added.
Being part of the Acton network has benefits, the Forresters found. They have access to guidance and resources from the organization and can learn from, collaborate, and share ideas with education entrepreneurs around the country. Plus, the network gives each individual microschool the freedom to develop in their own way.
“The cool thing is every location has the freedom to take it in whatever direction they want,” Caroline said. “Ours is going to be very outdoor focused because of our location.”
Besides their 700–800 square-foot indoor space, the Forresters will take advantage of their nearly three-acre property to encourage free play and outdoor learning.
“We think being outside, free play, is something very important,” Will said. “Moving around, not being chained to a desk all day…. Being just under three acres and having goats and chickens and stuff, it’s a great environment for the young learners.”
And these young learners come from all over the state and region. In addition to Massachusetts, the six students/families at Acton Academy Bedford are as close by as neighboring Merrimack and Nashua and as far away as Rochester.
So, what brings this diverse group of families to a start-up in Bedford? “It’s the mission, and the Hero’s Journey, and trusting the child, the agency for these young learners—that’s what’s important to them,” Will observed. “They’re not getting it anywhere else.”
Moreover, “They all believe that the school system isn’t serving their kids the way it should be, and they want an alternative.”
And with the Acton name comes a reliable, trustworthy brand. To ensure trust among families, Will and Caroline had to pass background checks to be approved by Acton Academy and promise they would enroll their own child in their start-up microschool.
“When you do apply to open an Acton, one of the requirements is you have to be sending your own kids. You can’t open it if your own kids aren’t enrolled,” Caroline noted. “It’s the fact these parents all went through the exact same thing that we went through, and they’re doing it for their own kid, so I think that helps increase trust a lot.”
Talking with Will and Caroline, the word ‘agency’ kept coming up. “[The families] want agency for their young learners,” Will said. In other words, Acton Academy Bedford seeks to put their students in the driver’s seat of their own learning.
Structuring their microschool around the Montessori and Socratic models helps facilitate this agency. “A big thing about the Montessori is that it’s self-correcting,” Will said. “We don’t want to create this hierarchy system like you see in traditional school where the teacher has all the knowledge.”
He continued, “We don’t want the kids to think there’s one right answer in the back of the book. Everything is open for debate, discussion. So, the guides are very Socratic in the sense that they don’t answer any questions. That goes for all age groups. So, we want the young learners to be competent [and] feel like they can solve things on their own.”
Not a teacher, Will is Acton Academy Bedford’s full-time guide, setting the contours of the learning environment—namely, don’t hurt each other and always tell the truth—while the kids are free to take charge of their learning.
“These young learners are coming up with their own rules for the classroom because we find that when they create the rules that they’re more likely to enforce them and hold each other accountable,” he said.
Central to the Forresters’ microschool and others in the Acton network is the focus on what they call the “Hero’s Journey.” Caroline said the emphasis is on using the power of storytelling, particularly the adventure rather than the ending, to encourage young learners to envision themselves in their own story of growth and self-discovery.
“Everything that we do at Acton is framed in putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, or how can they envision themselves as the hero?” she mentioned.
The Hero’s Journey, self-pacing, sparking and maintaining a love of learning, building conflict resolution skills—these are all ways in which the Forresters hope to invest students in their own education.
“We want to create that growth mindset where they’re going to fail, and that’s okay, that’s part of growing, and if you’re not failing, you’re not learning, and you’re not challenging yourself,” Will added.
In traditional public and private schools, first graders to eighth graders typically share classes with peers of the same age. Rarely, if ever, do students find themselves in a classroom with others of different ages.
But, like other microschools, Acton Academy Bedford introduces a mixed-age classroom environment, where the five-year-old students have an opportunity to share a class with and learn from seven to ten-year-olds, and vice versa.
“Because nowhere else in the real world is it like that,” Will noted. “You need to learn how to deal with people [of] different ages. You’re going to probably learn something from them, they’ll probably learn something from you. We have a seven-and-a-half-year-old that’s going to have an opportunity to be a leader in a class. What other institution provides that?”
He saw clear disadvantages with the alternative. “The fact that we split everybody up by age, even though they may have different interests or capabilities—you may have someone in first grade that’s operating at a fourth-grade level when it comes to math but you’re going to put them with a bunch of first graders just because [they’re] the same age? It makes no sense.”
Will and Caroline know there will be challenges to operating their own microschool, as well as frustrations among students adjusting to this new educational model. But as entrepreneurs, the Forresters are prepared and have the necessary flexibility to adjust to the needs of their students and the demands of running a small business.
In fact, they’ve already begun adapting to the financial needs of their customers. In addition to accepting Education Freedom Account (EFA) funds, the Forresters also offer volunteer and sibling discounts to help make their services more affordable.
Acton Academy Bedford is open for its first year and operates Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., for 11 months. One month off may seem demanding, but the Forresters counter that, “When you love school, you want to be there.”
Hearkening back to his time in the Marines, Will closed with his motivation as a new education entrepreneur. “It’s not for me—I say it’s for my daughter—but it’s for the community, it’s for the greater good, and that’s the same feeling I got in the Marine Corps, so that’s really what gets me so fired up and excited.”
Acton Academy Bedford can be found online at https://www.actonbedford.org/.