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Microschools pop up in St. Louis as alternatives to virtual school

Microschools pop up in St. Louis as alternatives to virtual school

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Michelle Schramm had a long-term goal to open her own school with small classes and hands-on learning. That goal became more urgent when most schools closed down in March and moved online.

“The pandemic was the catalyst,” Schramm said. “There are skills that just can’t be taught through a computer.”

Discovery Micro-school opened Tuesday in the former school at St. Bernadette Catholic Church near Jefferson Barracks. There are five students enrolled in each of two classrooms, one with kindergarten through second grade and the other for third through fifth grades. Tuition is $235 per week, with some flexibility. The maximum enrollment this year is set at 20 students.

Schramm, 39, is certified in early childhood education and previously taught kindergarten and first grade. Her son is a fifth grader at the microschool, which she plans to keep open even after most students return to classrooms.

While St. Louis County officials said Wednesday that schools could start bringing back elementary students, most school districts in the area have committed to virtual learning for at least the first quarter of the year.

Microschools were developed before the coronavirus struck, but they are perfectly suited for small class sizes and social distancing. They are the 21st century version of the one-room schoolhouse — typically 10 or fewer students in a mixed-age classroom. The private schools offer personalized education and mostly eschew standardized testing and textbooks.

While the pandemic has spurred new interest in microschools, the trend was already growing. At least three of the mini schools opened in the St. Louis region in fall of 2019.

Sudbury School opened in University City with eight students who develop their own schedules, curriculum and rules. The school’s enrollment has doubled since last year. The Children’s Community microschool in Fenton moved classes entirely outdoors this fall for its 12 students. In Cottleville, Lighthouse International is a home-based school that is part of the Acton Academy network of more than 200 microschools nationwide.

The manager of the Mercy South Co-Worker Children’s Center wanted to help parents who were seeking in-person options for their kindergartners who had aged out of the center. The hospital system hired a certified teacher for a kindergarten class with space for 10 students and open to anyone in the community.

“That first experience you want for your child in school is not necessarily over the computer,” said Stephanie Viviano.

Some families with babies and toddlers at the center decided to keep them home, opening up a classroom at the center for the kindergartners. Tuition is $175 per week.

Teacher Rachel Pavelka, 25, said she jumped at the chance to work with the 5- and 6-year-olds in the Mercy program, “getting them started and building the foundational skills.”

With only six kids in the class, Pavelka is able to spend lots of one-on-one time with each student. Half of the students attended the center for child care, and the other students transferred from the Lindbergh and Affton school districts, which started the year primarily online.

The new classroom is a relief for working parents like Shannon Daniel, who could not have helped her son Duke, 5, with virtual learning during the day.

“It was either that or we were going to keep him back one year,” Daniel said. “He’s ready. He wanted to go. He said, ‘Let me learn.’”

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