Ep. 209: Micro-schooling – A Conversation with Tom Bogle

October 6, 2020

We chat with Arizona parent Tom Bogle, who micro-schools his children. Learn more about the educational model that has gained popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jennifer Wagner: Good day and welcome to another one of our EdChoice podcasts. I am Jennifer Wagner, our VP of communications here at EdChoice. And I am honored to be joined today by Tom Bogle, an Arizona parent, who is micro-schooling his kiddos, and is going to talk to us a little bit about this phenomenal trend that’s happened since the pandemic of parents who are getting together and hiring teachers and helping their kids learn at home. So, Tom, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tom Bogle: Great. Thank you for having me, I’m happy to be here.

Jennifer Wagner: Well, tell us a little bit about your experience micro-schooling. And also, I know you have… you both do micro-schooling and also work in micro-schooling. So if you could explain the difference in what capacity you’re in today, that’d be awesome.

Tom Bogle: Correct. Yeah, absolutely. So my children are part of micro-schools through a micro-school network called Prenda. I actually work for Prenda, so I just got to make sure that we’re clear that today I’m speaking from my experience as a parent and an education professional, but not on behalf of my education organization, my employer.

Jennifer Wagner: Yes, totally understand that. Just want to get you a chance to get that out up front before we talk about your experiences. And I guess we’ll start with just kind of this basic question of, why should parents micro-school? Why are parents micro-schooling? And what inspired you to kind of go down this road?

Tom Bogle: Great. So I got to kind of step back a little bit in my educational history. Growing up, I’ve been the product of public, private and charter schools, and both my wife and I are former public school teachers who have also homeschooled. And so we’ve kind of run the gamut on a bunch of different learning options. And for us, this micro-school learning environment kind of hits the sweet spot in terms of providing structured, but also allowing flexibility. The micro-schools are small enough that parents actually have a say in what goes on within the learning environment, but also that it’s not just that parents have a say, but within a micro-school environment. And it’s almost as though parents need to contribute more, it is much more of a community-based learning model.

The micro-schools rely on parent involvement in a way. So there’s no longer this disconnect between what’s happening at home and what’s happening at school because the micro-school kind of becomes an extension of home in that you have the flexibility to self-organize, select schools that reflect your own values while allowing you to explore values held by other people. So you kind of get this balance that is the flexibility of a homeschool environment with kind of the structure and additional learning opportunities of a traditional schooling environment.

Jennifer Wagner: Got it. No, that sounds amazing. And I should note, I’m the parent of two kiddos, and eight year old and a 12 year old, who are back in school full time. And it is always interesting to see lights them up in terms of what they’re learning and what they’re not so thrilled about. And it’d be super cool to be able to customize their curriculum, to exclude French and include, apparently right now, Roman history is a big hit. So who is doing the teaching in your micro-schooling environment?

Tom Bogle: Right. So like I mentioned, I have four children currently in three different micro-schools that are part of the Prenda micro-school network and in the print and micro-school environment, it is a guide, so this is not a certified educator. But I can tell you from my experience with Prenda, because I am one of the guide trainers, or at least I have been, that we do put the micro-school guides through an extensive training program. But the role is sufficiently different that we’re not asking learning guides to be specialists in any particular subject or content area. Where we can find learning resources, especially those that are online, that are self-paced, that a student can work through on their own and allowing technology to do what technology does and that’s hold and distribute information while allowing the guide or the adult in the room to do what humans do best, which is coach and mentor and build social and emotional connections with these kids in a healthy way.

So I don’t want to say that it’s open to anyone because we certainly have a stringent process and many people who apply are not a good fit for this. It does require a significant amount of emotional resilience to be able to work with kids in this kind of learning environment. In many communities, they are certified teachers. And in many situations, these are educators who themselves have grown disenfranchised with the way schools are being run. And much like myself, I never thought that I would find myself in a classroom ever again. I just had this kind of philosophical falling out with the education system. I had my own John Taylor Gatto moment and walked away. And it’s because there’s so many good educators who see these flaws in the system and they don’t feel like there’s a home for them. They can’t continue to work in education.

So they leave, they go and they work in real estate or construction, all reputable careers contributing to society, but these are the best of the best in education and they’re being pushed out because of the structural constraints. And now with the micro-schooling environment, they’re rediscovering the flexibility to really be innovative and creative in how they’re teaching to serve their communities, to reach these kids in ways that bring that spark back to the children’s eyes, in ways that they haven’t seen in years, sometimes decades for some of them.

I’ve helped train new micro-school guides who taught for 30 plus years, realized this is not where I want to be anymore and left the classroom. And now when they rediscover this opportunity and they’re jumping back in and they go, “Oh my goodness, thank you. I watched this process like slowly deteriorate from the learning environment in which I was, and you guys have brought it back again.” And while I think, yeah, my organization has helped to do that to some extent that really we’re rediscovering a different institutional model, that teachers can thrive in that if kids can thrive in and that meets family needs in a way that’s kind of unique and I’m really excited to be a part of it.

Jennifer Wagner: Oh, you’re giving me a lot of ideas. My parents are both public school teachers and my dad spent 30 plus years in the classroom. My mom quit after she had me and never went back, but I can again, get the wheels turning here if there’s an opportunity for them to, as you say, kind of re-engage with the system. But I want to switch over a little bit. And the parents who might be listening, who are just like me and have no clue how you would get started doing something like this, I mean Prenda it is an option, there are obviously other micro-schooling organizations out there. I’ve got friends who are doing it just ad hoc and what do I do? Where do I go?

Tom Bogle: Right. So I think the first thing is establishing a community, finding two or three other families that you know and trust, because many of us have that, we have a small community and we have a large community, but do we have just a couple of families that we know and trust and that we would want to have this kind of influence over our own children or would trust us to have that kind of influence over theirs. And I think that’s really where you start. And as you find this community, ask yourselves, what is it that we’re really trying to accomplish and what tools already exist that help us best accomplish that? And there are myriad tools available. I know so many people are new to this type of learning environment and homeschooling variations, but guys, people have been doing this for decades, the tools out there are amazing.

So rather than trying to recreate the wheel, find something that works for you in a very short term. And then as you discover ways that you might choose to modify it, then modify, right? This is a very entrepreneurial approach. So you launch with your minimum viable product, be open to feedback on the part of the learners, listen to what your kids have to say, listen to what other parents have to say and modify as you go. And whether you choose to do this with a co-op model where it kind of rotates from house to house, or whether you choose to actually pull some money together and hire one of these parents, or even reach out to educators in your community.

I am amazed at the resources that are currently available that help bring educators into your home through a virtual platform. There’s many, many of those, where now, even whoever is running this pod-school or micro-school within their home, they don’t have to be an expert, they don’t have to be a specialist. All they have to do is be a facilitator. So really that’s how you would get started. And quite honestly, anyone can do that.

Jennifer Wagner: That’s a great segue into, I think we’ve seen a lot of positive coverage of this trend. As you say, it’s a trend, but it’s also been around for decades. But we’ve also seen a lot of negative media coverage of naysayers who say, “Oh, this is available to people who are higher income, but I’m low income or middle income, there’s no way that this is attainable for me.” That’s not what I’m hearing you say. So I guess what would you say back to those critics who, “Oh, this is only a 1 percent solution to the current K-12 landscape.”

Tom Bogle: Right. So I want to make sure that I am clear that this is a challenge for people of any income level, in that, they’re trying something new it’s untried untested for them and for their family. So it is definitely intimidating and challenging moving forward. And there are certainly constraints where having a sufficient space, having a parent who is available during the workday to be able to facilitate and monitor this, all of those things can certainly be constraints, but there are amazing educational resources that are freely available. That even if you don’t have computers for every child, you can pull these resources, even using community resources. There are many schools now that even if you’re using a remote learning platform through a charter school in your community, you’re able to still form your own learning pod while receiving resources from one of these charter communities.

And in my experience, this is in large part how Prenda operates, is we’ve made the strategic decision to focus our growth efforts only where we have been able to find partners to provide funding. And that might be through a state charter, it might be through a district school, it might be through a private scholarship fund, but only where we’ve been able to secure funding to make this available to anyone who wants to participate at little to no cost to the families themselves. And I know there are other organizations that are doing the same thing in part because, yes, I work for a company, we want to make money, but you know, Uber has been around for a long time and they’re not profitable yet either. We’re very much mission driven. And if ultimately we can make money down the road, great, if that’s ideal.

Jennifer Wagner: Anyone who thinks that the entire K-12 landscape isn’t money, I mean, you have to have money to educate children. Whether you’re paying teachers in a classroom, or I can tell you that, as I consider schooling options for my own son who just got diagnosed with ADHD and mild dyslexia that, his private school is going to do everything they can to keep him there because those tuition dollars are important to them. So I never, and my background’s in politics, so I’ve never put a lot of stock into like, “Oh, money is evil.” No, we have to have money to get the things that we want.

But I did want to say, you’re in Arizona, right? You are one of our fantastic states that we hold up all the time where the coalition out there of school choice advocates has made so much progress in opening up doors to different kinds of education, different ways of educating. And that’s something that, obviously a choice, that’s what we do for a living, we go into states and try to honestly imitate what a states like Arizona, Indiana, and Florida have done. But yeah, I mean, that’s a very real challenge for families is that if they can’t access the money that is set aside for their student under the traditional model, this may wind up costing them more. And that’s something that we’ve got to work on as advocates.

Tom Bogle: Well, what’s ironic here is that, from my experience with my own organization, with Prenda, is we’ve tried to work closely with those in the public education districts, district schools, charter schools, in helping them identify the struggles that they’re facing with this current health pandemic, where their learning model is breaking down. We have found a solution that is working beautifully. We’re not trying to just take students away from anyone, we’re trying to work in concert with these organizations. We get a small portion of the funding that goes to a district school. And I mean, a small portion of that funding. So why couldn’t we partner with a district school, keep that small portion of our funding while the district school retains the remainder of that funding. They’re able to retain their student enrollments are able to continue their services. And so for us trying to work, not just in concert, but work within these organizations, we found it very difficult.

And because we’re not able to work with them, then we do our own thing. And the biggest challenge that we are finding to doing it apart is those same people who are making it difficult to work with are also blocking the funding for us to be able to educate those students outside of their environments. It’s like, “Guys, we’re trying to work with you. And if you don’t want us to work with you, that’s fine. But don’t block us from providing an alternative.” And that honestly, is the single biggest hurdle to taking this program nationwide, is that every single state does their education funding differently with different requirements. And you have to build relationships with those organizations in order to get that funding. Otherwise yeah, it is just a rich kid’s game. And we’re trying specifically to avoid that and the people pointing the fingers at us claiming that it is a rich kid’s game are the very ones making it a rich kid’s game.

Jennifer Wagner: Yeah. And there have actually been some larger districts that are doing what you’re saying, is offering this as an option, figuring out how to innovate through a crisis. And I was just on a Zoom meeting earlier today with some fiscal experts who said, “Look, all this pandemic has done is laid bare how broken the system was.” There were always inequities in, whether they’re racial inequities or their funding inequities. They’re just, I mean, I always tell people when I do my trainings, everybody’s practice school choice the old fashioned way for a really long time. If you have money, you either move or you pay private school tuition, and that’s how you access the school that you want your kids in.

And this is ripped the Band-Aid off of that long time gash that no one wants to look at and realize that our traditional system of assigning kids based on where they live A, makes no sense because my two kids need two different things and I can only imagine that everybody’s kids need different things. And B, has resulted in just terrible rifts in certain socioeconomic groups and racial groups. So this to me seems like a great solution or potential solution to that problem. But as you say, you got to get over the hurdle of but that’s my money and I want to hold onto it.

Tom Bogle: Right. And there is always markets and education funding, just as I’m sure you’ve heard it said before, that market doesn’t manifest in the education space, it manifests in the real estate market.

Jennifer Wagner: No, we’re actually working on a study here in Indiana. We’ve got the realtors and they don’t like to give this data up. We got them to show us the data that we can match up with school districts and see just how much people practice it the old fashioned way. And I live in downtown Indianapolis, most people who have kids down here they live here until they’re five. And then they peace out to the suburbs where the schools are all lily white and shiny because no one wants to voluntarily be in our urban school district. So yeah, I mean, it’s a very real problem and it’s great that you’re tackling it head on.

Tom Bogle: And again, speaking from my experience within Prenda, we are doing some things that I can’t speak too openly about, but trying to go in and partner with organizations that specifically serve these lower income and lower socioeconomic communities to say, “Hey, can this actually work?” And we are discovering some cultural shifts that we need to make to our model, but those cultural shifts can now be made in a matter of days and weeks with direct input from parents rather than waiting weeks and months for school boards, and then for new curriculum evaluate no, like we can make these changes… this was an experience I had last year where one of our micro-school guides got onto a community message board and said, “Hey, the kids in my micro-school are not feeling this particular learning program that you guys have in place. What can we do about it?” And within 30 minutes, the founder of our organization was on a Zoom meeting like this, receiving feedback from those kids that was then implemented by the end of the following week.

Jennifer Wagner: Wow.

Tom Bogle: And never in my years in public education, or even honestly in many of the larger charter schools that I’ve been a part of, did I ever see change happen that quickly. So the flexibility of, especially where it’s more parents driven and parent organized, like the flexibility is amazing. You just decide something needs to change and then you change it.

Jennifer Wagner: Yeah, that’s remarkable. I mean, it’s funny to consider that we’re doing this podcast… So, I’m sitting in the EdChoice office, we have a beautiful studio in here that we used to use, and we still will use, to do these kinds of recordings and videos. And yet, somehow in six months we figured out how to do this via Zoom. And I mean, innovation is something that, as Americans, we’ve always prized, but somehow it gets lost in the bureaucracy of trying to make an education system that fits for every kid. I do want to ask real quick, because I don’t want to keep you on the phone forever, I’m guessing you probably have some micro-schooling duties to get back to. So I would ask though about, just about your kids, how do they feel about this experience? What’s the good, the bad, the challenges, but also, they’ve got to be happy to be around other kids and kind of in a regular schooling environment, that’s not in a regular school.

Tom Bogle: Yeah. My children love this experience. It’s really interesting. So I ran in micro-school myself last year. I was a micro-school guide and I loved that experience. My children enjoyed working with me now, both of them were in two separate micro-schools this year. I’m working with some of the same students from the previous year, some new one, they’re making friends. But what’s really interesting about at least our version of micro-schooling is that the group oriented activities are far more focused on social and emotional connectivity in a healthy way, rather than just not all the social interaction is just either you do what the teacher says, or the kids are free to just go roam and do whatever they want. Yeah, we give free play time as well, we give them structured game time, but the kids have as much say in these kinds of activities, as the learning guide does. The collaborative learning activities that we do, the children lead them, they act as leaders in these activities.

And so they are learning how to set boundaries of communication, personal boundaries. They’re learning to identify things that they struggle with personally and being empowered with the tools to overcome them. So that certainly isn’t unique to our micro-schools, but in my experience with different learning environments, that is the norm here rather than the exception. And I have seen a number of amazing changes in these kids. And some of these are stories that are not my stories to tell, but just thinking about the changes that I’ve seen in these children, gets me all choked up.

Kids who have from a very early age, been labeled, the bad kid. Not because they were a bad kid, but because they don’t fit within that institutional design of what it means to get an education. And now shifting over into a different learning environment and seeing these kids just blossom and love learning and teaching me things and being told, “Hey, you taught me the adult in the room, something.” And now do you have any idea how empowering that is to a kid when they realize that they’re having a positive impact on the life of the adults in their lives? It’s amazing. I could go on for hours about this.

Jennifer Wagner: That’s awesome.

Tom Bogle: And I’ll probably cry a dozen times as I’m telling those stories.

Jennifer Wagner: That is A-Okay. We cry a lot around here, don’t worry, because we get to tell stories like this. I mean, I don’t know, my life changed when I had kids and I realized, wow I’m responsible for these two little humans and getting them to an age where they can be independent, but also like, wow, it’s a huge responsibility to shape their lives. And yeah, my son it’s painful to watch, I know he’s probably not in the schooling environment that’s working best for him. But to know as a parent, that there are options out there, whether it’s micro-schooling or a charter school. And I think we could probably wrap up with just talking about, you said you’ve been in so many different school types and you are an educator. What does that mean for families to be able to access those different options?

Tom Bogle: Oh, goodness. Finding the right fit for your family can heal families in ways that you will never understand until you actually take that leap of faith and do it. It was years ago that we made the foray into homeschooling because my fourth grader was going to school, doing all kinds of fun, crafty projects at school, and then bringing home three hours of homework every single night. And we try and be active in our community, get our kids playing sports. And so it was school, sports, we might’ve had 30 minutes for dinner and then he’s doing homework for two hours and going to bed at 9:00 and the kid’s in fourth grade. And we said, this is not what we signed up for when we decided to have children, this isn’t… We’re not happy, our children are not happy, we need to find something different.

And it has been a continual research experiment, trying different types of homeschooling, finding different enrichment programs and private schooling options. And going through these experiments until now we found something that all of my children love their learning. My wife and I, who honestly have very different opinions on what education can or should look like, we’re both happy with the educational options that are available to our children. And now when we come home, that is home time, school is no longer interfering or detracting from our family life in ways that it has in the past. So I think in a very real way, and just on top of that, because within our schooling environments, my children are having conversations about how to deal with tough social skills, how to regulate their own emotions, how to have tough conversations when someone else has hurt your feelings.

Now that changes our family dynamic in positive ways. So families out there, there are choices. And if there are not choices available to you that you are comfortable with, fight that fight and build them, make them available to your own family. Because when you make them available to your own family, you will find people coming out of the wood works who have been looking for the exact same thing for their children and their families. It’s really an amazing thing to be a part of and to watch this trend all across the country and honestly around the world right now, just taking shape and radically changing education as we know it.

Jennifer Wagner: But I think what you just said is so important too. If you’re not getting what you need as a parent speak up because you’re right. Oftentimes even when I moved my daughter from a public school to a private school, publicly, actually in the school Facebook group, there were people who were like, “I can’t believe you would do that, blah-blah-blah,” and privately, all these parents were like, “Well, tell me why, tell me about this new school.” And there’s a lot of pressure on parents to kind of conform to the system that they most likely grew up in, or the grandparents grew up in. And just to have a parent, like you’re doing right now, speak up and say, “Yeah, we’ve tried a bunch of different things and this worked, this didn’t, but my kids are all happy.
And we’re happy, as parents, means a lot, the idea that we should have a choice is imbued in practically every other part of our lives, except for K-12 education. And the more we talk about it, the more, and like you say, if you’re not getting what you want, go out there and become an advocate. Hit us up at EdChoice, send us an email, we will help you get connected to the resources in your state to go and become a school choice warrior because sadly, a lot of parents don’t have that choice yet. So I think just having you out there as a brand ambassador for choice is an amazing, amazing thing. I do want to just give you one last opportunity before we wrap up to any closing thoughts on micro-schooling or like a top three tips for people who might be thinking about it. Because I think this is not obviously, hopefully knock on wood, the pandemic will be over soon. This is not going anywhere.

Tom Bogle: Right. Just one final thought that I’ll add, your comments made me think of this is, one of the biggest arguments that people make against school choice is, well, what if parents make the wrong choice? What if parents make a mistake? And they use that as a critique. And I say, “Excellent, perfect. Let them make the mistake, identify it as a mistake, examine other alternatives, and make another choice. That very mindset of decisions being made in the fear that you might make the wrong choice is the very thing that’s wrong with so much of our education system right now is, let people choose, and if they made a mistake, great, let we can do what we can to minimize the negative repercussions of that mistake. But within our own micro-schools, if we have a child that is learning math and they’re working independently, they’re learning math, using a particular online math tool and they get two or three weeks in and they go, “This isn’t working for me, this is not helping me out.” Great.

The fact that you can have the presence of mind to say, “This is not working. What else can I do? What can I do differently?” But that does not happen if the adults in the education sphere model fear of making mistakes as the ideal. That does not raise healthy humans. So we’ve got to give people the freedom to make mistakes, because that is how we will learn and not just, “Hey, I observed this. This was a mistake for someone else. So I’m not going to do it.” Make the mistake yourself, learn what works for you and what doesn’t work for you.

Jennifer Wagner: We always say around here that we trust parents. There’s a, I’m a Broadway musical fan, and there’s a great Stephen Sondheim lyric from a song called Move On, which is, “The choice may have been a mistake and the choosing was not.” But we need to trust parents. It’s stunning to me, how many people don’t trust parents and also how many parents don’t trust other parents. It’s like, here’s the thing, it doesn’t matter if you are low-income or the richest person on the planet, I trust you to know your kids. And in fact, if you happen to be lower income, I trust you more because I’m guessing you want to make the right choices for your kid so that they can get a little bit farther ahead in life.

And it’s one of the most, that’s a whole separate podcast that we could do on how irritating it is when parents put other parents down for “possibly making a mistake.” But that’s awesome. You’ve been great, this has been an amazing conversation. And I hope that our listeners will hear this and maybe have just a little bit more courage to try something different if what’s before them right now, isn’t necessarily the best fit. So Tom, I want to say thank you for your time. Thank you for everything you’re doing in your state, for your family, for the school choice movement. And it’s been great talking with you today.

Tom Bogle: Thank you so much, Jen. It’s always a pleasure.