Ep. 215: Micro-schooling – A Conversation with Keri Rodrigues and Sarah Raybon

October 20, 2020

Keri Rodrigues and Sarah Raybon hop on the podcast to discuss their experiences with homeschooling during the pandemic, views on micro-schooling and more.

Keri is the president of the National Parents Union out of Massachusetts, and Sarah serves as executive director of the Arizona School Tuition Organization Association.

Jennifer Wagner: Hello and welcome to another edition of EdChoice Chats, our podcast about all things K-12. I’m Jennifer Wagner, our VP of communications. And I am fortunate today to be joined by two amazing moms, Keri Rodrigues, who’s the president of the National Parents Union out of Massachusetts, and Sarah Raybon, who is wearer of many hats in the state of Arizona. We are going to be talking today about pods and micro-schooling and all the cool stuff that you can do now, that many of you are forced to be schooling at home through this pandemic, and what you might be able to do even after this is over. So, welcome to both of you and thank you for joining us today.

Keri Rodrigues: Thanks for having us.

Sarah Raybon: Thank you so much. Excited to be here.

Jennifer Wagner: All right. So I will just throw it open to whichever one of you wants to take it off the top, and tell us about your personal experience—not just in the last six months since we’ve all been homeschooling, or forced to homeschool, but your experiences with different schooling types, and how you’ve had pods in micro-schooling and how that’s become a part of your life.

Sarah Raybon: I’ll just take this to start. It’s interesting. As I was just mentioning, I have five kids and we have this big age range in kids, which everybody always laughs about. So our oldest is, now they’re in their early 20s and we’re starting over. So, we have a six- and an eight-year-old. And it’s interesting. We’ve been just super fortunate in Arizona to have a lot of options for a long time, but I can’t believe what I know now and how much has changed since my older kids went through school where we just thought, “OK, this is the school we go to.” And then charter schools were on the scene. And then that was an option for us. And the one thing I really always said I never thought I’d be doing is homeschooling. I always thought I was never going to be that parent. It just wasn’t going to be for me.

And then fast forward here, and I’ve helped a lot of parents who want to take advantage of our maybe education savings account program here in Arizona to homeschool their kids, or go to a private school and help kids with special needs. We’ve got scholarship programs for special needs kids here in Arizona. And here I have my own two, one with special needs starting school. Pandemic hits. And as we talked about, it wasn’t really… I told everybody, this is not homeschooling, this is crisis schooling. My friends who are traditional homeschoolers, this is not homeschooling. So it was really, really interesting that I had this moment of reflection like, “Wow, we’re a lot less stressed in a lot of ways.” I mean, COVID aside, there’s a lot of benefits.

I’m now watching my son who, at that time he was just finishing up first grade and just saw his struggles and just really was disinterested and just seemed to lose some of that joy. He’s first grade for goodness sakes. Like to just be just not excited about school. OK, it’s time to do another lesson, time to do another worksheet. “I hate school.” “You’ve just started, buddy. You’ve got a lot of years to go.” So it just was really, really disheartening for me as somebody who loves education and loves school and loves options for families. So I thought let’s just explore. We have this opportunity where we’re forced home and forced to look outside. So that was my journey to saying, “You know what, let’s maybe take this a step further and not just jump right back in the traditional system when it opens back up. Let’s focus on”—I know people call it un-schooling or de-schooling—”Let’s focus on getting back to basics and really finding the joy of learning again.”

Jennifer Wagner: That’s so awesome. So I will say this though, you are fortunate. You live in a state with lots of choice and lots of options. And Keri, you do not. You live in quite possibly the opposite of that, in a state where there’s not a lot of options available. So how has your experience been and what are you hearing from parents?

Keri Rodrigues: Well, it’s interesting because if we had had this conversation a year ago, I’d be talking about how everyone around me would be telling me that me, my community, people like me, we’re too poor, we’re too stupid. We shouldn’t have any agency. We shouldn’t be allowed to choose the type of educational model that’s right for our own kids. We don’t know enough. We’re not engaged enough. We don’t show up in the ways that the system wants us to. All of these things. Just not smart enough to make choices for our own kids. Now I have all the choices. I have all the options. And I’m being told that only I know what’s right for my child and only I know what’s right for my family. So I’m here to say that that’s always been true, and I’m glad that we’re in this moment. And now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s not going back in.

So, I’m really excited about this moment, but I will say my perspective on all of this stuff is a little bit different. I’m a former foster kid. I got expelled from public high school. I got my GED from Boston Public Schools, scratched and clawed my way to college and was successful, became an organizer, did all of that kind of stuff. But then, being Matthew’s mama and having a kid who is on an IEP who has autism and ADHD, I didn’t know anything about school option. I didn’t even know that education policy or politics was that controversial. I just thought you signed up. If we had had this conversation seven years ago, I would not know what the hell you guys were talking about.

But all of a sudden, I sign my kid up and he had an IEP and he got suspended 36 times in kindergarten. And I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I spent my whole life advocating for other people in communities across this country. I can’t even advocate for my own kid. I’m being robbed of any information so I can make a choice about what’s right for this kid, get him out of this nightmare that he’s in every day. And that’s how I landed here. So frankly, it’s been an eye-opening experience for me. It’s been an eye-opening experience for the parents I work with as we grow in our knowledge and in our ability to self-determine what is right for our kids, which should be our right to do so. But we’re parents that are used to being underserved by a system.

I mean, again, going back to a year ago, we were talking about the fact that we were fighting for a law to have breakfast after the bell, to have a basket full of apples in classrooms, and we couldn’t do it because there were rats over running the classrooms. We have no toilet paper. We don’t have running water. But now in the middle of a pandemic, you think I’m going to trust the same system that thinks that little about my child on a regular basis, that you’re going to keep them safe from COVID? Are you kidding me? Yes, I want options. Yes, I want something different, and I’m going to fight like hell to get them. So that’s our perspective. You see in all the national polling, poor Black and Latino folks are less apt to roll the dice and put their kids back in the classroom because we don’t trust it in the first place. On a good day, you don’t do a good job, so why you would do any better during a pandemic. We’d be crazy to trust that.

Jennifer Wagner: Both of you are amazing advocates, and that’s something we were talking about briefly before we hopped on this podcast, is how do we replicate that? Because look, I work for a national advocacy organization. My primary job is as a mom, but I can’t come into Massachusetts or Arizona or Illinois or Florida and stir up a movement. That’s just not what we do. We are people who can provide resources and research and bring people together. But how do we get more tiger moms out there? How do we get more warriors to speak up?

Keri Rodrigues: Hold on a minute. You don’t have to do that because we’re already doing that on our own. The National Parents Union, we’re not parachuting. We have affiliates, almost 300 of them in all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. We didn’t go to all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico and start a union. They exist. There are beautiful pockets of parent power across this country, mamas who are coming together saying, “Are you crazy? This is not right.” All of this stuff is now playing out in our living rooms. There’s more parent energy in this moment than we’ve ever seen before, but we don’t have to set it up. Parents are doing it themselves. What parents need is solidarity. They need to know that they’re not alone in this moment because that isolation, frankly, it’s not just bad overall for our communities. It’s bad for the fabric of our families and we can’t let that happen.

That has longer term impact on our society than learning loss does. So that moment of solidarity, saying, “Hey mama, I see you. You’re not alone. Let’s work on this together and let’s all struggle. It’s all the same fight,” that’s critical right now. But if we identify and find these folks, give them a little professional development, we don’t have to start another group. They got it. They need some resources. They know their own context. They know their own state. They know the elected officials. They know all the abuelitas on the block that they need to get in a line so that we can march and have it. You don’t have to do any of that. What you have to do is show up and be a true ally. And frankly, we don’t even want allies. We want co-conspirators. We need people to show up and show us that they are ready to conspire.

Sarah Raybon: Oh my goodness gracious. I want to be a co-conspirator now. Perfect. I think to add what is really been a great, I hate to even use this word, but the shutdowns, the school shutdowns. Parents were forced to take a look. I mean, I know so many parents who are just, they’re working, maybe working two jobs, trying to keep the lights on, trying to make sure the kid’s at school. You don’t really know what they’re learning. You’re not sure what’s going on there, but it’s OK. I guess it’s OK. But when everything shut down and everybody realized… In Arizona, literally everything was shut down. I mean, you weren’t going to work.
And then you really saw, and then you were able to look elsewhere and you’re on social media and you’re seeing what this friend might be doing or that friend, or how are they doing this in this state? And you’re able to investigate it more because A) I mean, it’s right in front of you, it’s all everybody’s talking about, and the teachers are emailing you and all these workbooks and all these worksheets are coming. And you’re like, “This is what they’re doing every day?” Your eyes are open to that. And I think then, we’ve seen a lot of parents rise up from that and say, “Whoa, wait a second. There is more out there than this. I know other parents are getting it. I know other parents get access to it. I know other states have these programs. Why don’t we have these programs?”
I mean, I’ve talked to people in other countries for goodness sakes that want to know how they can get micro-schools started maybe in their Canadian province or in different… We know that other people are doing these cool things now because our eyes have been opened and we’re looking at it and we’re seeing it. And we want that too. And there’s no reason we can’t have those choices.

Jennifer Wagner: I want to ask you a specific question too, about micro-schooling. If I am someone who’s read social media and I’m like, “Wow, my friends are doing this cool thing,” where do I go? Where do I start?

Sarah Raybon: Well, so I guess it would be different everywhere. And I’m more familiar with Prenda micro-schools and Prenda schools. They started here in Arizona. And I mean, we’re now at about 4,000 kids enrolled in Prenda micro-schools in Arizona. The cool thing is now while they’re spreading across the country and they’re trying to, in as many cases as possible, get public funding so that all kids can have access. That’s the big point is we want all kids to have access to a micro-school if that’s a good fit for them. They’re trying to go in with Prenda— very, very, very low cost options for families—and make it happen that way in areas that don’t have a private school choice option to be able to fund a program for everybody, because that’s ultimately what we want, all families to be able to have these choices.

We’re seeing micro-schools spring up in South Phoenix. There’s going to be three classes at the Black Mothers Forum Headquarters. It just is amazing what we’re seeing and it’s because parents are finally like, “Wow, there’s all these other choices out there and anybody can access them. They’re not just for those people or these certain groups, or whatever. I’m going to participate in those too.”

Jennifer Wagner: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I want to go back to something you said, Keri. My background’s in democratic politics. So that’s where I come at this issue from. It’s very much social justice, very much. And I run headlong every time I do a training into the buzzsaw of what you said earlier, where you’ll have people go “Well, yeah. I mean, school choice is fine for some people, but those people can’t choose.” And I’m like, “You’re just using code words for Black and brown people. That’s what you’re doing and it’s rude and it’s racist and it needs to stop.” And this has shed a light on the fact that underserved communities now have choices that were not available, but even the narrative in the media is, well, micro-schools, those are out of reach for some families or these people can’t pod up. I don’t know. Just talk to me about how we overcome that stereotype, because it makes me want to pull my hair out every time I hear it.

Keri Rodrigues: Well, let’s say some uncomfortable things, shall we? Our education system is based on white supremacy. It is generationally, institutionally racist and was not set up to actually educate Black and brown children. In fact, it didn’t for a very long time. So poor Black and brown folks have actually done things called freedom school. Micro pods and learning pods, all these new little buzzwords that frankly, bougie white people have come up with, we’ve just been doing that. That’s called survival. For instance, in our house last year, we called it going to abuelita’s house because there were no afterschool slots. So the boys and their cousins went and had afterschool with abuelita, and you had to do your homework and you had to do activities and you had to do chores. And you were learning things like problem-solving and grit because your grandmother and your great-grandmother were right there helping you to learn it.

So, we’re lighting that idea on fire. The idea that like suddenly, oh my God, white people just came up with this incredible new idea that we could set up pods and we could all share resources and we could learn together and they can be… No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. How do you think poor Black and brown people have survived in America? Not even America, like everywhere? This is how it’s done. Before we set up this system, this status quo, which frankly I would argue does not work very well in underserved kids, but we’re addicted to it and we cannot disengage from it until… This big moment of transition and transformation, this disruption would never have happened unless a pandemic had presented itself because we had been told for so long, like, “Oh gosh, yeah, the status quo is not working, but it’s so hard to change.”

Well, guess what? We had to change. We had to change overnight and change is here and happening. So welcome to the party, people. It is time to enter the future and innovate, and parents across the country are doing it. At the National Parents Union, we put out a call. We had $200,000 and we were going to put money into the hands of parents that were coming up with really innovative ideas. And we barely touched the gas. Barely put it out there. We put it out there for five days. We said we’d take proposals for five days. We got 400 proposals for homeschool pods, micro-schools, all of these things. And we said, very specifically, you have to be serving a typically under-resourced community. And we got 400. And frankly, out of that 400, there were 110 of them that were top-notch.

And I’m going to try to fund every single one. We’ve done $200,000. I’m waiting on a phone call. Hopefully we’ll get another half million dollars, but it’s $2.5 million. And so philanthropy who are listening to this podcast right now, that’s a rounding error for you people. I’m coming for you. I need $2 million. I want to fund all of these pods because these parents, this is how you make tangible transformational change in this country where you open up the possibility of innovation and you put it in the hands of parents who are not going to waste these resources.

Sarah Raybon: Oh my gosh. So on that, I have to just tell you. So as you say, that making change in a community… So Arizona, we’ve got a lot of tribal land and those are some of the most underserved and just the outcomes for those kids, I mean, it’s really sad. It’s really horrible what our government has done to our tribal land. But anyway, we had an event a couple of years ago, I partnered up with a friend of mine who’s a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe. And we had a come-out-and-get education options and backpacks and just learn about what options are available out there for you and for your kids. We had it on a weeknight in this tiny little gym. We had over 200 people show up in San Carlos. I mean, this is a small place. Parents were desperately wanting choices. They didn’t know what. They didn’t have an idea. They just heard there were choices. There were options. Tell me, please. We want better for our kids.

So fast forward when, what can we do? Because really we now told these parents about options, but there’s a couple of private schools, but they’re usually full. I mean, to be quite honest, I mean, there’s not enough space in these schools. There’s no charter schools. Maybe some families homeschooling might just not be the best option, but what could we offer? So, we said, “OK, let’s start a micro-school,” and spring forward now. We found a space. There’s probably going to be three classes this year of kids from San Carlos. They didn’t have to leave the land, leave the reservation, leave their families to get a good education, which is what a lot of families have to do on tribal land. They have to come into the city, have to leave their homes. They were able to stay there. The results are just so amazing. I cannot wait. And it’s making a difference in that community.

So hopefully these kids grow up. They’re in their community. They’re making a difference. I can imagine this springing forward and just the spider web of change that can happen right there, just from this one idea and this one micro-school that just continues to grow.

Keri Rodrigues: And can I just piggyback on the idea of change and what that really means? It’s not just change, like putting them into yet another system that’s not going to serve their need. And I’m really glad that you brought up the indigenous population in this country because what was done to them through educational indoctrination is something that poor black and brown communities have been fighting against, and frankly have not had any options, I mean including our indigenous brothers and sisters, not had any opportunity to do anything, but really enter a traditional district school, that again is based in white supremacy, not in keeping that culturally competent, not respectful of our heritage and none of that.

And what we’re seeing in these micro pods, in these homeschool pods, in these schools that are coming together, is not just a higher quality academic experience that is being curated by whatever proprietor might come through, but also parents as the curators of curriculum layering in Afrocentric curriculum, layering in Hispanic and Latino cultural history, layering in all of these things that we always wanted our children to be learning and experiencing in school that gives them such a more vibrant experience that is really unlocking the potential of education and unlocking their minds from a perspective that they don’t get in a traditional district school. That is what the change is really so incredible to watch, like this blossoming of what education can be. And when parents are part of the choice and the curation and the development of this, not only are they getting incredible academic experiences, but they’re also doing one that’s incorporating their own heritage and experience, which is just what we want for our children and is I think going to pay in dividends for them.

Jennifer Wagner: So, I know we’re getting toward the end of our time together, but other than having all of the donors who are listening on this call send you all their money—

Keri Rodrigues: Yes, please.

Jennifer Wagner: To grow your army, what comes next? So one of the questions I’ve been asking is, all right, disruption has happened. The pandemic has opened our eyes to just incredible inequities in our K-12 system that we knew were there, but there’s no turning back. There’s no looking away. But what happens, we getting a vaccine and people maybe go, “Oh, I’m comfortable again going back to my K-12 school that I’ve been assigned to.” So how do we keep up the momentum that people are feeling right now? What can they do? They can obviously join the National Parents Union. What else can they do to stay active, to honestly turn the disruption into more disruption?

Sarah Raybon: Well, I think it’ll be really hard, obviously. I think we only see things continue to grow and continue to expand because I do think there is going to be a lot of parents who are going to have seen the benefits from the last few months. There’s been some struggles, but they’re going to see these benefits. And I talk to parents all the time whose kids were struggling in the traditional school, but what else was there? What were we going to do? Too afraid to make the leap. Now they were forced to make a leap and now other people from that, people have courage of making these leaps and these changes, are going to feel like they can do it too and take a chance and see what else is out there and get involved. So, I don’t see, I mean, just like we’ve seen, I’ll just say Prenda micro-schools, the growth just has been astronomical. Before the pandemic, it was astronomical. And now it’s just exploded because parents are learning about it and hearing about it.

So I think it only will continue to snowball as long as we keep the pedal on the gas, keep it in the public, keep it out there with podcasts like this and other things and other resources and webinars. I’m always seeing things on social media. And we share those and we continue to do things. We’re doing drive-thru snow cones here in Phoenix and Tucson, which is a lot of fun. It’s socially distant and we just give parents options. We have the options in Spanish and English, and here’s your choices. And if you need help, we’re happy to walk you through those. And we continue to gather up our parents who are going to stand shoulder to shoulder with us and continue to march down this path to just make sure everybody knows that you don’t have to settle for the school around the corner anymore. Every option should be open to you.

Keri Rodrigues: I think this is going to be a very, very difficult moment for those who have been comfortable with the status quo, because this is not, again, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you’re not getting it back in there. The word is out. It is not impossible. All these things that you told us were so impossible, we just can’t do it. It’s just too hard. That’s not something we do. And that’s not information you can have. Well, now we have all the information.

Now we know choice is possible. Now we know it’s possible to make you move and make you uncomfortable enough to have to pivot. So if you think that the unprecedented amount of parent energy that exists in this country right now is just going to somehow go away and people are going to forget when they have the opportunity to choose what is best for their own children and what is best for their family and somehow growing to accept the fact that, oh, no, no, you don’t get to choose anymore and all that stuff we said about you knowing best, we were just kidding. That’s not a thing. And that’s not something that we’re going to allow to happen.

Now, there is a cautionary tale, too, for our friends in the education reform movement, where often parents, parent advocates, activists, agitators have been treated as the little side show, like come out and tell us your tale of woe, but we’ll do the big thinking. We’ll do the heavy lifting and decide what it’s going to have to be to fix this situation. We’re not doing that either. We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in being collaborators, co-creators. Not just having a box checking seat at your table, but really thought partners in what solutions need to be moving forward. And I think if those of us who are education innovators and are interested in supporting those who are, are willing to treat parents and leaders with respect and view them as peers and not a side show and a sob story, we could do something that’s really transformational here, but it’s really up to us whether or not we’re going to step up and meet this moment and do the right thing here, or whether or not we’re going to let it go to waste.

Jennifer Wagner: Well, I feel very good after this podcast about the fact that the future is in great hands with both of you, with all the parents that you are motivating. And Sarah, to your point, just talking to other parents. Man, we are not nice to each other, historically speaking. Moms are judgmental. We’re like, “Oh, I don’t have those problems.” And just the ability to go out and be like, “You know what? I need help. I need choices.” And to know that there are people like you out there who are going to help and provide those choices and provide that information is reassuring to me as a human being and as a mom, and I can’t thank you both enough for doing the work that you’re doing. The hardest job, of course, parenting your five kiddos. You both get major accolades for that. I can barely handle my two, but I want to thank you both for joining us today.

And on behalf of all of us here at EdChoice, whatever we can do to help support the critical work that you’re doing in your communities, in your states, we are here to help and you will always have a seat at our table. So thank you both for joining us today.