Ep. 357: What’s Up with AIM Education – With Dalena Wallace

February 9, 2023

On this episode of What’s Up with Mike McShane, Dalena Wallace, a homeschooling mom of six, talks about AIM education which involves her co-op of homeschooling parents and operating a hybrid microschool.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of National Research at EdChoice and this is an episode in my series What’s Up with Mike McShane, where today we are going to find out what’s up with AIM Education.

The conversation is actually about so much more than AIM education. This is actually a really challenging podcast to figure out what would be the best name for it that people could search and find, because really what this podcast is is What’s Up with Dalena Wallace, who is a fantastically interesting person and it was wonderful that she took the time.

As you will find out shortly, she must be an incredibly busy person because she is involved in so many different cool and interesting things in education. She’s learned a lot of interesting stuff. She’s worked at this, really the leading edge of educational innovation in homeschooling, in collaborative homeschooling and in new microschools and everything that’s getting off the ground there.

We have a chance to have a really wonderful conversation about what she’s learned and the interesting stuff that’s happening in and around Wichita, which is where she is. The background on Dalena. She is a homeschooling mom of six, which she will talk about on the podcast. She manages a co-op serving 35 local homeschoolers. She also operates a hybrid microschool called AIM High. She’s also the founder of the AIM Educational Collaborative, all of the stuff that we are going to talk about.

If you are interested in learning more about what she does, frankly, I’m reading some of this off of the great website that AIM Education has, it’s aimeducationks.com, so aimeducationks.com. She’s also on Twitter at Dalena Wallace, spelled D-A-L-E-N-A W-A-L-L-A-C-E, so @DalenaWallace on Twitter, aimeducationks.com. You can see all of the cool stuff that they are doing. Without further ado, here is my conversation with Dalena Wallace.

Well, we have so much to talk about today. I want to hear about AIM education. I want to hear about “whys”, but maybe before we talk about these interesting organizations that you’re involved in, we start at the beginning. How did you get involved in the work of educational innovation, new school models, all this wonderful stuff that you’re up to?

Dalena Wallace: Sure, I’m happy to talk about that. Thank you for having me on your podcast, by the way. I really appreciate it and I love your book. It’s amazing, the Hybrid Homeschooling book.

Mike McShane: You’re too kind, thank you.

Dalena Wallace: It’s my style, it is just absolutely my style of schooling. To go back a little ways, I’ve been a homeschooling mom for 10 years and I have six kids and things just look different. My life looks different than it did when I just was homeschooling one or two at a time. I’m homeschooling all six of them.

From grades, well, my oldest is a freshman, my youngest is in second grade and so I have the whole span of grade levels, the whole span of the subjects that need to be taught. Wanting to just offer individualized learning for each of the kids and realizing, you know what? I think I’m in over my head doing this by myself, all alone at home. I kind of learned that about five years ago.

That’s about the time when I invited a friend of mine to come over and do some homeschooling with me and she came over, she brought her kids and we would meet in my home once a week and pretty soon another friend found out we were doing it was like, hey, can I come? If you want, I’ll offer this class or that class. We’re like, hey, that’d be fun. Okay, so we’ll each, all three of us will be teaching a different subject and we’ll be able to split the kids up according to their ages when we need to and then there’s a lot that we can learn together. That’s kind of how this journey started.

That then developed into a co-op where I’m serving about 30 to 35 students. Just the same general idea. It’s moms getting together, supporting each other. Now we have some of the grandparents of the students who are our teachers. They’re retired, they’re former school teachers themselves so we feel really blessed to have that option. That’s kind of the way it started. It started out of necessity for me and realizing if I need help and some additional support, I bet some other families do too.

Mike McShane: I’m curious, you spending time in this area, just your read of the situation. In the homeschooling community, what’s the sort of proportion do you think of people who homeschool basically completely on their own, they’re not involved in co-ops, they’re not involved in meetups, they’re not involved in any of these sort of things versus people that do some kind of working together with others. Is it 50/50? Do you think it’s like 75/25? Do you think it’s 90/10? Just in the sort of folks that you know, what do you think the breakdown is of that?

Dalena Wallace: I would say with the folks that I know, it might be like an 80/20. 80% of us seem to be outsourcing some things, some classes and some subjects or sharing in the workload somehow, but I have met some really hardcore, I know you phrase it as a true blue homeschooler. I think of them as just the traditionalist. They maybe even consider that I’m not homeschooling.

I’ve had a mom tell me, I don’t consider what you’re doing homeschooling. I’m like, oh, that’s interesting, okay. Just because they really feel like what that means is that the mom is leading and teaching every subject to all students in your home five days a week and that just is not appealing to me, number one, or to my children. We like the variety, but there are some out there. I have met some families and I just, I’m in awe of them too because they have just as many kids as I do or more, and I’m like, wait, but how do you do that and keep your sanity?

Mike McShane: Right, for sure. No, it’s really interesting that you bring that up because I gave a talk recently and some people were asking me questions about afterwards, they were really interested in homeschooling. I said, and so I’m glad that you backed me up on this one because I was really just fishing for validation from me here, but I sort of said I was like a misperception of homeschoolers is that I think a lot of people think that homeschool is done completely off the grid and children never interact with other children and parents never interact with other parents. I’m like, that’s not really the case.

I mean, I hear so much about co-ops and as you mentioned, both sort of varying layers of formality. Very, very sort of formal arrangements between families to informal arrangements. That’s why I’m kind of interested if you could talk about your co-op. You said it’s about 30 to 35 students. What does it look like? What is maybe a typical day or a typical week look like for people who participate in the co-op?

Dalena Wallace: Sure, so we are in our fifth year of operation, and we started early on with a full day of classes. We would do two classes in the morning. We’d have lunch together and then we’d have another class in the afternoon. We did that for several years and it was really fun. We would always pitch in, we did taco salads for lunch so every family would have their item that they’d bring and we’d just do this buffet and it was really great. We loved being able to eat together and just have an extended time of fellowship and it was about the academics.

That’s something that we’ve valued. We value time for the moms to be able to sit and visit and just have conversation, support each other, and get to know, we’re very actively involved in each other’s lives. We consider that we’re doing life together, even though we just are together, most of us only see each other the one day a week. There are some of us that also interact quite a bit more and do other activities outside of our co-op day. But then we have a long time of recess after lunch where the kids get to just play, just be kids, just interact. And that word socialization that, oh my goodness, boy, we have to be so intentional for that or else, what would it look like? What would our kids turn out if we didn’t offer that? So yeah, we have plenty opportunity for those sorts of things. And in the beginning, we heavily relied on the moms to be the teachers of the classes. And as years have gone by, some of our moms have had different situations where their life situation has changed. Maybe they’ve had babies, maybe they’ve started a part-time job, maybe this or that has happened. And so we’re trying to reach out in the community and try to find some other teachers to be able to offer that support and some relief from us from the teaching on those days.

Mike McShane: So now in the families that are participating in this co-op, I would be interested in understanding their kind of motivations. Maybe first, what drew them to homeschooling and then what drew them to participate in the co-op?

Dalena Wallace: Yeah, that’s a great question. What I have found in our community, and those that I know who are homeschooling out here in Kansas, we are very family oriented and we have our values. We have our faith that we want to share with our children. We want to incorporate our values, our traditions, our faith into our school. And we infuse that in every element of our children’s education. And we view our children’s education as much more than just the academics. It’s a very holistic view, and it’s like, I want to help develop, we talk about character training, we talk about the life skills that they need to have. We want them to develop in their ability to hold a good conversation, the ability to reason. And also just even in small areas of growth where we see some kids maybe need to work on, hey, I see that you’re kind of struggling with your attention. You can’t really stay in attention, stay on a task for a certain amount of time, so let’s challenge you in that and let’s grow in that.

So with that, there’s also families that recognize, my student has a very unique interest and a passion that they want to pursue. I want to give them the time to be able to study that. And I want to allow them to… I want to curate this educational experience for them so that they can pursue their interests. So I would say that that’s kind of generally what I see in the motives for both homeschooling. And then when it comes to the co-op, it’s just, we want a community that’s going to support our values and that’s going to encourage the growth in these areas that we value as a family. And we want to expand that into a larger community because that’s life. We need to teach our children in life. It’s more than just these four walls. We have an awesome family unit, we’re blessed with that. A lot of our families have a strong family unit, but there’s more to life than that and we want to encourage outreach. We want to encourage just service projects and things like that in the community as well.

Mike McShane: I love that you brought up the word. Again, anytime I talk about homeschooling as someone who’s done research on it or whatever, the word that always comes up, you can set your watch to it. It’s like, oh, someone asked me a question about homeschooling. Oh, Q and A has started. Maybe it won’t be the first question, maybe not the second, but by at least the third or fourth, someone’s going to say the S word, socialization. I get it every time. And again, there’s a sort of funny flip side to it, because many of the people that would be asking these questions will lament the state of public schools or will lament the state of private schools or whatever, and talk about the rough time that kids are having. And then it’s like, “Oh, but they have to go to them to be involved in this.”

I was like, “Wait, what?” That doesn’t really make sense to me. But I think it’s important because I think maybe people who are listening to this, I hope a diverse group of people, maybe some people who are more skeptical towards homeschooling, maybe people who are more accepting of homeschooling are listening. But I have to imagine as someone such as yourself who is involved in this endeavor, it’s not the first time someone says that to you. I would love to know what is your response when people say, “Oh, my big hang up with homeschooling is, I don’t think it’s good for the socialization of kids.” Or, “Kids need to go to school in order to be socialized.”

Dalena Wallace: Well, I think I told you in an email, I had this great opportunity when I was reading your book on the airplane after we’d left the convention there in Florida, I was flying home. I was reading your book, and I was just really into it, truly. I’m not trying to just, whatever, gain points.

Mike McShane: Your check’s in the mail, it’s okay.

Dalena Wallace: Great, awesome. But I was marking it up and just reading it. And there was this older gentleman next to me, and he seemed really interested. He was kind of leaning over trying to look, and I caught him glancing over and finally I close the book and he reads the cover and it says, Hybrid Homeschooling on the front. And he starts shaking his head no. And I’m like, whoa, what’s going on? And so he couldn’t contain himself. He had to ask me the question and he said, “Does he say anything in there about socialization?” And those were the only words he said to me the entire time we’re sitting next to each other. So I had this great opportunity. I had my phone right here in my hand, and I was just able to show him, you know what? Let me just show you what our homeschooling looks like.

I said, if you’ll notice, the title of this book is Hybrid Homeschooling. That’s kind of a method that a lot of families are doing that involves a ton of interaction with others and socialization. So I just scroll through my photo albums of our microschool, of our co-op times, of different service projects, sometimes when we’re indoors, outdoors, with older people, younger people, mixed ages, the whole thing. And he didn’t have anything to say to that. But it turns out he had been a former public school teacher for 30 something years. So I think there’s just this perception, it’s just kind of ingrained in some people that this is what homeschooling must look like. And I was able to just show him visually, you know what? This is what is homeschooling looks like too.

Mike McShane: I think that was very teacherly of you, which is wonderful. But I think that it’s right. I mean, I do think that the way you approach that is the perfect way of doing it, which is I do think that there are just perceptions out there of who homeschools and why they homeschool and what they do when they homeschool. And it’s just sort of increasingly out of step with the reality of homeschooling. And again, even just sort of whether you like homeschooling or you don’t like homeschooling, you should at least be accurate in your description of what is going on. People just have a misperception of what’s going on. But this is why I’m really interested in talking to you about some of these organizations that you’ve gotten involved in, not just with the co-op, but could you tell us a bit about WISE? So I believe that is the Wichita Innovative Schools and Educators organization.

Dalena Wallace: Yes. This has been such an exciting new adventure for me. So for about six or seven years, I have been working, I’ve been really active in the homeschooling community, supporting homeschooling moms. I’ve offered my home quarterly, we do coffee talks, just some time to gather the moms in the community, because I know we need support. We need to share resources. We need to know that we’re not alone in this. And so that’s kind of been what I was active in in the homeschooling world, and also just hosting some events where we would invite everyone in the area. I live in Reno County, Kansas, and so I host an event for the Reno County area. All of the educators who would offer services for homeschoolers, all of the sports teams, all of the speech clubs, all of the variety of homeschool co-ops, and then even some legislators. So I used to just facilitate that sort of work within the homeschooling community, and then I started kind of redirecting and turning towards microschools. The minute I started learning about microschools I loved them. And I know from my years of homeschooling and interacting with other homeschooling moms that teacher burnout, mom burnout, is a big deal. And the feeling of being kind of isolated and like, “Hey, I can’t do this all by myself,” or, “I wish there was another option, because unfortunately now I feel like I can only send my kids to public school and I don’t want to do that.” And so when I see this microschooling movement kind of taking off, I want to do everything I can to just empower these school founders and these people who are building these new school models.

And so I started reaching out to some of the school founders in the Wichita area. So I live in a small town in Partridge, Kansas, and there’s not a lot happening out here, my direction, not a 10. But it’s a 45-minute drive to Wichita that’s doable. And when I found this vibrant community of these people who are starting tutoring centers or offering these classes out of my home, or I’m renting a space in a church and we’re doing this hybrid co-op three days a week, there’s just so much diversity that’s happening there, and it’s been very invigorating. So I kind of transferred my efforts and my energy from just doing that with homeschool mom support to now doing that with those who are starting microschools in the Wichita area.

Mike McShane: And now the other project that you’re working with, even though there’s so many of these projects so it’s another we just added the list, AIM Education. How is that related to all of this?

Dalena Wallace: So AIM Education is what I’ve been doing since 2015. Starting with having friends in my home and doing classes together, then going to where I facilitate these meetings and these events, then additional support for homeschoolers. So my aim with that has always been to encourage people to do their own thing, to start co-ops, to start microschools. I’ve never been about trying to grow our co-op. That’s not the way that I want to see this movement grow. I don’t think getting bigger is the answer. I think having more co-ops, having more microschools, and families who are just doing something that caters to a handful of students rather than trying to build this huge organization, you’re going to get stuck in this where you’re no longer able to offer the quality that you want. And so I just encourage this different model of keeping it small and intimate. And AIM stands for autonomous, innovative, and missional. So I encourage the growth of any form of school, any form of tutoring, hybrid homeschooling, microschool, whatever. Be autonomous, be intentional, it’s actually innovative, and missional. And when you have a mission that’s unique to the community you’re serving it makes you more effective and more powerful.

Mike McShane: Now, some people might be curious, well, I know I certainly am, I don’t even need to speak for them, when you talk about these sort of missional schools, what might be some examples of their missions? What are they trying to accomplish?

Dalena Wallace: Well, so for example, in ours, we value the family unit. And so when we actually have a aim high, it’s a school policy in our parent agreement, and we talk about that we value our siblings, our family units, we value involvement in the community at large, we value working independently. That’s something that we actually want our children to learn, and it’s also crucial when you are teaching several levels of different students. They need to be able to work independently. We value them pursuing their interests, and that can look like one of my children, my own children, is taking some dual credit courses in college, and she’s able to do that. And she’s starting on her track that’s individualized, personalized for her. Volunteer projects, that’s something we want to make sure we have plenty of time to do, get involved in our community when we can.

And I know that other families, it might be something more like, “Hey, we are a very musical family and our children are gifted in this and we want to pursue that.” And so they can kind of gather with some other families, and they have their own little community. They have their own vibe and everything. I have a friend who owns a microschool in Wichita and she’s serving neurodiverse students. The majority, I really think it’s up to 90% of her students, are neurodiverse. And that’s where some of her kids, she was a former homeschooling mom, she had some neurodiverse students of her own. And in that process, she’s kind of gained a following and a community because she’s researched so much and learned about the different methods of learning that these kids need to have, and so that’s kind of her little community.

Mike McShane: So something you said that I want to come back to that I think is so interestingly counter-cultural, or at least in a lot of the culture of education and education reform, this idea that getting bigger isn’t the answer. Because it seems like in so much of education, even in the traditional public schooling system, there’s a move to get bigger. We have all these little tiny school districts, let’s merge them together, or let’s merge schools together so we have one big high school and one big middle school. And we can do all that. And then even in the kind of education reform sector where it was sort of like, “Oh, you’re a charter school network or something.”

Well, if you only operate one charter school, you’re almost thought of as a failure. It’s like, well, unless you can make five or 10 or a hundred of these all across the country, you’re not really that impressive. You’re not necessarily that worthy of supports. And I think in some places we see it in private schooling sectors and others, this big push for scale, more, bigger, more, bigger, more, bigger. But your thought of, “I don’t want this co-op to get any bigger. 30 to 35 kids is the right size. Let’s have a bunch of small things as opposed to one big thing.” Can you talk about how did you come to that? How did you learn that lesson? How did you come to that opinion that bigger is not necessarily better?

Dalena Wallace: Sure. A couple of different things there. First of all, to your point about these public schools that are consolidating, they’re all centralized. I live out in a rural area and within a 20-minute drive, 20-minute radius around where I’m at, there are at least five former community schools that have been shut down. These are vacant school buildings and all of these small surrounding towns and these rural communities that used to be a thriving school that was very family oriented, very community driven. And it was the hub of their community, the hub of their neighborhood or whatever. And so over the past, I don’t know, probably 30 years, these have been getting shut down. And they’re shipping students, I know that doesn’t sound very nice, but they are, they’re shipping students-

Mike McShane: You can say busing, but it’s the thing that’s happening. They’re getting sent somewhere else.

Dalena Wallace: Right. I know of a family whose kindergartner was waking up to get on the bus by 5:30 or 6:00 just to ride the bus for almost two hours to get to school. And so, that just doesn’t seem right to me. And it doesn’t seem right to a lot of people.

Mike McShane: That doesn’t seem like a recipe for success to you.

Dalena Wallace: Right. And I think people realize that, too. People really do value small, intimate settings for learning. There’s more opportunity for discussion, real genuine connection. And one thing that’s beautiful about a mixed-age microschool, for example, a teacher will be teaching students of all grade levels, and this same teacher will stay with the student throughout their entire schooling experience. So for example, with our families and our co-op, we started five years ago, some of our older students that are now turning to be freshmen, they were third graders. And they have been doing this together in an intimate setting with the same teachers who’ve really known them, and these kids are growing up with the same teacher or the same community.

A friend of mine, she’s a homeschooling mom, she’s a former school teacher, and she’s kind of had this dream of being involved in forming a school someday, but not knowing what it would look like. She owns an old church building. It’s her home, and it’s amazing. And so her school operates out of this old sanctuary of this church. It’s renovated, it’s beautiful, it’s warm. She has natural lighting, a fireplace is on, classical music is playing. We’ve got art hung up around here. Nature’s just infused in the whole experience. And she’s got seven students other than her two, so it’s a nine student total in her school.

And I walk in there and I’m like, “I just want to sit here. I just want to be in this place.” So I’ve just encouraged her like, “This is exactly what I want. If my kids aren’t at home with me learning today, I want them here in your home with their friends in this environment.”

Mike McShane: So now let’s say, because there may very well be some policymakers listening to this podcast, state legislators, local authorities, maybe people who work for a governor’s office or a state department of education. I’d be interested, what do you think they need to know about this sort of emerging field of new school models?

Dalena Wallace: They need to know that it’s working. They need to know that it’s a viable option for a lot of families. They need to know that it meets the needs of some students in a far better way than what a large, huge school is going to do. It’s something that families are looking for. They need to have these options. They need to have, so if we want to go to school choice policies, they need to have the ability to choose the fit for their students. And I think these policymakers need to also know that these opportunities are already there. There are educators who are willing to step in there and fill this gap if they feel like, “Well, there’s nothing out there. What’s going to happen? Where are these kids going to go?”

I think they need to come to Wichita, Kansas, and they need to see this vibrant community. We have represented in our group, at least 20 microschools that are just in the area, and some of them are tutoring centers or whatever, they have kind of emerged into bigger educational service provider than what they used to be. Maybe they started as afterschool programs and they grew to full-day programs, and then they were just one day a week and they grew to five days a week, or they served a few students, now they’re serving 30. But there are educators out there who believe that they can better serve families and better serve students in a small setting, in a personalized environment. And it’s working.

Mike McShane: Well, I cannot think of a better place to leave it than there. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

Dalena Wallace: Thanks for having me, Mike. I appreciate it.

Mike McShane: Sometimes when I have these conversations with folks, I think, “Wow, this person has probably forgotten more about educating kids than I know, than it’s possible that I will ever know.” And it seems like from her experience, that’s what she has. I mean, I’m just blown away by folks who are able to do all of this cool and interesting stuff. So whether it was the Wichita Innovative Schools and Educators Network, whether it’s the AIM Educational Collaborative, again, AIM, Autonomous Innovative Missional educational environments, the cool stuff in homeschooling, the cool stuff in homeschooling co-ops, the cool stuff in microschooling, so much interesting stuff.

And again, I think I’m going to keep going back to her idea that scale isn’t everything, that size isn’t everything. I think, as I said in the podcast, it’s such a counter-cultural idea, both in the kind of traditional education space, but also in education reform. I cannot tell you how many meetings that I was in where someone had this really cool charter school. I think it was like charter schooling was particularly susceptible to this, but it was like they had this awesome single site charter school that was just crushing it, and it was amazing, and they’d present on it. They’d talk about it, and people would kind of “pooh pooh” it. Say like, “Well, I mean, when you’ve done it 20 times, come back and talk to me.”

Now, notice the people who said that are never people who actually ever successfully operated a school, right? It’s like people who are outside that was like, “Oh, oh, that’s all you need to do is just operate one amazing school and then replicate it 19 more times.”

“Oh, that’s all you need from them? Oh, okay, cool, cool, cool, cool, cool. We can totally do that.”

So I think that that idea, small is okay, lots and lots of small solutions to big problems as opposed to trying to find one big solution to a big problem. I think it’s just such an important corrective and such a really interesting thought-provoking idea. Even if you are ultimately not convinced that that’s a solution, it’s definitely something that any serious thinker in education has to wrestle with. As I said at the beginning, you can follow Dalena on Twitter, D-A-L-E-N-A Wallace, W-A-L-L-A-C-E, all one word. That’s her Twitter handle. But you can also, it’s probably the easiest just to go to aimeducationks.com. So aimeducationks.com for the AIM Educational Collaborative.

As always, I want to thank our podcast producer Jacob Vinson for patching this all together and making it sound good. I want to thank Dalena for taking time to chat with us today and all of you for listening. As always, if you’ve got cool or interesting people in education who are doing cool and interesting things, please send them my way. You can always email them to me, tweet them at me. I’m @MQMcShane on Twitter, send them my way. And I look forward to talking to all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats, and specifically on another episode where I answer what’s up with something going on in education. Take care.