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The micro school solution

Micro schools, or pods, were already part of Central Point School District’s distance learning plan for the 2020-21 school year even before guidance from the Oregon Department of Education and the Oregon Health Authority in late July forced administrators across the state to get back to the drawing board.

Now, with distance learning across all grade levels looking like a long-term reality throughout Jackson County due to the spread of COVID-19, those micro schools, formerly considered more of a supplemental option, may emerge as a more mainstream solution.

The results of a survey that Central Point School District posted on its Facebook page Aug. 11 suggest as much, as 40% of the 902 respondents, or 360 people, said they were interested in participating in a micro school during the upcoming school year, which begins Sept. 8. That’s a pretty good sample size for a district that weighs in at just fewer than 5,000 kids, said Superintendent Samantha Steele, noting that 47% of responders when asked if they were interested clicked on, “Maybe, I need to learn more.”

The poll, and the need for added support for working parents, seems to push the ball back into the district’s court, but Steele said details such as whether a partnership with the YMCA will lower child care costs “significantly” and how exactly the district would support a parent-led pod are still being worked out.

“I think other than saying we’re going to support micro schools and we’re going to have some resources available, we’re going to keep this a little bit nebulous only because we aren’t sure what families are going to need from us in terms of support,” she said. “And unless a family already had some kind of informal micro school or pod going in the spring, families may not know what they need yet. So if we’re going to be responsive, we kind of have to get it going and find out what those needs are.”

Central Point School District has divided micro schools into two categories labeled “neighborhood micro schools” and “community micro schools.” Neighborhood micro schools are those which are organized and supervised by parents and, according to its district, will be supported through curriculum, consultation, partnerships, materials, resources and facilities. Community micro schools will be organized and supervised by partner organizations such as the YMCA, Rogue Valley Farm to School and Direct Involvement Recreation Teaching (DIRT).

A partnership between Central Point School District and the YMCA is in the works, Steele said, and the hope is that the resulting community micro schools will cost parents “significantly” less than what they would ordinarily pay for the equivalent amount of child care for children too young to be left at home unsupervised. But as of Thursday, Steele was still waiting for guidance from the Early Learning Division and the Oregon Department of Education regarding how such a partnership must be structured and whether involvement from district teachers would affect state standards regarding provider-to-student ratio.

“The big question is whether or not our employees working in that program count toward their ratio, and if they do then that means that we can significantly bring down that price,” Steele said.

Parents who have the means, time and patience may choose instead to plug into a neighborhood micro school or start up their own. Steele knows of six that sprang up informally when the pandemic hit last spring, and the reviews were mostly positive.

Gary and Shawna Taylor ran what must have been one of the busiest micro schools in the valley out of their 2,500-square-foot home in Central Point, guiding 10 students — six of their own plus four relatives. The breakdown in the Taylor household was two high schoolers, two middle schoolers and six elementary students.

Gary Taylor, the associated executive director at the Rogue Valley Family YMCA, said he found it was important to settle on a daily routine that’s right for the group and stick with it. Setting goals and clear expectations is also crucial, he said. In other words, you can’t just hand the students their laptops and bow out.

“We weren’t really doing classes, we were using the virtual platform, but having to set a schedule to replace the school day,” he said. “We told kids, ‘OK, at 9 o’clock you’re all up, you’re all in your spot’ — they had kind of assigned seats so that our kids would get stuff done.”

Central Point supplied devices so every child in the Taylor household was covered, technology-wise. But with as many as 12 tablets or laptops gobbling up data at any one time — Gary and Shawna Taylor also worked and tag-teamed from home last spring — it became clear early on that bandwidth was paramount. Their solution was to hook up a second internet connection.

“With all the streaming, we just couldn’t manage it,” Gary Taylor said. “We literally ran two Wi-Fi networks all the way until June.”

Last spring, Central Point School District’s digital classes had to be accessed at the top of every hour throughout the school day, so part of the battle for the Taylors was keeping everybody on task so they wouldn’t miss their next connection.

“So as we would approach the top of the hour, my wife or I would say, ‘OK, everybody get back in your spots, find your things, get ready to log on,’” Taylor said. “I was the IT guy, helping everybody figure out why they couldn’t connect today but could yesterday. And sometimes even moving kids from one Wi-Fi network to the other network. Yes, it was a little bit crazy.”

Taylor also noted the importance of working in outside time and exercise. One day a week, he said, their micro school headed out back for their “backyard maintenance” class, which completed several major projects over the course of those three months. They designed a pizza oven, built a 10-by-10-foot patio cover, redesigned a patio pavilion and, in what turned out to be the crown jewel of the spring, built a tree fort.

Kim Bennett, a local substitute teacher, home-schooled her twins last summer and restarted a micro school — “or home school,” she said — near the tail end of last school year, and unlike other micro schools, Bennett’s never closed for the summer. She’s been operating her micro school all summer, teaching her own 16-year-old twins along with four other girls whose ages range from 14 to 16.

Contrary to what parents considering starting a pod may believe, Bennett said, adding kids to her home classroom has actually made schooling them easier.

“It just made doing school a lot more pleasant for everybody,” she said, “If you’re working on school by yourself in your house, it’s kind of drudgery, but if your friends are coming over and we’re all working on it together, it makes my girls’ outlook completely different as well as the whole group. And that’s why the other parents were so happy to be involved. They said their kids were a lot more on task, they got a lot more done, and their whole mood changed.

“It was totally worth the effort on my part to be helping other kids rather than just my own.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneKindergarten teacher Sammie Beck trains Wednesday in pod schooling.