One of the most striking cultural developments to come out of the COVID pandemic is the greater willingness of families to experiment with alternative schooling. Wishing to provide their children with a more stable learning environment than the erratic re-openings of conventional public and private schools, many parents have joined with neighbors to create collaborative home schools—or what have come to be called “learning pods.”
Other parents have enrolled their children in streamlined schools where individual grade levels (also called “pods”) are usually limited to no more than 12 students and often reflect an educational theme or philosophy. Some of these self-described “micro-schools” employ professional educators, but parents themselves typically share the teaching load or at least provide supporting services.
In the recent spate of articles on the reasons for this trend, journalists have typically focused on the sophistication of today’s online curricula, the flexibility more parents have as the result of working from home, and, in the case of a few wealthy households, the means to hire highly credentialed tutors. But almost completely overlooked has been the critical role played by churches.
“The unsung heroes are the pastors and church boards,” says Tina Hollenbeck, founder of the Homeschool Resources Roadmap, which reviews online curricula for families and small schools. For months, they have provided the “spaces where kids can gather in small groups to learn with and alongside their parents and other adult leaders.”
Dr. Brian Ray, president of the National Home School Education Research Institute, agrees: “There’s no official data yet, but with so many parents looking for places to safely educate their children, the use of religious settings has clearly accelerated.”
That churches have turned out to be the most popular non-home venue for learning pods and micro schools comes as no surprise to Texas Public Policy Foundation education analyst Erin Valdez, who herself was educated at parish-sited homeschool cooperatives in Florida and Texas. Small parent-run schools “have been around in some form for decades,” she says. And houses of worship have always offered them something few other community institutions could match: access to a large, safe, and morally uplifting venue mostly unused or underused during the workweek.
In recent years, pastors have provided much more than space, doing what they can to keep a school’s costs down while simultaneously using their influence to expand students’ study and recreational options, such as the ability to field teams in the local parochial school sports league. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, students in the Olivet Baptist Church micro school are granted once-a-week access to the science laboratories at the more traditional Chattanooga Christian School.
Then there is the case of DELTIC (Doing Education Life Together in Christ) Prep, a homeschooling cooperative on the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border, which for more than a decade has been educating 70 to 90 preschool-through-twelfth-grade students for approximately $15 each. It helps “greatly that the church where we meet during the week contributes utilities,” says Sandra Authier, one of DELTIC’s two parent program directors.
But perhaps the most important thing churches give small parent-run schools is the freedom to innovate. In Bowie, Maryland, for example, the United Methodist Mt. Oak Fellowship Church has for six years hosted the Bridge Elementary Tutorial Homeschool Ministries, which under director Kym Kent offers an a la carte menu of inexpensive tutored courses.
Families can sign up a child for just one $300 class ($275 prepaid) or use the program as a fully functioning elementary school. Critically, parents who themselves teach can arrange to instruct each other’s children in lieu of paying tuition.
And on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, Jeremiah Cota has established a third-through-eighth-grade micro school in his uncle’s Assembly of God Church, which combines conventional coursework with a tribal culture curriculum. The program has already qualified for the state’s K-12 school choice tuition subsidies, and Coda aims to soon carry students all the way through high school.
Recognizing the overlooked role of churches in facilitating both the growth of small, parent-run schools and their abrupt expansion during the current crisis raises the interesting question of what educational role local parishes might continue to play even after the coronavirus. A September poll by EdChoice provocatively suggests that American parents have become far more comfortable with small school options since the outbreak. And perhaps not coincidentally, Dr. Kevin Baxter, chief innovation officer at the National Catholic Education Association, has been working on a manual of principals for creating successful church micro schools, scheduled for publication next spring.
Arizona State University professor Andrew Barnes, whose specialty is the history of African and European Christianity, notes that from the 16th century to the mid-1800s, organized religion was primary innovator of lay education. “I can see that happening again,” he says.