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Maine’s Microschooling Movement: As New Wave of Schools Launch, Many Old Ones Are Redefining Themselves

McDonald: Founders across the state see a growing movement toward smaller, simpler, more holistic educational models.

Learners at Maine's School Around Us microschool gather for their morning meeting. (Kerry McDonald)

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Joe Moore was a teacher and a principal in Maine public schools for 40 years. He spent the first eight years of his retirement tutoring students, but when Moore’s wife discovered that School Around Us in Arundel was looking for a part-time teacher and administrator, she urged him to consider it.

“I thought I would be out of my element,” Moore told me when I met him earlier this month at the school, where he has worked since last fall. “I quickly became a convert. This fits what kids need. Parents are making this choice to meet the needs of their kids because public schools can’t do it anymore. I’m absolutely sold on what happens here,” he added.

What happens is deep, joyful learning tied to student interests that blends academic and social-emotional skills in a relaxed, nature-based setting.

Founded in 1970 by a group of parents looking for a more holistic educational approach for their children, School Around Us operated as a state-recognized K-8 private school until 2020 when the school leaders decided to shift away from a traditional schooling model to a learning community serving homeschoolers.

It’s part of a growing trend, both in Maine and nationally, of new schools and spaces offering smaller, more individualized, more flexible learning options that parents and teachers desire. Many of these programs, including School Around Us, are part of the VELA Founder Network that supports alternative education environments across the U.S. with grants and entrepreneurial resources.

Converting to a homeschooling community has enabled School Around Us to serve the rapidly growing population of homeschoolers in their area. According to the new Johns Hopkins University Homeschool Hub, homeschooling numbers now hover around six percent of the total K-12 school-age population, a dramatic increase from pre-pandemic estimates. Maine has seen its homeschooling numbers remain high since 2020.

“We have doubled in size since before the pandemic and our numbers keep climbing,” said Amy Wentworth, a Maine certified teacher who attended School Around Us as a child and has taught there for over 20 years. School Around Us now serves 43 students with both full-time and part-time enrollment options. Wentworth says that since 2020, parents are looking to be more involved with their children’s education and appreciate more personalized learning options — especially immersive ones like School Around Us that embrace Maine’s natural beauty and abundant community resources.

“It’s reinvigorated me in my teaching,” said Wentworth about her program’s shift from operating as a private school to a homeschooling co-learning community. “I feel rejuvenated with excitement and huge possibilities for the future.”

Ning Sawangjaeng feels similarly rejuvenated. A longtime teacher at an established Montessori school in Maine, Sawangjaeng was eager for a new opportunity. She joined the Giving Tree Learning Center in Camden as its founding Lead Guide when the program launched in September 2023. “The core of Giving Tree is that kids can be happy and be themselves,” Sawangjaeng told me during my visit, adding that the hours the children spend each day outside and in the forest trails surrounding the center are crucial to their overall learning and growth.

Jessica Mazur, cofounder of Giving Tree Learning Center. (Kerry McDonald)

Jessica Mazur, along with Isabella Wincklhofer, cofounded Giving Tree to meet the needs of their children and others in their community.

A former operations leader at Apple who now runs her own small consulting business, Mazur explained how the pandemic shifted her views on education. Her oldest child had attended local public schools, but during school closures and the ongoing education disruption of 2020 and beyond, Mazur began to consider alternatives to conventional schooling. As schooling returned to normal, she and several other parents in her community were already hooked on a different vision for education. “Once we saw what education could be, we couldn’t unsee it,” said Mazur.

Like so many entrepreneurial parents, Mazur decided to build what she couldn’t find: a personalized, Montessori-inspired, nature-based learning space for a mixed-age group of homeschoolers ages five and up. Giving Tree now serves 20 learners ages five to 12 with most choosing to attend the center four days a week. Part-time enrollment options are also available, and interest in the program continues to spread through parent word of mouth.

Jaclyn Gallo, founder of Roots Academy in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. (Kerry McDonald)

That’s also how Roots Academy in Cape Elizabeth has grown from six kids in the fall of 2020 to 36 K-5 students for the upcoming school year.

Like Mazur, Roots’s founder, Jaclyn Gallo, realized during the pandemic that she needed to take charge of her children’s education. She opened her state-recognized private school in a yoga studio during its first year, but demand kept growing for her personalized, place-based educational mode where all children are taught by certified teachers. Last fall, Gallo expanded to a new, large building with abundant outdoor space and wooded trails to accommodate continued growth.

For all 12 of next year’s kindergarteners, Roots will be their first schooling experience. Unlike many of the students in the older grades — including Gallo’s daughter — who left a traditional public school for Roots, the parents of her kindergarteners knew early on that they wanted an alternative to conventional schooling for their children.

“There is a growing awareness by parents that, especially in the early grades, what is being asked of children is not developmentally appropriate,” said Gallo, explaining that the rigidity and standardization of traditional schooling prevents a more individualized, play-filled, organic approach to learning and child development. “It’s the system not the kids,” said Gallo, adding that many parents — including her and her husband — moved to this town specifically for the

public schools. “Many of us want to believe in the public schools ideologically, but it’s just not working for some kids.” Still, Gallo is committed to forging relationships with the local public elementary school and finding ways to collaborate.

Gallo expects to grow her school to a maximum of about 60 or 70 kids over the coming years, retaining the microschool model that she thinks is so crucial to learning. She hopes to help other entrepreneurial parents and teachers open microschools similar to Roots in their own neighborhoods. “Being super big defeats the purpose of what we’re doing. I like knowing each kid and their families. The family relationships are so important,” she said.

Adrienne Hofmann, founder of Nature Play All Day. (Kerry McDonald)

About 100 miles north, in rural Appleton, Adrienne Hofmann is also focused on creating an intentionally small, relationship-based, outdoor-focused learning community.

A former public school teacher in Texas who is also a certified teacher in the state of Maine, Hofmann became more familiar with homeschooling and alternative education during the pandemic. She began formulating her vision for Nature Play All Day, a newly-licensed, forest-filled early childhood program. “Before this venture, nearly every program I worked for didn’t feel quite right, leaving me yearning for something more fulfilling,” Hofmann told me when I visited her program’s lovely yurt site. “This journey inspired me to create a supportive and nurturing environment initially designed for homeschooling families and now geared toward those seeking a nature and play-based experience, reminiscent of our own childhoods.”

Located on an off-the-grid, 18-acre parcel, Nature Play All Day will open this fall, enabling children from ages two to six to spend all day outside, playing freely, with no top-down impositions on their learning. Access is crucial for Hofmann, and Maine’s child care subsidies will enable more families to choose her program.

Like all of the founders and educators I met during my Maine visit, Hofmann believes that we are only at the beginning of a growing movement toward smaller, simpler, more holistic educational models. Prompted by the pandemic, more parents and teachers are now seeking and building homespun alternatives to conventional schooling.

“I like to think that one of the best things to come out of COVID is just how simple things can be,” said Hofmann.

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