Anne Wintemute, director of the Highlands Micro School, in the basement of her forthcoming micro school. 

(Jenny Brundin/CPR News)

Think of a one-room school house -- it's probably an old wooden school on a prairie in the 1800s, maybe with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sister Mary inside, right? Except, this August, a new one-room school house comes to Perry Street in Denver’s Highland neighborhood.

Before it does, Highlands Micro School Director Anne Wintemute has to finish a $300,000 renovation to take a modest duplex and turn it into a "homey, but modern" little school for 24 kindergarten through 5th graders. One class will be Kindergarten through second; the other, as the school grows, will host third through fifth graders.

The house is empty right now, except for the tiny wooden school chairs she scrounged from a school district dumpster. It won’t look this way for long, though.

"What you see today is very much unlike what it will be then [when school opens in August]," Wintemute tells parents during a January information session on the school as she explains the school’s daily routine, the curriculum, and the philosophy behind a school. "But I think it’s really great to get to be in a space that means so much for the future, to be able to see it in its original form and then really watch the dream come to life." 

Wanting Something More From School

A lot of parents stress and devote hours of research over which school is right for their child. So did Wintemute a year ago, when she began looking for a school for her oldest daughter. The mother of three says she left every school wanting something more from their environment.

"That the child should be at the center of the education, and more specifically that school is a process of living, not a preparation for life," she said. 

A rendering of the Highlands Micro School, scheduled to open this August.

(Courtesy Highlands Micro School)

So Wintemute hit the books to put words to what she was feeling. She poured over all the research and theories on how children learn best. Then she made a big leap and decided to start her own school. It's part of what her rancher father taught her. 

"If we saw something that needed to be different, that wasn’t working, then to step up and make that happen," she said. 

But Wintemute also has a business background to back up her venture: She’s been part of start-ups, and is familiar with what it took legally and financially. She’s also an avid researcher with experience in studying evidence-based practices in various disciplines, including maternity care. And she’s got a lot of help from the community.

"I mean, financial advisors, tax advisors, insurance advisors, it’s an exciting thing," she said. "The goodwill nature of people around this school has been immense. "

An Uncommon Approach

There's no official count, but Education Week estimated that there are no more than a few dozen micro schools in the country. With few teachers, administrative staff and low overhead, the tuition at micro schools can be cheaper than other private schools. Highlands Micro School’s tuition is $11,494.

The core of the micro school philosophy dates back more than a century to the "progressive education" movement: learning by doing, collaborating, and problem- solving. Most avoid standardized testing and a fixed curriculum. Education is personalized and teachers are more like guides. Skills are taught in a context and for a purpose.

"Learning in the abstract about something makes it very difficult for children and adults as well to integrate that new piece of information into their lives into in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them," she said. 

 Micro schools also allow for something that makes a lot of sense to Wintemute – classes with mixed ages.

"It provides opportunities for leadership, it reduces competition because there’s an expectation that everyone will be in different places, you’re not artificially segregating people by their date of manufacture," she said. 

Wintemute points to research that shows mixed age classrooms allow older kids to cement their learning by teaching others, while the younger kids get an early grasp of concepts they’ll learn in more detail down the road. And a lot of that can happen outside. There will be five dump truck loads of sand to build in, a theatre-like stage, stumps to jump on and a garage filled with supplies and two kilns to make pottery. 

"In there it's tools, it’s wood for them to build with, its ropes for them to tie twigs or branches together and materials for them to build with," she said.

The kids will also eat lunch on tables outside under heat lamps. Inside, they can drink warm mugs of herbal tea all day long if they wish. Wintemute also wanted the school to be in the middle of a neighborhood. She says kids can study a neighbor’s fish-raising pond or they can grow vegetables for a local restaurant. 

Community Of Learners

Wintemute did a national search for the right teacher before deciding that Susan Calkin will initially be the school’s sole teacher. At capacity, there will be four. Wintemute found Calkin right in the neighborhood --a fourth generation teacher with a long history as an educator, an artist and an outdoors woman. Calkin tells the parents she leapt at the chance to do what many teachers secretly crave: guide students in a way that zeros in on each individual student’s needs. 

"We’re not governed by a calendar, or a hiring schedule, a food schedule, an assessment schedule, we can truly spend our time considering the needs of our community of learners," she said. 

Colorado’s academic standards will guide the learning. But she says each child’s curiosity and learning style will drive the curriculum; children’s answers to these questions will fuel the learning.

"What are our curiosities, what are our wonders, what are the resources we might need to check into, where are we going to find those, what can we use, what’s not working for us, why? What do we need to be doing differently? How is this working? Why is this successful?" said Calkin.

There will be lots of collaboration, but in such a small classroom, kids can also go off on their own for a while, to investigate something before returning to the group to share. Wintemute says the school is not just educating the mind; it’s for children to develop a strong self-concept. 

"We want them to know who they are, to be able to advocate for themselves, to know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and to approach them with the idea that this is something I’m good at and if I put more effort in this, I can be better at that too," Wintemute said. 

But what if the student isn’t interested in essentials like reading or math? That's something a parent on the tour, Susannah Hurd, wonders. She says her son is excited about science and building stuff.

"He could build things all day long," Hurd said. "[But] he doesn’t have an interest in writing, he’s not so into art, how do you take a kid who’s really excited about certain things and not so interested in other stuff and get them to try other things?"

Calkin explains the writing has to have a purpose. So maybe Hurd’s son hauls in rocks and sticks. You could start with having him label the items, explaining what they are, and presenting in writing what he’s created to the group. Hurd had her son in a regular public pre-school – but it didn’t work for him.

"The classroom was large," she says. "It felt very chaotic; he was losing his stuff all the time.  He started having some issues where he kind of was being disruptive in the afternoons. And things that didn’t seem characteristic of our child. He’s a kid whose really excited by learning."

She likes that in the micro school there’s equal focus and time spent on a child’s social and emotional development—which there wasn’t time for in her son’s old school. Still, Wintemute says there’s no research on micro schools yet that shows if their approach is successful. On today’s tour, she also acknowledges, a large school can offer things that a micro school can’t.

"You can have a school nurse, and that’s important for a community that may be their students don’t have access to health care outside of school, to onsite school psychologists, special learning difference interventionists, those are things that we would not have here," she said. 

But there is lots of data on even smaller schools – home-schools. There, test scores are higher and studies show socialization is as good or superior to traditional schools. 

How To Choose A School

Parents today operate in an environment swirling with facts and figures and analysis about which are the ‘best’ schools– and that’s usually based on statistics about test scores. When parents ask Wintemute questions about how to evaluate a school, she has them do this exercise.

"I sit down and I give them a paper and a pencil and I say, ‘write down the words you would like people to use to describe your adult child’," she said. 

Wintemute says they look at her, and smile a little. It feels a little awkward and can be pretty raw emotionally -- to think that far ahead. 

"And they start to write words like happy, fulfilled, passionate, a good husband, father, mother, wife, we want them to be creative, we want them to make good choices, we want them to be lifelong learners, they want them to find purpose in what they do," she said. 

She asks the parents why they wrote those words.

"It’s pretty obvious – because those are the things that matter! That’s what we really want for our children. They never write, ‘I want them to be rich, I want them to drive a Tesla, I want them to have a perfect SAT score and go to Harvard and graduate at the top of their class,’ nobody writes that, but that is kind of the commercial, sensationalized vision of success." 

Then Wintemute asks the parents, when they walk into a school – does it foster the values they wrote on their piece of paper? Questions like these led Wintemute to dream about creating a school – in a house – rooted in a neighborhood – one that would harness joy and curiosity in learning.