Nestled at the end of a residential cul-de-sac in Hopewell, Virginia is Dream Tech Academy, a microschool founded by former public school teacher, Danette Buckley. Originally from Jamaica, Buckley moved to the U.S. as an adolescent and gravitated toward a career in education, with a passion for entrepreneurship.
“This has been a dream for so long,” Buckley told me when I visited her microschool, located in an inviting single family home just outside of Richmond that she purchased exclusively for her school. Dream Tech Academy launched in 2019 with four children, including three of her own, as a homeschooling and tutoring program. It is now a recognized K-12 private school with about 30 children and four hired educators.
The intentionally small size and individualized educational approach that characterize most modern microschools are what Buckley finds so appealing about this model, and what more parents seem to be seeking. “Parents want the small, home-like, personalized environment,” said Buckley, noting that such personalization was often challenging within the conventional system. “Coming from public schools, I often felt that if only I could have a student for a couple more months, or if I could just offer them a little more or slightly different from what they were getting, they would excel.”
At Dream Tech Academy, Buckley is able to adapt her curriculum and teaching according to each child’s particular needs. She is seeing some astonishing results. One child who entered Dream Tech this year as a third grader had been receiving Bs and Cs on his report card at a local district school, but his mother felt like something was off. Sure enough, when Buckley assessed the student upon enrollment, she discovered that he couldn’t read at all.
Buckley got to work creating a customized curriculum for the child, and the mixed-age, mastery-based microschool model meant that the boy didn’t feel noticeably behind his peers or otherwise alienated. “We don’t emphasize grade levels here. It’s all based on ability,” said Buckley.
“Within three weeks we saw so much improvement in him,” she added.
Annual tuition at Dream Tech Academy is approximately $4,600 which, like most microschools, is less expensive than traditional private schools but still financially out of reach for many families. “Our community is low-income, with most students in the district on free or reduced lunches,” said Buckley. More than 90 percent of the students in the Hopewell district schools are classified as being economically disadvantaged, and 80 percent of district students are minorities.
In 2020, Buckley received a microgrant from the VELA Education Fund, a national philanthropic non-profit that offers funding and support for everyday entrepreneurs who are creating non-traditional education options in their communities. Since 2019, VELA has issued more than 2,000 grants totaling over $24 million to entrepreneurial parents and teachers throughout the U.S.
Like many VELA grantees, Buckley put her grant award toward student scholarships, particularly for families who discovered Dream Tech during school closures and remote learning and wanted to stay. “I was so thankful because I had a good amount of parents who wanted to come back and couldn’t afford it,” said Buckley.
In serving a racially diverse, largely low-income population of students, Buckley’s microschool is more the norm than the exception. The VELA Education Fund recently released a report, Open for Business, that provides greater detail about its grant recipients. The organization collected survey data in fall 2022 from more than 400 of the education entrepreneurs who received VELA funding. The results indicate that 93 percent of the students and families attending these non-traditional learning environments are low-income or from historically underserved populations, and nearly 40 percent of the entrepreneurs leading these programs are intentionally serving these populations as part of their organizational mission.
“Our research affirmed something we at VELA already knew: that unconventional education is for everyone — not just for white, affluent families,” said Michael Crawford, VELA’s Director of Community Research and lead author of the new report. “What we continue to see is that a diverse range of entrepreneurs are creatively responding to the needs of learners and families in their communities by devising bespoke, flexible, and resilient business models to launch and sustain their programs.”
Last week, Mike McShane of EdChoice released findings of his related study with a smaller cohort of education entrepreneurs in which he discovered similar results, while last month, the National Microschooling Center (NMC) issued a report revealing that the top motivator for prospective microschool founders is the opportunity to serve “systemically underserved or marginalized communities.”
The second primary motivator for prospective education entrepreneurs, according to the NMC survey, is the opportunity to “enable children to thrive as they had not in prior settings.”
At Dream Tech Academy, Buckley observes children thriving every day. She told me about two autistic siblings from a military family who moved from the Pacific Northwest last summer and joined her microschool. “They enrolled before they even got here,” said Buckley. “They didn’t even see the place, but the parents were so excited because their kids have never been in a general education classroom. They’ve always been in a ‘contained’ classroom for special needs students.” Buckley explained that the students should have been in the 5th and 6th grades, respectively, by age, but academically they were performing several grade levels behind. Since arriving at the microschool, they have already jumped more than two grade levels.
“The whole point is to have a personalized learning experience,” said Buckley, adding that personalization isn’t just for students who are lagging academically. “We have many students here who are doing advanced work, well above their grade level. It’s about giving everyone a chance to excel and asking, how can we help you be at your best?”
While the education disruption beginning in 2020 catalyzed interest in alternative learning models such as microschooling and homeschooling, the momentum is hardly waning. In the Richmond area alone, microschooling is growing rapidly. Alycia Wright, another former public school teacher and VELA grant recipient who runs Cultural Roots Homeschool Cooperative, has more than 125 students in her Richmond program, as well as a waitlist of families who are interested in her model. Cultural Roots has already outgrown the community center space where the group meets several times a week, and is now looking at office buildings or unused schools to accommodate continued growth, including expanding its high school microschool program.
New microschools are also at capacity. Two weeks ago, former public school teacher, Mercedes Grant, opened fall registration for her new microschool, Path of Life Learning, located near Richmond. With 22 students now enrolled, she is about to move to a waitlist.
Many microschool founders report immense job satisfaction. For those who were former conventional school teachers, microschooling and related non-traditional learning models enable them to work with young people in a more individualized, authentic way that can be difficult within the standardized system.
For Buckley, leading Dream Tech Academy is a joy. “I absolutely love education. I don’t even feel like I’m working,” she said.
Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, education policy fellow at State Policy Network, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly email newsletter here.
Top photo: Danette Buckley, M.Ed., founded Dream Tech Academy in Hopewell, Virginia. KERRY MCDONALD