Making Choices When it Comes to Micro-Schools with Mara Linaberger
February 16, 2021
building a microschool

Micro-schools can be scary, both from the perspective of the one building it and of the parents who are looking for an alternative to traditional education. There are so many questions that want to get in the way!

“Where do I get the money to do this? Is it sustainable long term?”

“Is this really learning? Are my kids going to truly be prepared for their future?”

It can be scary, stepping into the unknown, but we have to have the courage to do it. Mara Linaberger from Microschool Builders joins the podcast today to discuss some of the unknowns that come with building your own micro-school. She also offers advice for parents who are curious and cautious about how well micro-schools can serve their children.

Tune in to learn more about the benefits of building a micro-school, advice for getting started, and building a legacy along with it.

About Mara Linaberger:

Mara Linaberger is a passionate life-long learner, artist, technologist, and adventurer. Having taught in K-5 settings for 17 years, trained teachers, served as a district administrator, and most recently having taught in a one-room schoolhouse on an island 23 miles out to sea, she’s seen a lot in the field of education.

Now consulting full-time, writing coursework for online universities, and collaborating with communities to consider new options for technology-infused learning, Mara has found an authentic learning path as an educational entrepreneur. With the release of her first book, she’s recently expanded her work to coach families looking to find the best educational setting for their unique child!

To learn more, you can find Mara on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Jump Through the Conversation

  • [2:04] Mediated art experiences to build trust in appreciating different views
  • [9:09] Use your sphere of influence to get micro-school seed money
  • [10:44] Legacy mentality–planning for your school’s long-term sustainability
  • [14:40] Parents need courage to try a different school and shift expectations
  • [18:10] Mara’s Magic Wand: To create an entrepreneurial micro-school in the Harmony (PA) business incubator
  • [22:23] Mediated art to mediated tech to engage the “other”
  • [22:54] Grants are NOT the micro-school start-up solution
  • [23:31] Legacy–my Mastermind for support in being sustainable
  • [24:16] Parents guiding as stewards and accepting what is best for their child’s success (Ep 7 Parenting expert/podcast host Kira Dorrian–is an exception. She got that small empowered school experience and it set her up well for her future.)
  • [25:20] Entrepreneurial (Ep 30 Loren Demeroutis) shifting from “doing learning to”…to “for”…to “with our learners” and schools building “wonder and awe”

Links and Resources:

Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Android. If you like what you heard, please leave a review on iTunes and share what you liked about the show.


Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at education evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education, evolution and the micro school coalition, where we are fiercely Committed to changing the narrative to reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive.

If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review? Hi, Mara, so good to have you.

Mara Linaberger
Thanks for inviting me, Maureen.

Listeners, Mara Linaberger is a passionate lifelong learner, artist, technologist and adventurer. She’s taught in K-five settings for 17 years most recently, having taught in a one room schoolhouse on an island 23 miles out to sea. Mara has found her authentic learning path as an educational entrepreneur. She writes coursework for online universities, collaborates, consults, Grant writes, inspires tech infused learning, writes books and coaches families looking for the best educational setting, or those looking to create a micro School, which is how we connected who it is, you are you’re you’re totally this Renaissance leader Mara, and I can’t wait for you to share the ways that learning can come alive for each unique learner. So my first question with arts and edtech, a big part of your experience in training, how do you see these aspects of learning enhancing education? They’re so often overlooked, it feels like.

Mara Linaberger
They are. It was funny that you asked me I haven’t even thought about this for quite some time. But I wound up doing my dissertation with a professor who is no longer with us from Columbia University, Maxine Greene, who created the field of aesthetic education. So it’s this looking at a work of art. And the work of art creates this mediated experience between two people, which allows us to uncover things about one another, that we wouldn’t necessarily reveal or share with one another. different perspectives, different ways of seeing the world sort of gives us this opportunity to recognize that not everybody sees things the way that I do. And that’s okay, so I did my research to see how could we actually create those kinds of experiences with technology. And we can I mean, this medium we’re using today’s zoom actually allows us to get together with people, we would never have a chance to meet in person, and to do things that we would never have a chance to do in person. So I think the short answer after that long explanation is technology can mediate experiences between people that can’t happen otherwise. And when we’re looking for ways to create those kinds of experiences for kids. That’s what we want to be doing, not just replacing, drill in practice, or get traditional kinds of things done using technology we want to be looking for, how can I use the technology to enhance the experience that my students are having?

I love that. And it also makes me think right now of everything we’re working on with the AI with diversity, equity and inclusion, and the other that now of all times, we really need these mediated experiences, to unify our country to broaden our mindsets. So it what you your research was on seems like it’s so important as the tool right now to close these gaps that are creating hate and misunderstanding.

Mara Linaberger
Yeah, I think the problem right now is that so many of the topics that people want to discuss are so hot topic and people are so polarized, it becomes very difficult to have an adult conversation with others. Without it. Things deteriorating into name calling and finger pointing. What works of art do is allow us to have a discussion and to see the person as having other ideas, having other viewpoints, seeing the world very differently in a way that’s really a lot less threatening. I mean, people don’t generally come to fisticuffs over, you know, looking at a painting.

I love that. Yeah. If there are gentle ways for us to explore differences, why wouldn’t we want to That that’s brilliant.

Mara Linaberger
Well, and then, you know, once you’ve done that, once you’ve had those experiences, they can be amped up a little bit and taken into looking at topics or ideas that are more polarized with the grounding of the experience that it’s okay to have different opinions, different ideas.

Yes. And then there’s more trust built we can start with, or something that’s safe, and then build into things that are more difficult.

Mara Linaberger

What’s the most common advice that you give when you’re supporting parents or teachers? In creating a microscope is a common question that you find people ask?

Mara Linaberger
It really just depends on which which side you’re looking at the person who’s building a school, usually, the most common question is, where can I find money? That’s usually related to, you know, where can I get the money to get started? And that’s not always a simple answer. But we work with clients to do to start the school as a lean startup. So we talk a lot about how, you know, you kind of do have to invest your own money into the process at the beginning, but there are ways to recoup that as you as you move along, if you’re planning Well, if you have a budget that has initial startup fees that are able to be taken care of in the operating expenses, the probably the biggest question families are asking is, you know, what, if my child has to go back to a regular school, will they be able to do that after they’ve been at a microscope? Or the other other question that they’ll ask is, How can this be considered education? My kid is having so much fun. This can’t actually be this can’t be school?

Yes, I hear you. Those are common questions that I hear too. And, and especially as my microphone goes through high school, I wouldn’t be able to get into college Does this count yet just that fear that learning that is authentic and fun, could actually be legitimate? You know, so that totally aligns. And that leads me to your question, because you’ve done a lot of grant writing. With our microscope, we really the grants, we wrote, we got a couple of tiny ones for something really specific. But grant writing really wasn’t a solution for us. And we’re a nonprofit. But have you found grant writing a way to get startup funds for micro schools?

Mara Linaberger
Not startup funds? I don’t think so. And I’m not saying that that’s not possible. I mean, the grant writing that I did, that was successful grant writing was for a large educational organization. And I had the support of many people in that organization to help me with writing the budgets for that, and, you know, gave me access to other grants to look funded grants to look at to see, what were the funders actually looking for? How did they like those grants to be written, I mean, those are definitely tips for people. But as far as the schools go, I’ve only had one of my clients write a grant, made it to the second, you know, like the second round of the grant process, but not get the grant. And in the end, we decided that it was still a fantastic process for her because she had to lay out her program in such a way. And her desires to grow her program that she was super clear about what she wanted to achieve. And she’s gone ahead and done it anyway. So you know, writing a grant, even if you don’t get it frames your mind around what your vision is, and where you want to go. I wrote a grant proposal for micro school builders three or four years ago, which was a ridiculously large grant that, you know, in the back of my mind, I knew I didn’t have a good chance of getting because of just because of who else was applying. Yeah. But again, it helps me to clarify what were my five year goals for what I wanted to achieve and actually have the same thing has happened, I’ve actually done those things, because I mapped out what the process would be.

You’re right. And getting clarity is no easy feat. So that is definitely a fringe benefit of anything, grant writing or any process that makes it so we have to really get clear on where we’re heading to make sure we’re heading that direction. Right, that makes sense.

Mara Linaberger
Right. So I mean, there are myriads of grants out there. So you know, people shouldn’t be afraid to do that. I think in the beginning, it’s much easier if you’re building a school to, you know, once you have a plan that you can speak to very clearly, again, this is this clarity thing. It’s easier to go to people in your your direct sphere of influence and to ask for help, to ask for donations to get you know, if you really need money, get seed funds from people that you know, who believe in you and believe in your work that’s much easier, that kind of organic fundraising. And as far as you know, getting grants for nonprofits, it’s incredibly competitive. That field is incredibly competitive. There are very few dollars and the things that most people don’t realize is that the grant funders have an agenda. I don’t mean that in a bad way. They don’t want their money spent in a certain way? And the rigors around the reporting on grants nowadays, it can be really challenging that the biggest grant that I managed was almost a million dollars for an educational organization. And I will tell you, it spent months on the reporting, you know, the data collection, analysis and reporting back. And this was the US Department of Education credit, so it’s even more onerous. Yes. So it’s not, you know, it sounds great. There are so many strings attached to that money, it’s a lot easier to go to people who love you know, you, like you and want to help you who don’t have those kind of expectations for how you spend the money.

Definitely, I completely agree. So in your book, which I’ll post in the show notes, you talk about building a micro school, you address leaving a legacy, tell us more about leaving a legacy.

Mara Linaberger
I think lots of people have an idea of having a school of their own, I would say there’s probably a lot more teachers out there nowadays who are thinking, I would really like to have my own school. I think Maureen, the problem is, so many people go about it. And when they hit the difficult parts of the day in and day out, running it, the financial aspects of running it as a business, people burn out, and I like to get my clients to think from the very beginning, I am doing something which is going to change children’s lives. Therefore I’m in once I stepped into this arena, I must ensure that this school continues because there are going to be coming kids coming into this school, who are going to depend on it. So I need to think of it as a legacy. I need to be thinking from the very beginning. How long do I want to do this? And when I am done? How will I know that I’m done doing this? And then when I’m done, what am I going to do with it? Am I going to sell it? Am I going to pass it on to a student or a teacher who’s working in this school? Am I going to hand the school over to the community? I mean, in my mind, it doesn’t really matter what you choose to do. It just matters that once you’ve gone to the trouble of building something that community wants and needs, that you know that it’s going to continue on beyond your your charge.

That makes really good sense. And I hope people that have created schools to address micro schools to address the pandemic, we’ll look that way and not look at it as duct tape resolution until we can get back to being our kids being in big, traditional schools, I hope that people will go wow, I have a legacy to leave. I’m going to stick with this. Because you and I both know, we need a lot more options out there so that all of our kids are thriving. Yeah.

Mara Linaberger
I don’t know about you. When I talk about it, I clearly delineate, I think the things that people are doing, because of the pandemic are better described as pods. And then that way, you know, that’s it’s one of those things, they come together and then they then they pull apart when they’re no longer needed. But in my mind, micro schools are the longer lasting thing, they can certainly be started during the pandemic. And I’ve had clients come in this year who have started during the pandemic. But what’s really different between a pod and a micro school is that a micro school is making a commitment to demonstrating all of those best practices that we know kids want and need for the long haul, not just not just until the vaccines have taken hold and the Pande- you know, the COVID pandemic has calmed down.

Right, right. It’s a school and school denotes something that’s standing and long term. It’s not that temporary solution. I know the micro schools that I helped get started this fall we we have a mastermind to help people keep going because it is hard to make that long term commitment. And what are we gonna do for our space next year? What are we going to do when we’re back in? So thinking ahead, as well as managing the day to day are all components of a microscope or the pot is really just day to day and but I’m hoping some people are getting a taste of that. And even if they started short term, some people might go Wait, this could be sustainable. Wait, this is a long term better solution. My child is being seen my child is more engaged. So I’m hoping that we just don’t go back to pre pandemic lockstep education for everybody. If that’s not what’s serving everybody.

Mara Linaberger
Well, I mean, I’m not a Nostradamus. But I don’t, I think plenty of people are going to go back to the way things were. Because, you know, making change for your child to put them in a place where the education centers on what they’re interested in what they’re passionate about. Where the child drives education is it takes a lot of courage on the part of a parent because it’s pretty likely that the Most parents haven’t had that experience for themselves. So, you know, you have to be willing to give your child something that you didn’t have. And then you have to be willing to trust that, that it’s going to be enough that it’s going to actually prepare your child Well, for an unknown, unknown future. And like I say that it requires a lot of trust. And so we’re people have chosen to do it during the pandemic, because they really had no other choice. It will require another choice when the pandemic is sort of over to say, you know, my kid was happier, I was happier, there were less fights, there were less upset stomachs, there was less refusal to go to school, my child wasn’t bullied at all, you know, my child, like you said, was seen was heard, you know, felt like they mattered. And I’m not going to send them back to the way that it was before because even if, in my brain, I’m not sure if educationally this is going to work, my child is happy. And actually, that’s more important.

Absolutely. And I get a lot of parents that check out our micro school, and we have 30 Kids max on either campus, and that sixth or 12th grade, and they’re like, Wait, where’s the rest of school and wait, I want my kid to have the pep assemblies and to be in the school musical and have the things that I loved. And, and it’s so hard to trust that perhaps the model that we grew up with, isn’t going to be the one that best serves our child, it does take a leap of faith. And it’s not an easy thing for parents to do. This is their precious child. So I get it. When you say courage, that and trust, those are definitely big factors.

Mara Linaberger
Well, you know, Maureen, think the thing is this, that big system, those big high schools, they work for a lot of kids. Yep. That is what a lot of kids actually want in need. As far as their education goes, they’re happy, they know how to make that work for themselves. And they want all of those extracurricular activities. And then for a smaller group, it does not work at all. And that’s the kid that needs a micro school. The courage place is for the parent to set aside what their experience was, and or what they actually want for their child. And to figure out what is what does the child actually want and need, the courage is to say, I’m going to let my child have the education that they need, even if it doesn’t look anything like what I experienced, or what I, you know, what I hoped for, for my child. And that’s, you know, that kind of goes across the board as far as parents allowing their child to grow up and have the career and life path that they want, you know, how many stories that we heard of people who want their child to grow up to be a lawyer, or a doctor or a teacher, and the child wants to be a baker, or to train horses or be a vet, or you know, whatever, you know, we each come to finding our passions and our gifts and using them. And it takes courage as a parent to know, you know, your job is to help guide that not to not just specifically directed. Yep,

I completely agree. Last question, I always like to wind up with a magic wand question. So if you were to open your own micro school, Mara, and had endless resources, what would you want to create to help education evolve?

Mara Linaberger
Well, I actually do have my own micro School, which is cool building school. But I think you’re more talking about if I were to open one for children, correct?

Right, right. I’m talking the K-12 setting.

Mara Linaberger
Well, I mean, I have always had a vision for what that would look like. And, and I speak to my clients about exactly how I would open mind so that they understand I’ve gone into the whole process for myself. And I’ve actually worked with a number of groups of people here locally to open the school, their big reason that they didn’t open was because it was my vision, not theirs. And it really, you know, at the end of the day, it has to be the vision of the person who’s going to run the school. But that said, you know, my vision for a micro school actually runs around entrepreneurship. So it you know, it’s situated in the community, where I live in harmony, Pennsylvania, the humanists came here and built a community based on religious freedom, but they were all entrepreneurs. So it’s now a little historic village with restaurants and shops. There’s a gentleman who runs a space in harmony called the center of harmony. And he does business incubation with all of the people who rent space for him. So the micro school would just become part of that would be you know, middle school, high school kids, where they’re learning would be primarily entrepreneurial, you know, apprenticing to business owners, you know, with high school teachers who were capable of back mapping standards. To the work that these kids are doing so fully self directed project based hands on, apprenticed to business owners in the community and getting involved in the community in the chamber. So, you know, that’s a pretty far out there idea.

As of it, and it’s really not no big picture learning in Rhode Island, at the Madison and other places, big picture learning has been wanting more people to have a vision and dream like that that’s real and authentic, and kids follow their passions, and it ties into the real world. So what you’re saying, and I think Europe does it, too, they have a whole trade track where not everybody is gearing up to a liberal arts for your college experience after high school. So I love your vision. Yeah.

Mara Linaberger
Well, I mean, that doesn’t mean that kids doing that kind of learning wouldn’t be college ready. It certainly could be lots of connections, so they Community College for, for credit, you know, credit bearing courses, etc. So, you know, I actually think that kind of learning is good for a wide variety of learners, kids who don’t want to go to college, but also kids who are interested in college, but who want to become business owners on a very, you know, high level, to have an experience and to see what’s working in businesses and get that real world experience. You know, this is a community where the students could actually walk about during the day in a very safe way, with very little supervision. So, yeah, I mean, so So anybody who hears this and wants to build that school, I’m happy to help you do it. Because I’m gonna have all the things lined up, I just, the problem is, I don’t have the time to own and run a micro school site. With all of the other work I’ve got.

You wear a lot of hats, and I know how much time it takes to run a micro school and something has to give, but your vision is amazing. And I really thank you for your time today. It is awesome. You are moving education forward. And it’s impressive.

Mara Linaberger
Thank you, you are as well, Maureen. Thanks for having the podcast and for inviting me.

My pleasure. What a treat to have a fellow educator on our podcast, it was interesting to hear about mara’s different areas of expertise, she sure has a lot of them. I really like the idea of using mediated art, and then transferring that to mediated technology to help engage people to look at differences respectfully and to start conversations about the other. Without it diving right into politics and drawing a line in the sand. I think we need a lot more exposure to different opinions in safe ways. And art could sure be a great way to start that it was interesting to hear. Mara who’s written grants for a school district talk about that they are not the easiest way for a micro school startup, to have a funding solution. I think a lot of people I know early days and lead prep people were telling me Oh, just write some grants, like money’s just being handed out. And that is so not the case. So to hear her confirm that that not only is it hard to get a grant, but then there’s a lot of monitoring that goes with it. I think that’s a helpful Reality Check for us. I also appreciated that. Mara talks about legacy, and that we want to make sure we’re creating sustainable micro schools, and that a pandemic pod is a short term fix until kids go back to their previous schools. I know my mastermind that support small school micro school leaders is really focused on that making sure that we’re learning together, we’re supporting each other, we’re problem solving, because we are not a pandemic fix. We are here to be a long term option so that all learners are thriving. So that legacy piece being sustainable is huge. Another piece that Mara talked about was how important it is for parents to guide as stewards. And that is so hard. We have so many hopes wrapped up for our kids and getting clear on what might be best for their success. I remember in Episode Seven, parenting expert podcast hosts, Kira Dorian, she was able to bring in her micro school experience. And she was an exception because she actually was in a micro school and got all of that small, empowered school experience. And it set her and her peers up very well for their future but for a lot of parents It’s an unknown school setting. And there’s naturally fear around that it’s something different than what they experienced in their adolescence, so trusting and looking at what might be best for their child’s success, and not going with the norm. It definitely is an act of faith. It was interesting to hear Mara’s vision if she were to create a micro school for our learners, and that she would want it to be entrepreneurial, and to be a part of the business incubator in her town. I love that I love real world learning. In Episode 30, we had Loren Demeroutis, speaking about big picture learning, and they have done just that they started in Rhode Island, and now there are schools all over that use this philosophy. Instead of doing learning to the students or for the students, Lorenn was talking about doing it with the learners, and schools becoming places that build wonder and awe. So I completely agree, we definitely want students engaged and we want real world learning experiences going on. It was so good to get to talk to mera today.

I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit education backslash consult for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together.

Education evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today.

I’d be so grateful if you’d head over to your podcast app to give a great rating and review if you found this episode valuable. Don’t wait. Please do it right now before you forget. I really appreciate it. Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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