I started a one-room schoolhouse – and you can, too.
Heather Betsworth, Ph.D.
Founder/head teacher, Arbor Vitae Academy (Frankfort, KY)
The picture I’m about to show you is scandalous.
This woman, who teaches in the one-room schoolhouse standing behind her, has no petticoat. Carries no pointer. Wears no scowl. Heck, you can even see a thin stripe of flesh between her pantaloons and pointed toes, revealing a glimpse of pale, bony ankle. I repeat: ANKLES AHEAD.
Where’s the calico? The dainty lady-boots? Her decency?
And why’s she smiling like that? Doesn’t she know that unless she has 30 students and a raging case of IBS, she’s not a real teacher?
That poor, sad sack is me: a schoolmarm of the new millennium. My school, Arbor Vitae Academy (or Arbor V for short), is in its second year of operation in my hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky. I teach a multi-age group of students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. And we’re the closest thing to a one-room schoolhouse this century’s seen so far.
To be fair, we have four rooms, and none of them have potbelly woodstoves or whippin’ sticks or even desks, for that matter. But let’s start at the beginning.
So wait – you actually started a “real” school? How’d that happen?
I believe the term du jour for a place like mine is a micro school, and more and more of them are popping up across the country as teachers with entrepreneurial spirits realize there’s more to life than two-hour staff meetings peppered with fluffy buzzwords like rigor and grit. So if you mean in the sense that kids come to me in the morning, receive instruction all day, and go home at 3:30, then yes, Arbor V is a “real” school.
Flashback to 2015. After separate stints in public and private school classrooms with a “gestational hiatus” (a.k.a. baby birthin’) in between, I’d settled comfortably into my role as a K-8 technology teacher. It was a job in which I had a great deal of curricular and instructional freedom. I could try out any crazy teaching idea I wanted, and so long as I could tie it in with my material, my supportive boss always gave me the green light. Imagine coming into work and thinking, “Y’know, I’d really like to teach about QR codes by making a Carmen San Diego-themed scavenger hunt today,” and having the liberty to roll with it. That was my life, and it was glorious.
Eventually, I felt it was time to put principles to practice on a much bigger scale. I wanted to take the reins off my brain and see just how far it could run. So I took a leap of faith and started a school with a coworker and six students in the basement of a local church. By Year 2, public interest in Arbor V had grown enough that I was able to rent a larger facility. With over 6,000 square feet of space, we have plenty of room to grow in the years to come.
Did you have to get a business license?
When I contacted city government to ask about the requirements for opening Arbor V, I was met with blank stares. No one knew what to tell me. It’s not exactly commonplace, after all, for a teacher to wander in off the streets to talk about starting a school.
I was referred to the state, then back to the city, then lobbed back and forth between the two like a tennis ball for awhile until I finally said, “Look. If it makes it easier, treat it like a full-time tutoring business, and we’ll go from there.” I applied for (and was granted) a business license for “education services.” At that point, I was able to begin accepting students for the upcoming school year.
Are you regulated by the state? What about teacher certification?
Kentucky’s private education laws are notoriously lax. Arbor V is considered a “non-public” school, which is also the umbrella under which all private schools and homeschools are classified in my state. Although accreditation is optional in Kentucky, I plan to begin pursuing it as soon as the mandatory two-year waiting period is up.
Though Arbor V is kind of a business/education hybrid, we still have to abide by the state’s school sanitation and facility requirements. That, to me, was the hardest part of getting things off the ground. Until you’ve tried to find an existing property that meets every building, plumbing, electrical, and fire code regulation for educational use – especially in a small town like Frankfort – you don’t realize why most new schools have to be constructed from the ground up. I caught a seriously lucky break prior to Year 2, when a vacant facility that was once used as a day care became available for rent. Building requirements for day cares and schools are similar enough that Arbor V was able to transition to its new location with minimal hassle.
You don’t have to hold any specific certification to start a school in Kentucky. But, as Jeff Goldblum warned the Jurassic Park scientists, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. In addition to holding Rank I teaching certification, I also have a Ph.D. in Leadership with emphases in both K-12 and postsecondary education and a MA.Ed. in Reading and Writing Instruction (P-12). And there are days when I still feel under-qualified. Make sure you’ve got the goods to back up your vision.
Why not just go teach at an existing school and save yourself the trouble?
State and federal mandates have had an inverse effect on the parts of education I think are non-negotiable. When an emphasis on standardization shoots sky-high, time spent on the arts tends to hit the dirt at the teeth-jarring speed of a hippo on a teeter-totter. This is unacceptable. Little hands need to hold paintbrushes, not Number 2 pencils.
Our world needs problem-solvers: people who have been trained since childhood to spot and solve societal issues. Schools are where these skills should be cultivated. I want kids to receive an education in which art, science, and social outreach are the pillars by which learning is both defined and supported. That’s why I founded Arbor V. Our community is our classroom – and school is always in session.
How many grades do you teach?
Arbor V is a K-8 school. This year, my students are about as spread out in age as you can get. My youngest pupil is six; my oldest is 14. All of them learn within one multi-age classroom.
How does that even work? You can’t teach Beowulf to a 7th grader and letter sounds to a 6-year-old at the same time.
And yet somehow, our ancestors learned reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic under this same model. Even after traveling six miles to school in two feet of snow, walking uphill both ways.
A one-room schoolhouse isn’t just a physical space. It’s a philosophy. At Arbor V, it’s understood by staff and students alike that everyone can help someone learn. If my third-grader gets stuck on a math problem while I’m reading with my K student, it’s not unusual for one of my middle schoolers to pop up and offer assistance. Similarly, if my eighth grader can’t insert a picture on Google Slides, he might call upon my fourth grader, a slideshow aficionado, to show him how it’s done. No judgment, no pride – just people helping people.
Shoot, just last week, I had to ask my seventh grader to show me how to switch back and forth between accounts on Instagram. We’re all learners here.
Isn’t that like a teacher’s nightmare? You must have a different set of lesson plans for each student, right?
Not really. Reading and math obviously require a linear approach: you have to learn Skill A before moving on to Skill B. With these, I use a Daily 5-like setup in which some students work independently on leveled assignments while I work one-on-one with others.
But the other subjects – history, science, art, technology – don’t need to follow a predetermined path. Who says a kid has to learn about continents in second grade and Ancient Eqypt in sixth grade? Why can’t everyone study Maslow’s Hierarchy or Pompeii or invertebrate anatomy at the same time? We do at Arbor V, and it creates some awesome group discussions because of the different viewpoints each child brings to the table.
How do you hold yourself accountable? What do you do to ensure that you’re covering all the necessary material for each child?
As much as I would love to keep all my students forever, I know that someday, for whatever reason (age, family circumstances, whatever), they will leave Arbor V. I’d be doing my kids a huge disservice if I didn’t maintain awareness of what skills need to be introduced and practiced in each grade level. So I use Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as a jumping-off point for what my students need to be mastering. In most cases, my students end up exceeding the requirements established for their age group.
Okay, bottom-line: does the one-room schoolhouse (or micro school) approach work?
I’ll answer this one with a story.
My youngest student came to me at the beginning of this school year with a hunger to prove herself to the big kids. One day, at the end of her reading lesson, I called over the older students to “watch something amazing.” The whole class crowded around their tiny classmate, listening as she read a book aloud for the first time all by herself.
When she finished, the big kids clapped and cheered and made a big fuss over her as she beamed with pride. The positive reinforcement she received from them did more for her confidence than any praise I could’ve given her
This is the main benefit of a multi-age classroom: the support each child can offer the other members of their learning community. They help each other – not just academically, but also emotionally.
I want to do this, too. I want to start my own micro school. What advice can you give me?
First off, I applaud your moxie. You have a vision that you want to see brought to life. That’s the kind of spirit that gives birth to new and exciting educational trends. I like you already.
Teaching’s not easy. Running a school’s not easy. Doing both at the same time makes the Boston Marathon look like that stupid little half-jog you do when someone thirty feet away decides to hold the door for you. You think you know what you’re signing up for, but it ends up being bigger and scarier than you ever could’ve imagined.
But it also makes you tough. And tough is exactly what you have to be to make it, both as an educator and entrepreneur.
Have a clear vision for the empire you’re hoping to create. Do you see a school where throngs of baby geniuses spend their days elbow-deep in STEM activities? Where Reader’s Theater assignments are performed on a small-scale Broadway stage you built in your garage? Whatever you’re picturing, picture it vividly: after all, the blueprints for this place are coming straight from your own mind.
Surround yourself with good people. My part-time teachers and classroom volunteers are talented, passionate, and completely “get” what Arbor V is all about. There’s solidarity in working together for a common purpose, and they help me feel like I’m not out here all alone. My family, friends, and boyfriend are also incredibly supportive and have dried many a tear of mine throughout this journey.
You’ll run into snags – a lot of them. Throughout its two years of life, Arbor V has taken its fair share of licks. I like to think of these times in our history as when we were being forged, like steel. When I thought it was over, it wasn’t. When I thought I couldn’t, I could. This school and I have walked hand-in-hand through hell together and come out stronger than before. And you will, too. So keep your head up.
And hey, if all else fails, you could just cast off your calico and flash some ankle. Worked for me.
Heather is gliding through her mid-30’s with all the poise of a drunk turkey on a tire swing.