Fourteen years ago, Lara DeRoule needed a break.
She had been a Pre-K-2 teacher for 15 years, both in Mesa Public Schools and a small private school, but tired of the bureaucracy of a public school system and decided to become a dental hygienist.
“It just was a bunch of testing at that time where I felt like we weren’t really using what we found out,” the Gilbert woman said.
Now, DeRoule is back in school – her own.
Two years ago, she started Dynamic Micro School, riding on a wave of a growing interest in small-group schools that are neither charters nor public and that aim for home-schooled children from Pre-K level to sixth grade.
Working in an old barn on the Superstition Farm in east Mesa, her goal is to help a group of no more than 15 “highly sensitive children find freedom, flexibility and fun in their learning environment so they can build the scaffolds they need to pursue their passions, enjoy life and contribute positively to the community.”
At a time when many campuses are closed because of the pandemic, micro-schools are gaining popularity as parents look for a nontraditional environment that offers classes small enough to encourage social distancing while countering the isolation often associated with online learning at home.
DeRoule said her school is an enrichment program for children who are home-schooled.
“It’s kind of cool for parents who want their kids to be in school,” said DeRoule, a certified teacher. “They’re able to socialize and we have a lot of open air and the kids can wear or not wear masks – whatever their parents want them to do. It’s just if a parent wants everybody else to be wearing a mask, I can’t guarantee that. Everybody has to be respectful of everyone else’s decision. I try to wear a mask when I’m close enough to the kids.”
Dynamic Micro School also is a kind of throwback to the little old schoolhouse, where kids of different ages all learn together.
Because it’s on Superstition Farm, which is partly an animal rescue, “it’s a cool place for the kids to be because of the animals,” said DeRoule, adding students also work in the garden as they learn about plants and how to grow them.
Though her students sit at desks in the cleaned-out barn for now, De-Roule is planning to work with the farm owner and eventually have a school building that will look very much like a one-room schoolhouse.
Although all her students are in one place, she said, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all learning the same thing, as there are some lessons for the entire group and others requiring her to break them into smaller groups based on their ages. Currently, her students range in age from 4 to 12.
“It’s more based on what a child’s ready for next – in math, science, reading, whatever – rather than ‘you’re in fifth grade, so this is what you’re supposed to be doing.’”
She said a typical day comprises “a lot of hands-on, project-based…guided learning” and that Fridays are devoted to kids’ “passion projects.”
“There also are certain skills I want to get across and in most cases it’s an enrichment for kids who are already home schools, so it’s not necessarily for everybody,” she continued. “My son for one is online through Chandler Online Academy but he’s able to integrate coming with me and doing his online school. He brings his computer and he does online classes and he joins us for other stuff.”
Much of what happens depends on the student’s age, DeRoule said, explaining that the younger ones “might actually switch projects or switch their subject for their project every week where the older child might study the same thing for four or five or six weeks. It just depends.”
Dynamic Micro School is not a franchise, though DeRoule is plugged into a network of similar schools to exchange ideas.
Dynamic Micro School has four different options, which also can be combined in different ways. The four-day-a-week program provides 80 hours of instruction a month 8 a.m.-1 p.m.; the two-day-a-week program offers 40 hours of instruction a month. There also are the Passion Project Fridays and Spectacular Saturday Gatherings that meets once a month and focuses on art and STEM subjects.
And parents must provide proof their child is registered as a home-schooled student.
Now that she is back to teaching, De-Roule finds her school is more suited to the ideas she had about education when she was a teacher in public schools, which she found too regimented in the way they expected teachers to reach students.
“I’m kind of going back to my roots,” she said. “I’m able to go back and extract those things that I thought were most valuable to the kids and most fun – honestly, to teach not subject-wise but in manner of teaching,” she said.
“We can pick a theme and we can cover the different parts of academic through that theme or we can teach it through the way the kids are interested. We don’t have to pull out the Harcourt Brace second grade book and read this story because that’s what we’re supposed to do this week.”