Amid the culture wars and the whiplash over different federal administrations’ Executive Orders, fights over schooling seem never-ending. There are, however, some new possibilities for both lowering the temperatures of these fights and improving schooling. “Bespoke education”—schooling that is designed to serve the needs of families—is on the rise in the U.S. By “bespoke education” I do not simply mean “school choice” but instead schooling experiences that are specially designed to meet the needs and desires of particular families.
Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), a mechanism by which parents can use student funding for a variety of providers, are one example of this trend. “Pandemic pods”, which have arisen specifically to address school closures due to COVID-19, are another. Hybrid homeschools (where students attend school a few days per week and are homeschooled the rest of the week) are another example of “bespoke education.”
These entities are trying to serve families’ more particular needs, while serving as new, small mediating institutions. In my new book Defining Hybrid Homeschools in America: Little Platoons, I describe some students—“Miles,” “Cecilia,” and “Vincent”—who have found their ways to these schools for a variety of reasons.
Miles is on the autism spectrum. According to his mother, he’d had a good experience through his first grade year at his local public school. The next year he got a new set of teachers, who were much less responsive to his needs. They had heard of a local hybrid homeschool, which only met once per week and asked the parents to complete a set of lessons the rest of the week, which seemed to be a much better arrangement for him.
Cecilia’s parents tried to get her into a local charter school, but ended up number 132 on the wait list. Schools in their area are very large, and Cecilia’s parents were nervous about sending her to a “giant public school,” especially as she was a shy girl, and they knew the culture of the local public school was not going to be a great fit for Cecilia. Cecilia got into a nearby hybrid homeschool, and her little brother eventually followed her there.
The public high school Vincent attended has the reputation of being one of the best in the state, and that reputation is supported by high test scores, college acceptances, and so on. But his parents were concerned about the family moving in too many different directions, in too big an environment. Despite being wary at first, Vincent was able to settle in academically and socially at his hybrid homeschool.
As Yes. Every Kid, a school choice organization points out through a series of focus groups, families want a variety of things. As constructed, American education is not doing a good job of providing those many things. Public schools are generally large and offer one philosophical focus in their curriculum. Even if they have smaller programs, these programs all work within the larger system’s values. But many families want and need something different. Solutions made for particular customers are much more desirable in America today. At the same time, total individual autonomy and atomization are proving uncomfortable to most people; we need some form of live community. Hybrid homeschools like those in the University-Model Schools or Regina Caeli networks, or the many independent schools, are excellent examples of civil society coming together to provide specialized services while at the same time creating coherent community structures.
Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge, for example, is a Christian school providing a classical education, in which their entire curriculum is focused on “great books, foundational truths,” and “time-tested structures,” following the traditional classical education model. Students are taught in the traditional grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages, and the school promotes its use of Socratic methods. Sequitur is classical, not comprehensive – parents know what they are signing on for when they enroll their children. The Julian Charter Schools, a network in southern California, operates quite differently. As a charter school, their curriculum is secular, and focuses on preparing students for “increasingly complex life and work environments in the 21st century.” Julian has several programs for students: they may attend 2-4 days a week, as typical hybrid homeschool students, or they can come in formore or fewer days, receiving the amount of support that suits them from the school. Though most hybrid homeschool tuitions are a fraction of competing private schools, Julian, as a charter is free, and their variety of programming is able to serve families who might otherwise struggle to operate on a part-time school schedule.
It is easy to pinpoint COVID-19 as a spark for this, as we are seeing that completely online learning is far from ideal for every student, but education had already been moving in creative directions before the virus. Technology was already improving remote work (for students and adults), and society was already showing an increasing desire for more personalized services in most other areas of life. Americans are trying to sort out these desires for both more responsive services and also smaller, more coherent institutions. Parents are seeking coherence in terms of morals and culture at a school, and in terms of matching academic offerings what the child and family need. Hybrid homeschools are becoming a very direct way for families to accomplish both, combining a bespoke approach to academics with tighter-knit communities.
Given the chance to find or form these communities, many parents are reporting that they prefer these more tailored schooling arrangements. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percent of American students being homeschooled jumped from 5.4 percent in spring 2020 (just after the school shutdowns started) to 11.1 percent in the fall. While this number is likely inflated for a number of reasons, other polling also shows an increase in support for both fulltime homeschooling and hybrid homeschooling post-pandemic. Anecdotally, a number of hybrid homeschools have reported enrollment increases and long waiting lists for the upcoming school year.
One of the great benefits of hybrid homeschools is the fact that founders simply do not have to engage in the same level of political, legal, or financial struggles that conventional five-day public or private schools do. They do not need state or school district approval, as charter schools do. Because they are more part-time, have fewer staff (sometimes only one full-time employee), and often rent space or are ministries of churches, they do not need the financial resources that a startup conventional five-day private school would need (and can charge significantly lower tuition).
The way bespoke education is going to play out successfully, in a sustainable way, is not through more and more programs developed within gigantic public or private schools, but through much smaller, more local, more focused (rather than comprehensive), new institutions. Like-minded groups of families can start these schools and customize them to fit what best serves their family’s and children’s goals and needs. While most existing hybrid homeschools are religious, there are secular versions as well. If a given hybrid homeschool does not fit what a family wants for their children, then a set of families can start a new one. Or families can use them for a time and then move on as their needs change.
Cecilia’s school, mentioned above, only went to eighth grade, and she had to leave, but was in a much better position to be successful when she did. According to her mother, in high school, “She was a shining star. She won freshman of the year at her high school. She’s getting straight A’s and who knows if that would’ve happened without the hybrid.” After some settling in and changing circumstances, Miles eventually switched schools too. His mother said that she was, “really glad that we [attended the hybrid] because it taught him how to learn.” Vincent stayed at his hybrid homeschool all the way through graduation, and his sisters are still there as well. Vincent played basketball and soccer for the school teams. Despite leaving one of the top academic public schools in the state, he was still able to get into the state’s flagship public university.
Large schools—public or private—cannot replicate the flexibility offered by ESAs, pods, or hybrid homeschools. They cannot personally tailor their programs to the same degree while at the same time maintaining the small community coherence that many families desire. In the U.S., hybrid homeschools have generally been open and operating (relatively) normally this school year. Most parents are ready for schools to re-open. But they are not looking for the return of business as usual. They are likely to pull their kids out much more quickly than they were in the past if things are not working well. They are seeking, somewhat paradoxically, more individualization and more community, and are often finding both by attending—or starting—hybrid homeschools.