The Rise of Millennial-Powered Microschools

Voices from the Field   21 February 2024
By Coi Morefield, The Lab School of Memphis


This isn’t just a rebellion against the status quo; it’s a reimagining of the purpose and possibilities of education.

Coi Morefield
Founder and Executive Director, The Lab School of Memphis

Sweeping waves of change are nothing new in the education landscape. Trends, methodologies, and practices come and go—sometimes leaving before they’ve even penetrated the red tape of the public school system. However, over the past decade, there has been a growing movement outside of the conventional education system that is holding strong in its mission. Enter the microschool—trailblazing learning environments, often learner-centered, that promise to redefine the very essence of how we imagine education.

Recent years have seen an unprecedented increase in the interest and creation of highly personalized learning environments, predominantly driven by millennial parents. This generation, born between 1981 and 1996, stands at the forefront of innovation, boldly challenging the established norms of, well—everything. Examining privilege and ensuring equity has become a core value that many of us strive toward. 

In this cultural shift, microschools emerge as a vanguard of change, embodying the spirit of a generation that refuses to accept the status quo. Such boldness begs the question, what compels them to challenge the conventional narrative, especially when it comes to the education of their children? What lies beneath the surface of this movement, and how does it reflect the aspirations and challenges of a generation that refuses to conform? And how can we collectively ensure justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion within these environments? The answer lies in a dynamic intersection of sobering experiences, communal values, and a fervent desire to redefine success.

The Millennial Cultural Revolution

Millennials, those vibrant (and sometimes squirrely) individuals aged 27 to 42, are spearheading a significant shift in values and aspirations, diverging from traditional norms and long-held beliefs about everything from marriage and family planning to careers and social justice. Millennials are steering away from the “American Dream,” a neatly packaged narrative used to demarcate predetermined goalposts in one’s life and career that would ensure upward mobility, affluence, and security. Instead, millennials find themselves at the forefront of redefining what success looks like, and welcoming the freedom in discovering that it is theirs to decide.

This journey is deeply intertwined with a series of historic events and economic challenges that have, in many respects, defined a generation. From facing the aftermath of terrorist attacks, to the Great Recession of 2007–2009, and witnessing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—the collective experiences of this generation have left an indelible mark. Millennials emerged from postsecondary institutions as the most educated generation, but also as the first modern generation to be economically worse off than their parents; a defining moment that further shaped their outlook on life and the shattered illusion of a guaranteed formula for success.

In the midst of shedding the weight of this manufactured ideal and embracing a life crafted on their own terms, education emerged as a focal point—a canvas upon which millennials experiment with new approaches, challenging the long-standing notion of a one-size-fits-all system. This isn’t just a rebellion against the status quo; it’s a reimagining of the purpose and possibilities of education. Millennials are not just rejecting norms but actively seeking to illuminate the misalignment of the preexisting static structure and content of conventional schooling with the dynamic, relational, and self-directed nature of the world we live and work in today. 

Millennial Influence on Microschools

The innovative educational havens we know as microschools are not simply a product of circumstance but are a deliberate manifestation of millennial values. While early microschool networks such as Acton Academy (founded in 2009), QuantumCamp (founded in 2009), and 4.0 Schools (founded in 2010) carved an early niche based on the vision of a one-room schoolhouse for the 21st century, millennials have played a pivotal role in accelerating the reach of microschools. This has led to a conversation around the necessity and validity of alternative education models punctuated by both the pain and the progress of a generation. 

The success and rapid growth of platforms like Sora School and the Prenda network, led by millennials with diverse professional backgrounds, reflect the viewpoint that learning happens everywhere and anyone can step into the role of an instructor at various phases of a learner’s journey. Often having no formal background in education themselves (nearly 40% of founders being professionals from non-education fields), these individuals aren’t just founders, they are architects of a modernized learning philosophy. 

Privilege and Equity in Microschools

As we celebrate the strides made by microschool founders, one must pause to consider the challenges presented by the inherent privilege of operating outside of the system. One crucial aspect to consider is if the current makeup of microschool leadership truly represents the diversity and inclusivity that these schools champion. It’s a question that demands attention, especially when the landscape is predominantly occupied by young, white, male founders. According to The National Microschooling Center, 65% of microschool founders are white. A worrisome statistic when you consider that Black families are the fastest growing homeschool demographic nationwide. In an effort to free their children from the bias and systemic racism faced in conventional school systems, Black parents are seeking alternative options at record-breaking rates. The potential and pitfalls of technology add further layers of complexity to the issue. While technology promises scalability and replication of these models, how equipped are the majority of founders to serve the unique needs of diverse communities of learners once the power of advanced technology has been unleashed?


The learning environment I envisioned for my own children—one in which academic and life skills were fostered through project- and community-based learning experiences—became not just an imaginary ideal, but a promise to families like mine throughout our community.

Coi Morefield
Founder and Executive Director, The Lab School of Memphis

Challenges, Opportunities, and Demographics

The allure of envisioning schools as hubs of self-discovery, curiosity, and community-based learning experiences is undeniably captivating. For many, it fulfills a childhood dream of escaping the constraints of conventional schooling. For others, it is a bold step toward ensuring a future that honors the genius and fortifies the natural strengths that live within every child. 

I am still tearful when I recall my twice-exceptional child’s teacher shaming versus celebrating his unique way of learning. The future that I saw in that moment, a future where the light in my young son’s eyes would slowly dull as he was forced into the status quo, is what propelled me to found The Lab School of Memphis. The learning environment I envisioned for my own children—one in which academic and life skills were fostered through project- and community-based learning experiences—became not just an imaginary ideal, but a promise to families like mine throughout our community. 

Parents touring The Lab School of Memphis often express sentiments like, “If I had had this when I was their age, things would have been different.” Yet, within this promising shift, challenges loom large. These challenges are intricately tied to the nuanced demographics shaping microschools and the likelihood of these environments becoming subject to the very systems millennial founders sought to escape.

Millennials, known for their advocacy of social justice, a propensity to vote by issue versus party, and a commitment to equitable practices, have undoubtedly imprinted their ideals on these alternative learning spaces. However, the fact that these environments have historically been largely privately funded makes it difficult to ensure inclusivity across demographics. How does one build an out-of-system space that does not become, by default, only available to those with the social and economic capital to opt-in. Data indicates that the majority of founders’ primary goal is to serve marginalized communities, yet the barriers for those who possess the expertise and lived experiences to do so effectively, are often insurmountable. 

For those firmly established in the microschool landscape, scaling responsibly will require putting the collective before the individual. Leaders and founders must guard against the microschool space becoming an exclusive bubble of power and privilege where freedom, access, and humanity come with a price of entry. The path ahead demands a commitment to dismantling barriers and ensuring alternative learning environments become, and remain, accessible to all learners. 

Sustaining Efforts and Community Engagement

With heightened demand from Black and Brown communities, and parents of neurodiverse learners, the urgency to secure a sustainable future for microschools is more clear than ever. A growing number of Black and Brown founders point to sustainability as a primary pain point as they race to meet the growing demand within their communities. Waiting around for legislation or the benevolence of the small pool of private donors with deep pockets is not a long-term strategy. Such challenges require creativity. The transformative power of community organizing, partnership, and collaboration are a beautiful foundation for leveraging resources creatively. 

Microschools, naturally deeply rooted in community engagement, must evolve from simply a consistent presence in the community to platforms that empower and foster genuine collaborations. Adopting a relational approach, training community members, and amplifying impact stories are not just theoretical concepts but actionable steps toward a future where microschools thrive. As demonstrated by organizations like Engaged Detroit and Apprentice Learning, building robust connections within the community and with external stakeholders fosters collective responsibility for microschool success. The failure of a learner-driven hub in any community is a loss for the entire community. Our work is to make sure the community understands that.

Looking Ahead

Microschools, powered by millennial ideals, stand as beacons illuminating the path to a truly redefined educational experience. Parents have rejected conventional schools and approaches in favor of flexible environments built to ignite curiosity and cultivate the next generation of changemakers, while simultaneously meeting learners right where they are. Despite the hurdles, their transformative impact on education radiates with a boundless optimism that challenges founders and parents alike to truly trust the instincts and curiosities of young people. 

In defying societal norms, millennial parents are often ridiculed for their progressive take on parenting, often seen as indulgent or permissive. However, these forward-thinking individuals, perhaps driven by their own longing for genuine acceptance without judgment, are constructing homes, schools, and workplaces tailored to diverse needs. They champion the embrace and amplification of differences, considering them essential for building a just and equitable world, rather than a basis for marginalization or exclusion. In the microschool universe, millennial parents aren’t just leaders; they’re visionaries crafting spaces tailored to individual needs. 

The rallying cry is crystal clear—let’s charge ahead, building relationships, empowering communities, and forging partnerships impactful enough to interrupt cycles of poverty, academic disparity, and workforce skill gaps for future generations. There is a strange irony in the millennial parents’ relentless pursuit of future-focused environments that offer young people the same security that was once sold to them, but in an authentic, accessible, and, most importantly, attainable way. 

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