The Women Building Community to Support Microschool Growth and Sustainability

Voices from the Field   19 June 2024
By Ayana Verdi


We found each other somehow, fellow educators waving our flags on individual islands, desperate for the presence of those who could understand.

Ayana Verdi
Founder, Verdi EcoSchool

Before the COVID pandemic magnified the vast inequities that exist within our education system and spurred an education renaissance that rapidly spread across the country, the quest to reimagine what school could be had already begun in pockets across the country. In my home state of Florida, microschools and learning cooperatives were already serving families with fresh and innovative learning models. When families realized their learners needed options that better met their needs, these environments were poised to respond. Nimble and hyper-local, each innovative model designed solutions intended to serve the unique population of children in their community. 

When I met Iman Cassells Alleyne in 2018, she was just beginning her visionary journey to build a new school model of her own. She came to visit the newly founded Verdi EcoSchool in Melbourne, Florida. We sat together, sharing ideas and a vision of what school could be if led by individuals brave enough to challenge the status quo. Verdi EcoSchool was founded in 2016 as the first place- and project-based urban farm school in the southeastern United States. Using the community as a campus, students learn that “school” doesn’t just happen behind a desk with a textbook—learning is all around us. Our connections to the community deepen experiences that we might otherwise miss in a conventional classroom. As we explored the campus, Iman joyfully expressed her desire to build a community of people connected to each other and united by a desire to be kind—to themselves, to each other, and to the world. 

My time with Iman highlighted a great absence for me in my work as a school founder—fellowship. The road to founding and leading a school is exhausting and often lonely. How do we sustain ourselves as school founders in an industry where 50% of school leaders leave the profession entirely after five years? Iman’s vivacity brought me to the beginning of a new journey: connecting to a community of women—mothers and educators—dedicated to changing the face of education.

A highly accomplished educator and entrepreneur, Iman went on to establish the Kind Academy Microschool Network, based out of Coral Springs, Florida, a network of innovative learning programs that specializes in supporting unique, gifted, and neurodiverse learners. Iman offers Kind Online School, and she’s also started the Launch Your Kind program to help education entrepreneurs open their own Kind Academies. There are 10 new Kind Academies planning to open for the upcoming school year—seven in Florida and three in other states. Iman’s diverse teaching background in public, charter, private, and homeschooling programs fueled her passion for a personalized learning approach. Iman is at the center of a movement to redefine our why for school. She recently shared: “I passionately believe that education holds the key to transforming our world. True change, in my view, can only be achieved through education and the sharing of knowledge. I am convinced that peace is not just a lofty goal but an attainable reality within ourselves and our communities when we are equipped with the necessary knowledge.”

Iman’s purpose is to be a beacon to other school founders. Kind Academy is supporting a new generation of leaders to continue to mold our education ecosystem into one that works for all learners.

My journey to find fellowship became an experience in holding and building beautiful connections—co-creating a community that nurtured every opportunity to lift its members up. We found each other somehow—fellow educators waving our flags on individual islands, desperate for the presence of those who could understand. Emails sharing grant and award opportunities, school visits, and strategy sessions—anything we could do to give each other a hand up and the benefit of fail-forward wisdom. We cared about each other and celebrated our individual successes as a collective. 


My time with Iman highlighted a great absence for me in my work as a school founder—fellowship.

Ayana Verdi
Founder, Verdi EcoSchool

In 2021, a conversation with Iman yielded a new connection—an inspired educator starting her own journey to change what school can be. I jumped into a Google Meet with Shiren Rattigan. Shiren greeted me with a smile and a sigh as she asked one question that still resonates within me to this day: “When is what we give enough?” 

Shiren was vulnerable and raw in a way that I avoid out of fear of sharing too much. Her openness is her superpower, and this presence forged an impressive path. Shiren founded Colossal Academy in South Florida when remote schooling options created an opportunity for families who needed more personalized learning opportunities for their children. Shiren has spent 15 years championing innovative education. Her dedication to amplifying student voices and tailoring future-forward education is unwavering. Balancing her professional endeavors with her role as a wife and a mother to three daughters, Shiren is a true embodiment of educational passion and familial devotion. 

Shiren shared: “Our vision is to create an educational ecosystem that is as dynamic and interconnected as the vibrant community that surrounds us, where education is not just about acquiring knowledge, but about inspiring change and building a better world.” Shiren has given life to an education renaissance in South Florida—co-founding the Innovative Educators Network to harness the collective power of a movement—place-based, community-driven, and mission-focused founders and “edu-preneurs” providing an unprecedented array of options for families. 

The movement is spreading. Kind Academy, Colossal Academy, and Verdi EcoSchool have received national recognition as Yass Prize awardees. 

On a sunny January morning in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I attended the InEd Conference, a catalyzing event where parents, educators, and students gathered to collectively redefine the boundaries of conventional education. I watched as the leaders in our education renaissance took to the stage to share, inspire, and lead. After, I ran into Shiren as she prepared to step into another talk, and she greeted me with a smile and a sigh. This is enough.

Ayana Verdi is the founder and director of Verdi EcoSchool, a place- and project-based urban farm school in Melbourne, Florida—and a 2023 Yass Prize awardee.

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