Tracey McEntyre had plans of being a fashion designer, but then decided to open her own microschool when her son’s needs weren’t being met in a traditional elementary school. She’s setting the standard for excellence in home-based education.
Part of Wonderschool’s mission is to ensure families all across the country have access to high-quality, early childhood education programs. Far too often, innovative ideas are only deployed in tech hubs, like Silicon Valley, Seattle, or NYC, leaving small towns behind. However, one Wonderschool-Microschool is proving that innovation can thrive anywhere there’s interest.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen huge changes to how our society approaches education. First it was charter schools, then it was a huge wave of edtech, and now it’s microschools. At Wonderschool, we thoroughly believe microschools are poised to be the next big thing.
In a small town in North Texas, Little Elm STEAM Academy is revolutionizing what it means to be a microschool. Amid this challenging era of COVID-19, it comes as no surprise that there’s a cosmic shift in the way parents are thinking about childcare and education. Microschools have aspects of homeschooling, private-schools, and 19th century schoolhouses, but their main priority lies in making education captivating, flexible, and extremely stimulating, which is part of Little Elm’s mission.
How Little Elm STEAM Academy Began
Director Tracey McEntyre
Director and Head Teacher Tracey McEntyre started her Wonderschool-Microschool in 2017 after she was dissatisfied with the public education system and the way it attempted to teach her son, Roman, who has autism. Though her son did have some wonderful teachers, overall, the experience wasn’t quite what her and her son needed. However, McEntyre’s journey as an educator began long before her son was born.
Throughout high school, McEntyre had no desire to be an educator. It wasn’t until she began volunteering at a Sunday School, where a friend from church had a child, that McEntyre began to want to work with children. Over the course of the next 20 years, McEntyre found herself in various roles across the education sector. She was a teacher, an assistant director, a director, and an area trainer in the early childhood education industry before she decided to get married and have a child of her own.
McEntyre married and had a son, Roman. She decided, unbeknownst to the microschool future that awaited her, that she was done with the education field. After 20 years, she was looking forward to a break from the field, to being a mother, and even to try out something completely new.
When Roman was diagnosed with autism, McEntyre found there was a lack of options available in North Texas to support her son in the way he needed. With no other alternative, she had to enroll him in a traditional public school. As neurodiverse families across the country know, it comes as no surprise that McEntyre couldn’t find an option appropriate for her son. There is a massive shortage of alternative education options available in rural areas. Although one-third of public schools are in rural areas, only 16% of alternative schools are in rural areas.
“We needed to do something better,” says McEntyre. “For children on the spectrum, and just better in general with kids.”
Coming from an early childhood education background, where teachers typically do have more control over their curriculums than their grades K-8 counterparts, McEntyre was displeased with the rigidity of her son’s learning. She was used to designing education plans based on the specific needs of her students. Upon seeing how controlled the elementary school environment was, she decided to get creative.
Logistics of Starting Little Elm STEAM Academy
One of McEntyre’s biggest gripes with the elementary school was how seldom the children were encouraged to express themselves. For children, with or without autism, having the freedom to express yourself, through facial expressions, song, dance, and body language — is extremely important to their development. For neurodiverse children, it takes a bit more creativity to teach them how to harness these skills.
McEntyre decided it was time to take matters into her own hands. One of the most important things for her was to create an environment where kids and teachers were not going to be frustrated.
Coming out of 20 years in the early childhood education sector, McEntyre wasn’t over eager to dive right back into starting a full-blown school, so she initially considered offering one-off classes instead. There was pushback against this idea, however. Facilities didn’t want to offer their spaces for something like that. So, she decided to do it out of her own home, where she knew she’d have the most control.
At this point, two factors came into play. The first being licensing, since children would be coming in and out of her home. The second being the actual game plan for what her in-home school would look like. McEntyre decided to dive into STEM School programs.
A STEM school focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math. Being labeled a “STEM school” used to just mean that teachers offered a few more science classes here and there. Today, a STEM school engages students through design programs, actual engineering projects, or implementing community-based solutions. They’re extremely hands-on, and many are often even broken down into more specific styles, such as: design thinking, computer science, environmental STEM, robotics, and even zoo sciences. Often, Wonderschools are centered around experiential and play learning.
McEntyre was looking for STEM schools in Texas to reference for building her own school. To her dismay, she discovered only one elementary STEM school in “this big giant state.” There were a few STEM afterschool programs, but only one actual school.
She wanted to teach kids 3.5 years and up, because that was her background, and she wanted a place that was suitable for her own child to attend. It was important to her that she was able to teach kids, not just take care of them. It needed to be a flexible learning environment where the kids also had a say in what and how they were learning. Fostering that type of dialogue was extremely important to her. Having a core set of subjects was critical, but the way it was taught could remain flexible.
“Not all kids can just sit and do a worksheet,” says McEntyre. “Not all kids want to run around and play. We’re all different, so I wanted an environment like that. I had to make that clear to the parents who were coming into my school. So you know, I decided: Alright, I’m opening a school!”
It was the end of 2016 when she began researching other schools with open curriculums that were based in homes or small buildings, with fewer than 15 students. Microschools and nature schools started popping up in her searches, but again, none were in Texas. Regardless of their location, McEntyre was emailing and reaching out to anyone that she could in the schools. She asked parents and teachers the logistics of what they were doing, all while trying to figure out how to do it on her own. At the very least, she was encouraged that there was buy-in for this type of idea from plenty of others.
Compared to the rest of the country, Texas has particularly lax laws surrounding homeschooling. There are not a ton of hoops to jump through in order to shift a child to a homeschool environment, which, for McEntyre, meant she didn’t have to go back to school on her own to get the credentials to open her own school.
How Little Elm Uses Wonderschool
While digging for more information on licensing her microschool, McEntyre discovered Wonderschool. Like the majority of Wonderschool founders, McEntyre had never operated her own school before. From her two decades in various roles across the education industry, she knew how to run a school, but opening one was a whole different ballgame.
She spent some time building out the curriculum, but now it was time to actually open, and she needed a partner like Wonderschool to make her dream a reality.
Early Uses of Wonderschool
McEntyre has been using Wonderschool since the official synthesis of Little Elm. In the early phases of building out her microschool, she relied on the clearly laid out step-by-step checklists provided by Wonderschool. Terei Barker, one of the Wonderschool early childhood educator mentors, came to do a site-visit to make sure the house was properly outfitted to host students. Immediately upon entering the large living room, Barker said to McEntyre “this is where you need to have your school.”
Having a second eye was important to McEntyre. She found a confidant in her Wonderschool guide, who she could bounce her wildest ideas off of. Teri was extremely motivating for McEntyre, and that was encouraging when it came time to start building up the school.
McEntyre showed Teri every little thing she bought for her microschool. Having someone break it down for her, down to the nitty, grittiest detail of the early stages of school creation was crucial for her.
Ongoing Use of Wonderschool
Beyond the professional and emotional support during the early days of Little Elm Academy, McEntyre continues to use Wonderschool to run her microschool. As a director, McEntyre dreaded doing paperwork. Tuition, enrollment forms, paystubs — it seemed like it would be a true nightmare for McEntyre. Still, to this day, she dreads it.
McEntyre uses Wonderschool to manage all of the paperwork so she doesn’t have to spend hours every week organizing it. She also uses Wonderschool to coordinate tours for prospective students and parents, and to handle tuition payments. When it comes down to it, McEntyre is most interested in working with students, not handling paperwork. Wonderschool allows her to focus her time and energy where she wants to.
As the microschool continues to grow, McEntyre relies on the Wonderschool platform to answer common questions that parents have. Parents can easily go to her Wonderschool website, learn about Little Elm, and reach out if they really need to. Wonderschool is her “automated back office.”
McEntyre encourages anyone considering opening their own microschool to utilize Wonderschool, but says she thinks it’s particularly valuable for early childhood educators who have less than 5 years of experience, because of all the resources available through the Wonderschool portal. This includes licensing information, curriculum assistance, marketing tools, and ongoing teacher training. There’s also a lot of community forums within the platform, which have been extremely valuable to McEntyre.
Successes of Little Elm STEAM Academy
Because of the times we’re in, small education centers are more in-demand than ever before. Right now, in this pocket of time, you have the opportunity to grow something really valuable as an educator. Whether you’re a teacher looking to leave behind the comfort and stability of a public school or a parent eager to create an education system that supports your child’s unique needs, you can create your own microschool.
The Little Elm program has grown very smartly over the last 3 years, not going too quickly or too slowly. There are 10 full-time students, with room for 2 drop ins, since the school is licensed for up to 12 students. There’s even a waitlist, and because of the nature of the school, it’s important that McEntyre is somewhat selective of who they let in. The child and parents need to be a perfect fit, and that often requires discovery on both sides — McEntyre, and the family — to ensure that Little Elms is the best choice.
The school is 100% STEM-based and has a day scheduled out from 7 am to 5:30 pm. Prices range from $260 to $875 per month, with sibling discounts available.
In the third year of operations, McEntyre was able to pay her mortgage and bills through her earnings at the school. She has since hired an accountant, whom she works closely with to develop a tight budget and ensure the school remains profitable.
The Future of Little Elm
Little Elm Academy will never be a giant school, and McEntyre is extremely pleased with that decision. She plans on buying a larger, older house, to refurbish and outfit with more accommodations for the children, but it will never move into a traditional school center. It’s important to her that Little Elm remains home-based, because she wants to be the standard for what home-centric learning can be.
Growing the school to multiple houses is not out of the questions. Crucial to Little Elm’s mission is “to service all kids,” and in order to do that, McEntyre knows she’ll need multiple houses. As long as it’s in the right community, she is open to that idea.
Parents are constantly advocating for Little Elms STE(A)M Academy, much to McEntyre’s delight. They tell their friends all about the great education their children receive thanks to McEntyre’s microschool, sharing the good word across social media, and it’s really helped get Little Elm’s name out there.
At Wonderschool, we believe that equality starts with quality early childhood education, regardless of whether you’re raising your children in the heart of a major city or the tiniest town of North Texas.
Wonderschool is designed to make operating a microschool simple and attainable. From organizing tours to managing payroll; from ACH payments from parents to marketing your program, we’re huge believers in microschools and know their value.
If you’re a teacher who lost their job due to COVID-19, or a parent who has been surrounded by children their entire lives and want to monetize your experience, click here to learn more about starting your own microschool and be sure to join our community to ask other like-minded individuals how they’re navigating the ever-changing world of early education.