Bow, Dunbarton to host microschool ‘learning pods’

  • Students return to their classrooms after a lunch period at Bow Elementary School in Bow on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 8/5/2021 6:19:45 PM

Elementary and middle school students in Bow and Dunbarton school districts will have the opportunity to try a new type of learning this fall, in small group “pods,” run by a microschool company.

Bow and Dunbarton are among the first school districts in the state to receive a state grant to fund the creation of Learning Pods, small-group learning environments within school districts that are separate from a traditional classroom, run by the Arizona-based microschool company Prenda.

Because the districts won’t be offering remote learning this fall, Bow-Dunbarton superintendent Dean Cascadden said he sees the Prenda Learning Pods as an option for families who may not be ready to fully re-enter in-person school.

“I love to see kids come to our school and be there, but I know there will be some families who say, ‘I am not ready to go to a big institution and have my child be around other kids,’ and this is a good option if they choose to do that,” Cascadden said Wednesday.

New Hampshire’s Learning Pods will be small, in-person clusters of five to ten students in grades K-8. In Bow and Dunbarton, the pods will be completely run by Prenda – the teachers will be Prenda employees and all the instruction, including special education, will be provided by Prenda. The superintendent will work with the company on data reporting, including attendance and student progress.

In March, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu authorized a no-bid contract with Prenda for $6 million, to operate Learning Pods throughout the state. The money came from COVID-19 relief funds directed at schools. Prenda will receive $5,000 per student, an amount higher than the $3,708 adequacy payments public schools currently receive per student.

“Learning Pods may be new to many, but throughout the pandemic and across the country, they have served over a million students in small-group, multi-age and trauma sensitive learning environments,” education commissioner Frank Edelblut said in a press release. “Learning Pods are particularly helpful to students who have experienced learning loss and will thrive with more individualized attention.”

Cascadden said he decided to partner with Prenda after hearing there was “substantial” interest in microschooling among about 15 families in his district. He said one convincing factor is that state adequacy funding for students participating in the Learning Pods will continue go to the district – something that wouldn’t happen if those students left the district to homeschool or enrolled in a Learning Pod elsewhere.

“I saw some advantages of supporting it – good relationships with my parents and the financial aspect of having the adequacy payments going to the district,” Cascadden said. “This might be a good option for people in my district, it might take some work, some collaboration and communication, but this might be a good thing.”

Also, Cascadden believes the pods will be filling an alternative education gap at the elementary school level, since the district’s older students have the option of Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) and digital instruction package Edgenuity.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘where’s the downside?’” Cascadden said. “It’s going to cost me a little bit of time, a little bit of support, I will have to liaison, but I didn’t see where there would be a negative in getting involved with this initiative.”

While students in the Learning Pods won’t be in district classrooms – Prenda is working to find a local venue, the district suggested Bow’s Baker Free Library – Cascadden said they will still be able to participate in all the district’s extracurricular activities, including athletics.

According to the Department of Education, all public school districts, public charter schools and homeschool families are eligible for grants to establish Learning Pods. Elsewhere in New Hampshire, Fremont and Haverhill school districts have both received learning pod grants.

For Bow and Dunbarton families who are interested in learning more about the pods, Prenda will be holding info sessions later this month.

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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