Image: Founder Christa Hayes (left) with Peak Academy students and their teacher. Image Credit: Kerry McDonald

Montana’s Microschool Founders Are Offering Families Creative, Learner-Centered Education Options

“I get inquiries every day. I can’t keep up with the growth,” said one founder.

By Kerry McDonald – May 17, 2024

“My life is so much happier and richer now,” Christa Hayes told me, quickly noting that she means richer in the philosophical not financial sense. Running a small school is not usually a path to wealth, nor was that her goal when she officially launched Peak Academy in 2021 in Bozeman, Montana.

Like so many of the microschool founders I visit across the U.S. and interview on my semiweekly LiberatED podcast, Hayes never expected to run a school. She had been a mathematics professor at Montana State University for more than a decade, fully intending to stay in that role until retirement. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” said Hayes.

Covid was the catalyst. When her children’s schools shut down in the spring of 2020, and her college classes went online, Hayes began hearing from parents who wanted tutoring services. She also wanted to help her own three children stay on track academically, and find a way for them to have small, safe social interactions.

In fall 2020, Hayes leased a gym downtown with large garage doors that opened wide, providing for maximum ventilation. She spaced children six feet apart, enabling them to meet in person while working through their remote public school curriculum. In addition, Hayes offered all kinds of enrichment activities, focused on project-based learning and frequent outside expeditions.

Parents and learners loved it. So did Hayes, who connected with some experienced educators who were also passionate about outdoor, experiential learning mixed with core academics. “Covid offered a moment to reflect on what was important to me and how I spent my days,” said Hayes, who realized that the abundant time outside in nature working on meaningful educational projects was just as important for her as an educator as it was for the children in her program—including her own kids.

In early 2021, several parents approached Hayes, saying that if she created a full-time school, they would pull their kids out of public school and send them there. Hayes was in. She resigned from the university and established Peak Academy as a nonprofit private school.

“Teaching at the university was a great experience, but my world opened up when I started this school,” Hayes told me when I visited Peak Academy earlier this week as part of my trip to survey the growth of Montana microschools, or small schools and spaces that are typically less expensive and more individualized than traditional private schools. Located in a pastel green-painted home on a quiet residential corner just a couple of blocks from Bozeman’s quaint downtown, Peak Academy currently serves 16 middle school students who spend their days learning academics, doing projects, and enjoying frequent field study with two full-time teachers, in addition to Hayes and other part-time instructors from the community.

For high school, many of Peak’s students attend the nearby Bozeman Field School, one of the area’s first schools to focus on project-based, outside experiential learning along with high-quality academic instruction. It launched in 2017 and has become an inspiration for new Bozeman-area microschool founders who share a similar educational vision.

In the nearby town of Belgrade, Lindsey Vose also plans to recommend the Bozeman Field School as a high school option for her microschool students. Vose worked as a California public school teacher for eight years before leaving that job in 2018 to be an instructor for a secular hybrid homeschool program. It was her first exposure to homeschooling and alternative education, as well as the hybrid homeschool model in which homeschooled children attend a full-day, drop-off program several days a week for academics and enrichment while working through the program’s curriculum at home with their families on the remaining days.

She pulled her kindergartener out of public elementary school and enrolled her in the hybrid homeschool as well, appreciating its smaller, more personalized learning model. Her preschooler also came along.

During Covid, the Vose family moved to Montana seeking a different, more farm-based lifestyle. Her husband worked remotely for his California-based engineering firm, and Vose began to search for hybrid homeschool programs. “When we came here, I knew we weren’t going to go to public school, and there were no outdoor, nature-based, academic-focused, secular hybrid homeschools here. It didn’t exist, so I had to do it,” said Vose, who began running her program, Wild Wonders, out of her garage in 2022 with four children, including her two children.

Today, Wild Wonders is located on a leased, five-acre farmstead property near Vose’s home. It has 22 K-6 students who attend the mixed-age, drop-off program Monday through Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Vose currently employs two full-time teachers, but with 35 students registered for this fall, and a future middle school expansion in the works, she will be hiring additional staff. Vose says the local demand for her program has been enormous.

“I get inquiries every day. I can’t keep up with the growth,” she said, adding that she plans to retain the “micro” aspect of her microschool. “Staying small is really important to me. I value the small classes and the strong sense of community here. Everybody knows each other. I’m not willing to give that up,” she said.

Another former public school teacher, Rusty Bowers, was also attracted to the microschooling model and its focus on individualized learning. A high school math teacher and principal in Montana public schools for over 10 years, Bowers launched Bozeman Innovation Academy, a K-8 Acton Academy affiliate, in fall 2023. Acton Academy is a fast-growing microschool network focused on learner-driven education. Founded in 2009, the Acton network now includes over 300 independently-operated schools, serving thousands of learners. “I started an Acton Academy because I left the public education sector as a discouraged educator. After being out, I kept asking myself what the best education environment would look like if I could truly inspire each student to become the best they could be. In that search, I found Acton and fell in love with their model and high standards of excellence,” said Bowers, whose two children, ages 10 and 5, attend his school.

East of Bozeman, Emily Post has a similar commitment to high standards and student-empowered learning. She launched Educatioas a recognized K-8 private school in fall 2020 in a storefront location in downtown Livingston. It currently enrolls about 20 students, including Post’s two children. Access is a key priority for Post, who told me that the school’s $10,000 annual tuition is financially out-of-reach for many local families. She used part of the grant she received from VELA, an education philanthropic nonprofit and entrepreneur network, to fund scholarships for students, and is also a partner with ACE Scholarships that offers partial scholarships for low-income students to attend a private school of their choice.

These scholarships help but they are not enough to meet the overall demand she sees from local parents who want new and different educational options. Last year, Post applied to open a tuition-free public charter school, Yellowstone Experiential School, under Montana’s new charter school legislation. Of 26 applicants, she was the only one who wasn’t a public school district and the only one who was rejected because she didn’t receive local school district permission before applying to the state to be a provider, as the charter law requires. “I tried to get local approval first but I could never get on the local school board agenda,” said Post, frustrated by the bureaucratic barriers.

She plans to try again, but is also hoping that Montana expands its new education savings account (ESA) program to include more students. Currently, this limited school choice program applies only to special needs students in the state. Since 2021, 11 states have passed universal or near-universal education choice policies that enable all or most K-12 students to access a portion of state-allocated education funding to use on a variety of approved learning options, including innovative schools like Educatio.

“It absolutely makes sense for funding to follow students,” said Post

Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, education policy fellow at State Policy Network, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly email newsletter here.