The Future of Education
The Future of Education
Black Mothers and Microschools

Black Mothers and Microschools

Microschools have been around for many years, but many more people enrolled in them during the pandemic. In this conversation, I chatted with Tiffany Dudley, an educator who helped cofound a microschool to help her son during the pandemic. She's also the co-leader of the Black Mothers Forum’s Economic Development Team. The Black Mothers Forum strives to give students of color opportunities that have eluded them through mainstream education channels. Arizona awarded the Black Mothers Forum microschool $3.5 million in 2021 to develop up to 50 additional microschools throughout Arizona.

What's the secret, according to Tiffany? “It’s the autonomy that their children have, where they’re more of a participant in their education instead of just a bystander in the background,” she said. “At the microschools they had a lot more freedom; they’re able to learn through project-based; to take the things that interest them.”

As always, you can listen to the podcast, watch it on YouTube below, or read the transcript if you’re a paid subscriber.

Michael Horn:   Welcome, welcome, welcome to The Future of Education where we are obsessed with helping all individuals build their passions and fulfill their human potential. Today's guest is Tiffany Dudley, and I'm going to give a bit less of a bio here because I want Tiffany really to tell her own story. But in brief, she's an educator, she's an education entrepreneur, she's a mom and she's the co-leader of the economic development team at the Black Mothers Forums. Tiffany and I first got to know each other because we were both panelists at a session, at a recent education conference. And I was so struck by the work that she was doing that I just wanted to highlight it here on the Future of Education Show and have her tell the story. Because I think it's a powerful narrative into the shift that's starting to happen in education, not just in Arizona where Tiffany lives, but frankly nationwide. So first Tiffany, welcome to the show. I just appreciate you joining us and it's good to see you.

Tiffany Dudley: Thank you. Thank you for having me here. I'm really excited to be able to join you today. So I was really glad I got that invite to be here with you today.

Horn:                110%. Are you in Arizona today?

Dudley:             Yes, I am in Arizona today. Enjoying the weather out here.

Horn:                I was going to say, don't make us all feel jealous here in New England, but-

Dudley:             Yes.

Horn:                So let's start with a little bit of your own background. You helped found a micro school as we'll talk about. But before that, as I recall anyway, you were an educator in a charter school. So I'd love to hear more of that part of your story of getting into education and the work you were doing in that school.

Dudley:             Okay. Well I kind of accidentally ended up in teaching. My background was a degree in interior design and I actually, had been a stay at home mom for a few years and happened to attend a mandatory parent meeting at my oldest son's school. And at that meeting they were looking for an aide, a paraprofessional to be inside of the classroom. And so I was like, I've been a stay at home mom for a few years and this would be a good way to get back into the work field. And the convenience of being able to work at my son's school part-time was perfect.

                        And so I end up applying and getting the position and I was not there very long before I realized that how much I loved being in the classroom and being able to help the students and being able to shape and help guide the kids through their learning process. And what started out to be like a temporary job ended up turning into eight years that I ended up at that charter school. By the end of it I started as an aide and ended up as the fourth and fifth grade teacher of the classroom because we had dual classrooms.

Horn:                Just tremendous. And so your son's enrolled in that charter school, you're teaching at the charter school, things are going well if I remember and then COVID hits. And I'd love to hear what happened and what you started to see.

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Dudley:             Yeah, once COVID hit, by the time COVID hit, all three of my children were attending that charter school. And since we were a smaller school, we did shut down for a brief minute but was able to stay open. But it had a hard time with the numbers and being able to help the families, having issues with the technology because that's when a lot of families didn't have the technology or the internet capabilities to be able to do online school. So it became just a real challenge. And during that time is when I got introduced to Janelle Wood and Deborah Colbert-Green who are the Founder and CEO of Black Mothers Forum. And they were founding and building a micro school and being on one of their information sessions, I originally thought this would be a good place to place my child because he was having difficulty staying focused and being engaged in the school where he was at. Even though I was a teacher there, I think I was more so a distraction being a teacher there instead. So it was a very interesting topic to hear more about.

Horn:                Super interesting. And I'm just sort of curious, that's a big move, right? I mean any parent that sends their kid to a school, I think often you say, okay well they're going to be there until the school runs out of grade levels, they go to the next one. And plus you're a teacher there, there's an emotional tie, this is where you work. And so what was happening that you sort of said, gee, we're going to make the switch and actually start this micro school. What jumped out at you about it?

Dudley:             I think it was the autonomy that the children have, where they're more of a participant in their education instead of just a bystander in the background. Normally at how we were taught to teach is that we have information, that we give the information to the child and basically we tell them what they're going to learn and what they're going to do and in what order they're going to do it. But at the micro schools, they had a lot more freedom, they were able to learn through project based, to take the things that interest them, that they're interested in learning to be able to dive deeper and study into it. The very smaller classroom sizes was a big thing. The micro schools have a very short number. This one had a max of 10 kids per classroom. And so being able to be in that space where you can get the one-on-one help, being able to have that autonomy to learn and ask questions and to grow at your own pace.

                        And that was kind of the things that attracted me to the micro schools, especially in regards to my child because he was having a lot of time, hard time focusing. He didn't want to be at school. He just had lost all interest in learning whatsoever. And at home it had become more like a fight to get him to do his work, to get up in the morning. And it was starting to shift and change the dynamic between the mother and son relationship. Because now when we're not home, I'm still not mommy, I'm still teacher because I'm having to be on him about doing this work and this is what you have to learn.

                        And so just going through that, I knew that something needed to change. And so when I saw the microschools and I was like, I believe it would be a really good fit for him. And so a little bit of fear, because change is big. The school that he was going to was the only school that he had been to, so he had never been to any other school. And so I was nervous of how he would adjust to the change. But it ended up being such a smooth transition and one of the best transitions he's did. So I was super happy to see how that go.

Horn:                Super interesting. But what's also interesting is, it wasn't just him that made the transition. As I understand it, you made the transition as well and helped found the microschool. Tell us about that jump and leap and what that meant for you personally and professionally?

Dudley:             But yes, I was at one of the microschools, one of the teachers that was there from the beginning. So from the beginning of its inception I was there and it was a big jump because this is new. The micro schools is something that hadn't been done and organized in such a way. So it was kind of a scary jump to be able to make that transition. But at the same time, there's also, you know there's something that needed to be changed. I saw the need to have it changed even in the lives of my own children and they're not the only ones that I've seen that they need a different approach when it comes to education. And I believe that the micro schools was that approach to be able to take. That it would give that opportunity that we needed to change the dynamics of education, to change that narrative.

Horn:                I'm curious, do all three of your kids now go to that microschool or how has that shaken out?


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Dudley:             My two youngest one does. My oldest one is just in high school, so they don't have the microschool for his age. But my two youngest children do go. And it has been such a beautiful transition for them, just to see them not be so down casted when it comes to learning. Like, "Oh, I have to do this. Oh, I have to do this." So it's no longer a fight to get them to want to do stuff. Now they'll ask questions about things that we're doing in the classroom and sometimes they'll even take the initiative to dig deeper and learn themselves to come share in the classroom.

                        So that transition has been beautiful and even at home as well. So now I don't have to fight with them to do work as much, so when I go home I can be just mommy. So it has also improved our relationship as well too. So with both of my children, it took them a little bit to get used to it because they're in the same classroom, so they're around each other all day. And so at first you would see a lot of the bickering that you do within siblings, but even that itself has started to smoothed out as they mature and as they dive deeper into the learning and asking the questions of things.

Horn:                Wow, that's something I'm taking notes on as a parent of twins where I'm always wondering about how that might shake out if they're in the same class. But I'm curious, because that harmony is something I talk a lot about with parents is like, you don't want to be fighting with your kids about what's going on in school. You want to be their advocate and behind them. It sounds like you were able to make that work and align those things in your personal life, on top of the fact that I guess there's been a bunch of policy changes in Arizona that's made micro schools more possible.

Dudley:             Yes.

Horn:                So I'm curious, what's the state of microschools more broadly in Arizona and the current context of the microschool, how many students are there? How how's it going today as we've really emerged on the other side of at least the pandemic piece of COVID?

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Dudley:             Right. And definitely in Arizona, they do make it a lot easier to have the microschools out with the laws that are already in place and the support with school choice that's out here. And so our microschools are able to grow and expand a lot easier and be formed. Our current microschools will go up to 10 students per classroom. And we normally have two coaches inside of each classroom. So there's a one to five ratio when it comes with the kids. And so that in itself creates that harmony that you were speaking of. When you're in a setting where you really get to know the people around you, you really get to know your teacher, you really get to know your other classmates, you become comfortable and they almost become a little bit of a family, like little cousins that they call each other.

                        And so just them feeling that safe and comfortable in an environment, tends to drop down their defenses. And so they're not all defensive or guarded all day. Being on your guard all day is kind of exhausting. And when children live in that state of guardedness, I don't know what's going to happen, especially coming from post pandemic because there are so many changes. And so mentally and emotionally they're all guarded. But when they're in an environment that they feel safe, where they feel secure, where they feel protected, being in that environment really helped my children be able to feel safe. Especially being in an environment with The Black Mothers Forum where they were able to see guides and other students that looked like them as well.

Horn:                Yeah, it seems incredibly powerful. And I guess it's where I want to go next, is shifting into this more macro work you do with The Black Mothers Forum as well. Why don't you actually tell us about that organization first and the work you do there before we get into the connection with your education journey?

Dudley:             Okay yeah. The Black Mothers Forum their mission is to educate, organize, and take action. And in this regard as relates to school, there was a lot of issues that the mothers, there were just mothers at the time were seeing that was going on in the education system. Just injustices the things that were going on. And so they were advocating for these families, trying to help them, going to school boards and going to the meetings and stuff to advocate for parents whose children were being unjustly treated in the classroom and by administration. And so within that work, they kept coming together, coming together, and then Black Mothers Forum was created to form, to help go for advocacy is how it started. But as the years went by and they're still working in this fight to get the same treatment for all children, that it turned into a place that maybe what we're looking for and what we're needing is not there. Maybe we have to create that environment.

                        And so that's when the ideal of the creating a school was born. And COVID kind of helped shift those things with the emergence of these micro schools. And that's kind of how the micro schools were formed in that need. And so the micro schools are targeted to help our Black and brown children because in Arizona we tend to see those statistics or those are the ones that tends to fall in those cracks. And so those are the ones that need a lot of help, that needs a lot of love and attention.

Horn:                So it's interesting, if I understand it because essentially The Black Mothers Forum exists to take action to make sure that there's these avenues for these microschools or other such interventions that-

Dudley:             Yes.

Horn:                Create pathways if you will, for the young to really allow them to flourish in many ways. And when you're describing having a school environment where kids can let down their guard, they don't have to be on their defensive self where they can see role models that look like them and so forth and really make that identification. And then be picking work that's meaningful to them to learn the various standards and so forth. It seems like in many ways that's... Culmination is probably the wrong word, but it's a great manifestation of the work that Black Mothers Forum is doing to make something really tangible that parents can opt into. Is that sort of the theory of change? And where do you see it going as this continues to play out?

Dudley:             Well, I see them growing a lot. The need especially post COVID, the need for something smaller or the need for change has been driven to the forefront just by society itself, wanting to see some kind of change. I think the eyes were opened of all that teachers do and what is required when a lot of the kids had to stay home when that pandemic hit. And so a lot of parents and stuff are seeing what's going on specifically with their child, because a lot of parents didn't really get eyeballs in the classroom, so to say, to see how their children processes through work. And COVID kind of allowed that. So coming out of that, we are seeing a more demand of a need for change and it can change in a different way. So I see it growing tremendously.

Horn:                So it strikes me that you're really empowering parents then to be able to make a choice and not feel like that they're at the mercy of the 'system' and that they have these personalized options. I'm curious, you get to talk to the families who are enrolling in the micro school. Is that the motivation that they bring or what sort of drives them to find this?

Dudley:             I think most of it is just the need for their child to feel safe. Because a lot of times when people come to us, they've tried all the avenues that they know how to try. They tried working with teachers, they've tried working with administration, they've tried moving to different schools and they just can't find the right fit that they're looking for for their child. And a lot of times they often don't know exactly what it is. They just know that what I am in right now is not working and I need to change something. I need to do something else. And so when we come here, they're just looking for something. And what they don't know is a place where we can look at the child, the whole child holistically and not just the academic portion of the child.

                        A lot of schools, they really just focus on the academic portion. Are they learning the standards? Are they learning the curriculum? But they don't really get a chance to look at the whole child holistically. Are you emotionally okay? Are you physically okay? What is wrong with you in general? And oftentimes when you have 30 kids in one classroom, there just isn't time for you to be able to do that or form those kind of bonds that the children at that age kind of need.

Horn:                So it's fascinating on so many levels. Because what you're describing I think mirrored with the research that we did around why parents switched their kids' school. And one of the big reasons is the current place, it's just not going in a good direction. I need that escape valve and something is going to be better than what it is now. And so they're making that leap to get out of a bad situation in many cases. And it seems like your answer in many ways is this more personalized feel. And as we wrap up here, the last question I'm curious is, for you as an educator, having been an aide, taught in a more conventional school and so forth. Now you move to this environment where you get this incredibly nice student teacher ratio, you get to do the projects, you're following the interests of the kids, you're getting to attend to the whole child. What was hard about that transition or what have you learned maybe is the better question out of that transition for you professionally that you might not have expected when you got into teaching originally?

Dudley:             It was a whole lot of things that came out of this transition. Number one is, I didn't realize how lacking it was until I got out of the environment. To be able to... Just noticing how the children react now if a child came in and not a good mood or something like that. How you treated it at a public school is very different than how I can treat it now. Well before, you still have to come in, I see you're looking different than normal, but you still have to come in, you still have to sit down, you still have to get to work. And if things are not going well, then I send you to a nurse or I send you to a counselor or I send you somewhere else. But here, when a child comes in, I'll be like, the first thing I ask is, "Are you okay? Or do you want to talk about it or do you want to journal it?"

                        Because they have their own journals and so have them let it out. And over time they start talking and they start sharing and you're almost like a counselor, or just a listening ear so to say. But that student teacher relationship shifts a lot. And so that was one that I was not expecting. But I do love how beautiful it looks when it comes. Because when a child fully feels comfortable and lets down all their guards, watching them blossom, it's just so beautiful when you see that curiosity and that passion ignited once again to be able. To see their eyes of wonder that open up when we're doing experiments and things like that.

                        It is so wonderful to be able to see that light bulb turn on in children again. And so that was one thing that I was not expecting to see come out of it, is that closeness relationship. Not only do they open up, but I open up a lot too about what my passions are. Also, the work that I do with the economic development team of Black Mothers Forum, I'm able to share that in the classroom as well too. Teaching them how they run their own businesses, how economics and how finances work. Something that they typically won't get in elementary school in class, we're able to incorporate that in as well.

Horn:                That's powerful. And it occurs to me that in many ways you're illustrating the truth that we know from the research, which is that when you're on your defensiveness, when everything's coming at you, the ability to be curious or creative or inventive, it's just not there. But once you create that safe space, you open everything up. So I lied, I guess one more question, which is-

Dudley:             Oh yes.

Horn:                If you're speaking to parents right around the country, around the world who are trying to figure out how to unlock those opportunities for their kids, what's your biggest piece of advice to them as they go on this journey, advocating for their children?

Dudley:             Is to just keep speaking up. A lot of times we see parents get very discouraged as they're trying to look and trying to fall in other alternatives and things. It's just to keep speaking up. Oftentimes we find that in our children as well too. When they come to the microschools, they don't know how to speak up for themselves. So you ask them questions and they don't know how to respond because they're so used to being silenced or used to not being listened to. And we see that reflecting in a lot of parents too. It's just to just keep searching, keep advocating, keep speaking up. There are options. And now more and more, you see more of these micro schools popping up, more of these different ideas in traditional schools popping up everywhere. And just to keep looking and keep speaking out and keep advocating for your child.

Horn:                It's a super powerful message. You are a super inspiring example of living it.

Dudley:             Thank you.

The Future of Education
The Future of Education
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