Learning pods and homeschool co-ops: New twists on old ideas

Since COVID-19, learning pods or micro-schools have exploded in the education world as an increasingly attractive alternative to the existing public school system.

After all, if people are already…

Since COVID-19, learning pods or micro-schools have exploded in the education world as an increasingly attractive alternative to the existing public school system.

After all, if people are already avoiding large groups because of health concerns, why not explore these small, hyper-local groups of students who learn under a common teacher (or teachers)?

What people may not realize is that many features and benefits of the learning pod have existed for a long time under a different name: the homeschool co-operative, or co-op for short.

From California to Kansas

Liz Mains, a homeschool graduate who founded the homeschool co-op Legacy Christian Academy (LCA) in Kansas City, knows firsthand some of the similarities and differences between co-ops and learning pods.

Mains attended a private school through 4th grade and was homeschooled starting in 5th grade in San Diego, Calif.

“I never saw a disadvantage moving to homeschooling, and in fact, never missed or looked back on my traditional school days,” she said.

After she and her husband, Randy, moved to Kansas in 1997, they started homeschooling in 2007 when their children were of school age. 

They launched LCA in 2015 to help homeschool families find support, encouragement and community through shared classes and events.

Parental involvement

Both learning pods and homeschool co-ops share the same desire and coming together of students and parents choosing an alternative educational path, Mains said.

The differences tend to emerge over the level of parent involvement. In homeschool co-ops, the parents usually take a more active role in teaching than parents in learning pods. 

For example, parents often teach classes that they have expertise in (e.g., a parent with an English degree will teach English classes). Others may volunteer in other ways to keep the co-op running (such as providing childcare for infants and toddlers too young for formal classes).

“Parents also direct the education of their students at home, taking on the bulk of the responsibility,” Mains said.

In addition to parent-led classes, LCA offers its community a range of extracurricular and social activities. Families can take advantage of coordinated field trips, annual field days and family picnics, game nights, clubs and community service days, and high school formals. Moms can also enjoy quarterly Moms Nights Out gatherings.

The co-op also provides assistance with record-keeping and school transcripts in preparation for college applications.

School and family schedules

Both homeschool co-ops and learning pods vary in the duration and frequency of their classes. Some may take only 1-3 hours; others can take a half-day or full academic day of lessons. Some meet as frequently as two or three times a week; others may meet only once or twice a month.

Costume day at the co-op

Families who join LCA can choose to attend twice or four times per month depending on what works best for their schedule, Mains said.

“This allows families to keep a fairly flexible schedule, but there is the element of commitment,” she said. “Other co-ops, and especially pods, will likely require greater time commitment and therefore, will not be as flexible – limiting some of that freedom we homeschoolers know and love.”

The question of cost often surfaces with both homeschool co-ops and learning pods. The nonprofit National School Choice Week pegs the range of learning pod pricing from free to hundreds of dollars per student a month.

“Many co-ops in our area hire teachers rather than using parents in the primary teaching position, and this can increase the cost,” Mains said. “The higher the parent involvement the lower the cost, but this also means a greater time commitment on the parent’s part.”

Questions that families should ask

When considering whether to join a learning pod, parents may need to consider the length of time it has operated.

If the pod has only existed for a few years, then it may not withstand the pressure of changing circumstances and staffing over time.

Mains also recommends that parents carefully review materials such as the pod’s stated vision and goals, policies, and belief statements.

“If they [the parents] find things that don’t mesh with their family’s values or educational goals, keep looking,” she said. “What is the commitment level of the teachers, students, and parents? What are the long-term goals of the pod? How will they handle conflict between students or students and teachers? This should be clearly laid out in the policies.”

Overall, Mains thinks that one positive aspect of learning pods is their ability to help parents realize they have choices when it comes to their child’s school, and what it may look like.

“I love that parents are choosing something different, something other than typical public education,” she said.

A June 2021 poll by the nonprofit Ed Choice found that 37 percent of parents surveyed in a nationally representative sample of Americans are either participating in, or looking to join or form, their own learning pod. 

“They see the merits of a more individual approach to education and have connected with like-minded families to create these pods,” Mains said. “I think some of these families will gain confidence as their journey progresses and might jump into homeschooling entirely.”

Pictures provided by Liz Mains