Friday Feature: Eyes and Brain STEM Center

Colleen Hroncich

Eric Eisenbrey was a middle school science teacher for 10 years, but he often felt like he couldn’t really help his students given the constraints of the system. So he decided to make a change. “I knew that education was my passion, so I wanted to make sure I found a way to keep working in education,” he says. Through his research, he found Microschool Builders, where he got the support to create Eyes and Brains STEM Center, a microschool in rural Elkins, West Virginia.

Earlier this year, Eric shared his story at a Cato Institute event, Showcasing Education Entrepreneurs. It’s a great example of how school choice programs can help bring educational options to rural and low‐​income areas.

When he first started looking into starting a microschool, “There was this concern of being in a lower socioeconomic area in West Virginia—that opening a micro school wouldn’t be affordable to families,” he explains. “It requires a good amount of funding to be able to have a school and be able to offer the materials and the supplies and the experience to students. But it just so happened that at the point that I was just working on launching my school, the state passed our ESA program, which is called Hope Scholarship. And with that passing in the state, it really gave me the opportunity to say, ‘OK, this is something I can do. This is a viable way of parents being able to sign their students up for the school and being able to have enough funding.’”

The monopoly system fought against the program, challenging it in court, which complicated things and caused a “rough start” in the first year. But Eric was able to launch with seven students last fall. “The kids are so excited to have this space where they’re able to really explore their passions,” he says. “My big focus is on showing students that the science, the engineering, the technology, the math, it all comes into play in any interest they have, anything they do. It’s all about that critical thinking.”

Eyes and Brains STEM Center uses mixed‐​age classrooms and a student‐​centered focus, and he takes a very individualized approach to evaluating where his students are in their learning journeys. “Even without standardized tests, I know what math skills my students are struggling with. I know what reading skills my students are struggling with. I know where there are gaps in their knowledge of history or science. And it’s different for each kid,” he says.

Eric realizes there’s going to be some pushback as new learning options like microschools spread because they aren’t standardized.

We want these hard, fast numbers. We want these labels. And we want to be able to say ‘This student’s an “A” student, this student’s a “B” student.’ But I want to be able to say this is this student, this is this individual. Because that’s what parents see. They see their kid. And parents are starting to realize that they want their students to be in a situation where their student is seen as their student. As this individual, not as the “A” student or “B” student or the kid that’s always getting in trouble just because they need out of their seat. And in the smaller school setting, in the microschools, we’re able to really see our students. We’re able to then personalize that growth.

From Eric’s perspective, one problem of the standardized approach in the school system is that the modifications students receive can hinder their development. He’s currently working with a child who is dyslexic. In a public school, the child would probably test all right because he’d have someone reading the passage and questions to him along with other modifications. But that wouldn’t be helping him actually become a better reader. “He loves getting new information, and not being able to read a text when it’s put in front of him is a barrier. It limits him from doing different things that other kids around him can do,” Eric explains. “In the microschool, I’m working with him as that individual student, looking at what it is specifically he needs and trying to meet those specific needs. He might not look like he’s doing as well compared to his peers. But I can see when the growth is happening.”

At the Cato event, an attendee asked if the panelists had any tips on how to get more mainstream acceptance of these alternative learning models. To Eric, parent education is key. Many parents still aren’t aware the Hope Scholarship exists. He runs after‐​school programs at his microschool, and often parents who come for those programs are surprised to learn there’s a full‐​time school option there for their children. Parents are used to education looking a certain way, so there’s often a need for “de‐​schooling” to help them understand it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Having been a public education teacher, I found that I had to de‐​school myself when I stepped out of the classroom,” he recalls. “I had to realize that it doesn’t have to be all the subjects broken up and we have to hit on these certain things in a certain amount of time. And really the parents that I have now, the big thing for them is that they’re seeing just how happy their students can be in a different environment where they have more freedom, where they have more choice, and where the education is tailored to them.”

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