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Friday Feature: Path of Life Learning

Colleen Hroncich

Mercedes Grant knew there had to be a better way to educate students. A special education with experience in several states, she kept seeing the same problems. She didn’t think it made any sense to expect kids—especially students in special education—to learn in the same way and at the same pace.

Then she heard about microschools. “As soon as I started researching it, I knew that that is exactly what I wanted to do with my career. It was just the absolute perfect fit for me to be able to take the positive things that were happening within my classroom and create an entire school or microschool or learning center that looks just like that,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to leave teaching. This is my passion. And I feel like it’s my calling. I want to be an educator, but I did not like the constraints of public education. It was really, really hard for me to be able to teach in a way that I felt that was ethical.”

Mercedes took a big leap and opened Path of Life Learning microschool in Virginia last fall. They have around 32 students now and expect 60 in grades K‑6 for the upcoming year. Families can choose a two‐ or four‐​day option. Mornings are focused on traditional academic classes, while afternoons are all about enrichment.

Students are divided into cohort levels for academics. “We have some self‐​directed learning and self‐​paced learning for English and math. And for social studies and science, we do whole groups,” Mercedes explains. “In the afternoon, they do their clubs—we call that power hour. We have extended learning time for any skills that they might be missing or any work that they still need to complete. That is called grow your brain. And then we have time for other adults to come in and teach classes. We have music and sign language, and we also just added art and yoga.”

The microschool is held in a church, where they have three classrooms this year and will have five next year. They also have four acres of outdoor space, which Mercedes says has been terrific. “We have woods and a field. We’re getting ready to do a community garden. So we are definitely using the space,” she says. “Whenever possible, especially with our science lessons, we go into the woods, and we learn about what’s happening in the world around us. And we really get into paying attention and being quiet and enjoying the beauty of God’s world. That has been one of the best things, I think, is not being confined to the classroom space. We really, really enjoy being outside and we love our hikes. We love to just kind of explore nature. It’s been really beautiful and peaceful to have so much open air.”

With her background in special education, Mercedes has been heartened to see how well kids with various learning needs do at Path of Life Learning. “With the small space and the small numbers that we have, we are able to serve students with special needs very, very well,” she says. “We’re able to meet them where they are, and it’s just incredible because every student is able to be exactly where they need to be. So we love our special education students. They fit right in and are able to work at a pace and in a way that is meaningful to them, which is huge for me.”

This year, most of the students were already homeschooled. For next year, there are more coming from public or private schools. “I think the biggest appeal is the hybrid model. Most of my students are two days per week. We also offer the four‐​day option, but I do really think that people are turning back to more family time. They’re enjoying the quality time that comes with being able to spend more time with your children,” Mercedes says. “I really have seen the relationships flourish, my own included, when you’re not working all the time or even not parenting all the time. A lot of homeschool moms enjoy the fact that they can get things done and really focus on their kids when their kids are at home. The feedback that I’ve gotten from that is very positive.”

Mercedes realizes she’s tapped into an underserved market. “I filled up in three weeks last year, and I have a waiting list with over 50 students—and I’m getting inquiries every day,” she says. While she loves her location and wants to keep it, she wants to help serve that unmet demand. “I really love this model. Unless we get more educators or more entrepreneurs to create this model in this area, I just feel like it’s the natural course to continue to expand and find ways to plant seeds.”

As a military wife, Mercedes has a special affinity for giving military families more options—85 percent of her students are from military families. “We have seven different military bases here,” she explains. “Our military kids often get lost because we drift. We’re very transient. My son has been to nine schools. He’s a senior this year and he’s just kind of drifted, and it’s so hard. So if we can offer a space for students that have been transient or that haven’t been able to successfully find a school home that is appropriate to them, how rewarding would that be? And to be able to say, ‘You know what? I can’t work with you this year, but I’m going to keep growing so that I can make more space for you in the future.’ I think that’s a beautiful thing and it’s a blessing. And I don’t take that lightly. I really want to serve as many kids as I can in a way that remains true to our vision. So, I still want to stay micro, have multi‐​age and low class numbers, and do this the right way and the more joyful way of learning. But I really do want to serve more people.”

Mercedes doesn’t know what her next steps will be, but she’s open to whatever God has planned for her. “Who would have known that this girl working in rural Kentucky would be opening her own school less than 10 years later?” she asks. “It’s incredible.”

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