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Over the last year, Opt Out School’s van, dubbed the Magic School Bus, carried 10 students to learning adventures in multiple national parks, across state lines, and to local explorations.

The new micro-school launched last year, as families adjusted to pandemic-caused changes in the world of education and started looking for flexible, independent learning options. With increasing interest and a new partnership, the school is tripling the number of students it accepts and expanding to offer full K-8 grade learning.

“I wanted to be Miss Frizzle,” joked Michaella Croskey, founder of Opt Out School. “She has about eight kids and she’s putting her students through real life challenges and adventures. That was the idea.”

Croskey, who has seven years in education, previously worked in the Big Sky School District and Anderson School. She had decided to take a break after feeling public schools weren’t the best fit for her.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and upended education, Croskey saw families looking for a smaller school experiences and felt it was the right time to launch her own.

“I think one of the positives of last year was that parents were forced to get up close and personal with their child’s learning and saw what was maybe working and what wasn’t,” said Croskey. “…People are a little more mindful of ‘What does my child need?’”

In a nutshell, Croskey said, the school is focused on experiential learning and being outside to learn beyond school walls as often as possible.

Some of the more unconventional lessons included pottery, cooking, outdoor hike lessons with MOSS and larger trips to national parks like Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.

Croskey was last year’s sole educator, or guide as the program refers to teachers, for the 10 students.

“I’m the bus driver and I’m the janitor and I’m the principal. It’s a very one-room schoolhouse vibes,” she said of last year.

This year, she has partnered with Jessica Dehn, who started the Explore Academy in September 2020. After connecting, the two co-founders decided to join forces and base their school on the Acton Academy approach, which focused on self-directed learning through real world experiences.

They plan to have 10 students in kindergarten to second grades, 10 in third to fifth grades and 10 in sixth to eighth grades. The two founders are hoping to recruit three new teachers for the expanded program, one for each grade band.

The school has seen interest from families who previously were enrolled in public schools, other private schools or homeschooled.

Sarah Orms, whose two children — grades four and six —enrolled at the school last year, said her family had known Croskey from her time at Anderson and already had a lot of confidence in her.

“Michaella made school fun,” she said. “There was just more opportunity to be a little bit more exploratory with what they learned and that was really valuable for them.”

The family was drawn to the learning outside of the classroom through outdoor adventures and letting the students be more independent.

“I think the more compelling aspect of it for both them and us was to have more self-directed learning experiences. It kind of invigorated them for learning new things,” Orms said.

For example, Orms said, the trip to Zion included individualized learning opportunities, where each student could pick an aspect of the trip to learn more about. Rowan and Freya, Orms’s two children, chose to dig into the creation of Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel and history and geology of Utah’s Kodachrome Basin State Park, respectively.

“It was a fuller picture of how that park spoke to them,” Orms said.

The experiential learning comes with a price tag though — roughly $4,500 per trimester, or $13,500 for a school year, and a legal commitment to enroll in the full school year.

Croskey said they will be offering limited scholarships for this next school year and there are hopes to provide more scholarship funds in the future.

The Orms family has made the decision to return to Anderson School for the next school year.

“It’s not in our financial wheelhouse to do it this year,” she said. “If it was possible, we would have seriously considered it.”

Orms said they were able to make it work last year because they also wanted the added security of a smaller learning group due to an ill family member who was at higher risk of COVID-19.

“It’s so disappointing to me that people who don’t have the means to do this, have such few choices,” Orms said. “… That model that Michaella is using to encourage the love of learning is so important and sometimes it gets lost in school.”

Opt Out School has filled 50% of its spots and is continuing to offer open houses and one-on-one tours for families ahead of the Sept. 7 start day. Croskey said they’re doing interviews with potential parents and encouraging families to find the right fit for their child.

At Opt Out, students are expected to be more independent learners and the school isn’t offering some services like daily buses to and from school and a provided lunch.

“We’re very clear it’s not for everyone,” Croskey said. “… You’re giving up some of the comforts of a larger school and we do put a lot of responsibility onto the student.”

For the next school year, the Magic School Bus will return to take students on more adventures but Croskey said the destination will be guided by what the students are interested in.

“If they have to plan it, they have such ownership over it that the trip goes really smoothly and they know what to expect,” she said. “They put their heart and soul into it.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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