The Micro Wave: Seattle's Lakeside School Embraces a New Education Model

Summer 2017

By Amanda Darling, Carey Gelernter

Many families in the independent school world are struggling with ever-rising tuition prices and stagnant incomes at the same time independent schools are struggling to rein in expenditures, says Michael Horn in “The Job of Innovation,” an article in the Spring 2017 issue of Independent School magazine. Horn, cofounder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank on disruptive innovation, notes that along the way many challengers to the independent school model have surfaced. Among them, micro-schools, a stripped-down, no-frills model of education, which he suggests may pose an existential challenge for the independent school world. One approach to dealing with that challenge, he says, is to reframe micro-schools not as a threat, but an opportunity, “in which case, schools may innovate by creating separate organizations and launching their own micro-schools.”

That is precisely what Seattle’s Lakeside School is doing.

As Lakeside approaches its centennial in 2018, leaders at the school have been looking ahead and considering what is next—not only for Lakeside and its students, but for independent schools in general. And in looking to the future, Lakeside is playing a role in envisioning an educational experience that could remake the independent school world as it currently exists.

How We Got Here

With an 18 percent admit rate, Lakeside turns away a huge number of stellar students, and the area’s projected rapid growth promises to continue to fuel demand.

In January 2014, the executive committee of Lakeside’s board of trustees asked the school administration to explore possible avenues for expansion. In considering how to serve as many qualified students in the Seattle metro area as it can, Lakeside’s trustees considered several possibilities. One option was to expand the current campus to accommodate an additional 200 students. When architects determined that would require retrofitting existing buildings and constructing a new academic building and performing arts center on the Upper School campus at costs approaching $100 million, the trustees deemed that unfeasible and voted “no.” 

Enter a different option: the micro-school. After having spent 18 months researching new school models, Head of School Bernie Noe presented the promising concept of a micro-school to the board in October 2015. Micro-schools, he noted, are gaining attention nationally as a model that prizes academic excellence and innovation delivered at lower cost than most independent schools.

Much like colleges and universities, costs at independent schools have grown as they provide more services and amenities. Micro-schools seek to trim expenses in ways easier to do as a smaller, nimbler operation. They may rent a storefront, for example, rather than maintain a campus. They can hire fewer faculty who would wear more hats, such as taking on major administrative responsibilities and working longer hours for higher pay. And they can emphasize academics while taking a cafeteria-menu-style approach to other offerings. So, for example, if students are involved in off-campus performing arts or music groups or sports teams, they may prefer not to pay for comprehensive arts and sports programs.

Lakeside's Sue Belcher (right), micro-school director, and Birage Tandon, CFO.In December 2015 the trustees supported Noe’s proposal and voted to start a micro-school. Lakeside plans to open a micro-school in the fall of 2018. Many decisions have been made, but many more remain and there are still many details to be worked out. Led by Noe and Sue Belcher, formerly Lakeside’s director of summer school programs and upper school library department head who now serves as Lakeside’s micro-school director, a team has been working on site selection, curriculum development, finances, staffing, marketing and communications, and outreach to potential students and families.

The micro-school will be separate from but affiliated with Lakeside, with a different educational model, admissions process, student-life program, and cost. It will serve 160 ninth- to 12th-grade students. Tuition will be set at approximately $17,000 per year (compared to Lakeside’s 2017–2018 tuition of $33,280)—an amount we believe is affordable to middle-class families. And we’ve set a goal of providing financial aid as the school grows.

Currently, despite Lakeside’s vigorous financial aid program, which now distributes nearly $6 million in aid each year, too many families feel they cannot afford the tuition. “I believe Lakeside School as it currently exists will continue to thrive and innovate,” Noe says, adding, “but some families may prefer a different set of choices for their students.”

“The micro-school,” Belcher says, “will preserve the fundamental components of Lakeside: a high-quality academic education, meaningful student-faculty relationships, and a diverse body of students and adults. That being said, it will be different.” The new school will more narrowly focus on academics rather than providing a comprehensive slate of offerings; will not offer athletics or arts; will have somewhat larger class sizes; and will operate in a modest, leased space.

But, Belcher says, “I believe that the micro-school will be able to capitalize on its size and educational approach to create a dynamic and challenging academic experience for its students.” It will combine some of the best aspects of Lakeside School’s curriculum with special programs and features that are unique to the micro-school. At its heart, the academic program will focus on developing critical and creative thinkers who can communicate and interact effectively. Students will “learn how to learn” so they can prepare for a future in which rapid change is the norm.

The goal is, ultimately, to offer another choice for high-achieving Seattle-area students: a school that is not less than but different from Lakeside, and one that will meet individual students’ and families’ preferences and needs in terms of cost, location, and interests.

What We Have Learned (So Far)

Most well-established independent schools are not known for being “scrappy.” And it certainly wasn’t a word often applied to Lakeside, with its $200 million-plus endowment and nearly 100 years of history. But during the first year of planning, the micro-school team had to rethink assumptions to make this educational model sustainable.

Here are some early lessons we learned—in some cases, the hard way.

Adopt a startup mentality.

In looking for models about how to move the micro-school from concept to reality, the team didn’t have to look far. Seattle is full of startups—from tech companies to arts nonprofits to service organizations. What we had in common was a core group of dedicated individuals inspired by a big idea. Another thing we had in common? A lack of funding. With the goal of keeping things lean, a small group of people at Lakeside, led by Belcher and Noe, took on a wide range of unfamiliar tasks. 

In some cases, that meant mastering—or at least figuring out the basics of—something totally new. One of the first tasks was finding a home for the micro-school, which meant learning about the commercial real estate market. Working alongside real estate brokers, Belcher, Noe, and Chief Financial Officer Birage Tandon toured locations throughout the city and pored over a lengthy lease before finally realizing they’d made a beginner’s error: rentable space (what you pay for) is different than usable space (what you can use). Leasing 15,000 square feet meant getting only approximately 12,000 square feet, notes Belcher, with the additional space made up of hallways, elevators, lobbies, bathrooms, etc. “That was something we learned the hard way,” she says.

Ask for help.

The majority of work is done by a core group of individuals, but we do not work in a vacuum. At every step, we’ve drawn on the expertise of colleagues at Lakeside and beyond.

In January 2016, Belcher and Tandon travelled to New York to visit forward-thinking schools, including Avenues: The World School, a new branch of the San Francisco-based AltSchool; BASIS Independent Brooklyn; and The Equity Project Charter School. In meetings with heads of schools, business officers, teachers, and students, Belcher and Tandon learned about the schools’ approaches to real estate, facilities, finances, curricula, schedules, hiring, staffing, and outreach to potential students and families. They also learned mistakes made along the way during the start-up process. “It was surprising how open they were,” Belcher says.

Back in Seattle, Belcher pulled together a selection of Lakeside’s most innovative teachers to start big-picture thinking about the schedule and curriculum—everything from the length of the school day to the role of interdisciplinary learning. She also looked to leaders from outside the school, connecting with educators through NAIS, the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools, the Gates Foundation, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, CITYterm at The Masters School, and the Enrollment Management Association (formerly SSATB).

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Not everything has to be custom-designed. The micro-school will use curriculum, policies, and concepts developed at other schools—particularly Lakeside.

Lakeside School’s curriculum is one of the main reasons that students and families choose the school. So it made sense to base the micro-school curriculum on Lakeside’s academic program. English, history, Spanish, math, and science classes will be similar to the classes at Lakeside. Juniors and seniors at the micro-school will be able to take electives through another Lakeside startup: Global Online Academy (GOA), a nonprofit organization that sets best practices in online education through intellectually rigorous classes; excellent teaching; and diverse, worldwide, online schoolroom communities. “Tapping into the benefits of a consortium will complement our smaller teaching faculty,” Belcher says.

The two schools will share the same mission and statement of community expectations, and the micro-school will borrow heavily from Lakeside’s employee policy manual and family handbook, which have evolved over time to reflect best practices. And even though the two schools will have a separate admissions process, both will use Ravenna admissions software. Likewise, the micro-school will rely on Lakeside’s communications office, development office, business office, and human resources.

The team also is borrowing concepts established elsewhere. For example, the micro-school’s staffing model was inspired by the Equity Project Charter School. Like the Equity Project, the Lakeside micro-school will pay teachers above the industry standard, with a starting salary of $100,000. Teachers will take on additional all-school roles like serving on the admissions committee, organizing service learning, or working on student support.

Another inspiration is Minerva, a San Francisco-based startup college that combines online courses with experiential learning around the world. In the spring of 2016, Belcher attended a workshop at Minerva’s headquarters to learn about its “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts.” As Graeme Wood wrote in The Atlantic, Minerva’s founder describes these two ideas as “the basis for all sound systematic thought. In a science class, for example, students should develop a deep understanding of the need for controlled experiments. In a humanities class, they need to learn the classical techniques of rhetoric and develop basic persuasive skills.” In addition to learning how Minerva uses cities as labs for teaching, Belcher emerged with ideas about how to build the curriculum around graduation outcomes—“key ways you will be able to recognize any micro-school graduate by the time they cross the stage”—including being an active learner, thinking critically and creatively, and communicating and interacting effectively.

Don’t go high-end.

One early realization was that Lakeside’s regular contacts and collaborators weren’t necessarily the best choice for the micro-school. Working with a $500/hour real-estate lawyer could not be part of the micro-school’s lean financial model. Even when high-end partners were willing to extend special pricing, it didn’t necessarily give the team what they needed. For example, an early strategic marketing workshop with the consulting firm Intentional Futures (whose clients include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, General Electric, and Viacom) was inspirational and got ideas flowing, but few of the deliverables were of lasting use.

Readjusting expectations about who to work with also came into play during the search for a school location. In November 2016, Belcher and the team thought they’d found the perfect spot for the micro-school: a ground-floor space in historic Pioneer Square, blocks from a major transportation hub. Occupancy costs were at the high end of what the team had budgeted, and as conversations with the landlord progressed, the team realized it would be difficult to assess potential future costs at that location. “The decision to walk away from the deal was difficult, but grounded in the foundational vision for the micro-school,” Belcher says. “What makes a great school is talented teachers and a world-class curriculum, not a fancy building.” The micro-school’s self-sustaining financial model necessitates careful financial stewardship. “We don’t know what other obstacles will come up along the way, and we don’t want to over-extend ourselves with real estate.”

Questions We Still Need to Answer

Over the last few months, it’s been heartening to see so much positive interest in the micro-school—from fellow educators, Lakeside community members, and prospective families. People ask us many great questions. But oftentimes, our answer is: We’ll have to get back to you on that.

These are just some of the questions to which we’ll be discovering answers in the months ahead:

What will the micro-school offer that Lakeside doesn’t?

Belcher and her team are currently defining and establishing the special programs and features that will distinguish the micro-school. It’s one thing to say that students will use the city as a lab at least one day each week, and that juniors and seniors will all have internships. But what does that look like? What will they be doing? With whom will they be working? These are great questions, and we are excited to answer them.

Who are your partners?

Partnerships and community relationships will play a major role in the micro-school—for educational reasons and public relations. At every step of the way, people have helped us learn and make valuable connections, and we are committed to building strong relationships in the city and particularly in the neighborhood the school will be located. But without knowing for sure where that is or exactly what the curriculum will be, it’s a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma.

How—and to whom—will the school be marketed?

From reviewing data about applicants to local independent schools, we know there is definite interest in academically rigorous schools. For the first couple of years, we’ll be casting a broad net: reaching out to families who’ve expressed interest in Lakeside, attending school fairs, talking with educators from feeder schools, and conducting targeted advertising on Facebook and NPR-affiliated stations to start. Especially in the first year, we’ll be drawing on Lakeside’s reputation for excellence in attracting students.

What impact will this have on the overall value proposition of Lakeside?

This question is of particular interest to alumni and current parents and guardians. Could this new school harm the reputation of the institution about which they care so deeply? It’s a question that Belcher gets asked a lot. “We believe that both schools—Lakeside School and the micro-school—will have strong reputations,” she says. Each campus has the opportunity to benefit the other, she believes. “Innovations at the micro-school may influence the main campus and vice versa.”

Even while we are discovering answers to these questions and many others, we are asking for feedback. From the very beginning of the project, members of the board of trustees, alumni board, and Parents and Guardians Association executive committee have been the micro-school’s biggest supporters and the most thoughtful critics. They’ve helped us expand our thinking in valuable ways.

We’ve also gone further afield to collect feedback. In February, Belcher and Noe discussed the micro-school with Lakeside alumni from the Bay Area. “Their excitement and interest strengthened my confidence that we are on the right track,” Belcher says. The feedback from the alumni—many of whom work in the technology industry—was that long-term financial security comes from sharpening your skill set rather than committing to one company for a long period of time. “The proposed curriculum resonated with them,” Belcher says, “because it focuses on the development of skills necessary to succeed in today’s fast-paced world while retaining much of what was powerful about their experiences at Lakeside.”

By the time this magazine is published, we will have named the school, signed a lease, done significant work on the curriculum, launched a website, and maybe even started raising an endowment. One thing remains certain: We will have answers to many of our questions and still new questions to answer.

Amanda Darling

Amanda Darling is communications director at Lakeside School in Seattle.

Carey Gelernter

Carey Gelernter is communications associate at Lakeside School in Seattle.