The Rise Of Education Entrepreneurs In Minnesota

These innovative schools in and around the Twin Cities demonstrate the variety and breadth of emerging learning models I am seeing across the U.S.

Veronica Vital founded Cosmos Montessori charter school in 2018. (Kerry McDonald)

When Dale Ahlquist cofounded Chesterton Academy in Hopkins, Minnesota in 2008 with colleague Tom Bengtson, he wanted to offer an ideal learning environment for his younger children and some of their friends. His older children graduated from a conventional private school and there was much he appreciated about their experience; but he believed he could build something even better.

The vision was a school focused on a classical educational philosophy, embracing the traditional liberal arts, within a Catholic religious worldview that would be both joyful and affordable.

What began as a tiny school with only 10 students now enrolls more than 150 high schoolers. That flagship school is one of more than 70 independently operated high schools within the fast-growing Chesterton Schools Network, educating more than 2,000 students.

Wildflower Montessori Microschools

Joy and access were two of the guiding principles that spurred Veronica Vital into teaching. Growing up in Mexico, Vital had seen teachers hit their students in class and employ other harsh practices. She decided early on that she wanted to be a teacher who would respect and honor children with kindness. After college, Vital moved to the United States and began working as a teaching assistant in a Montessori preschool where she fell in love with the Montessori philosophy and its child-centered approach to education. She became certified in Montessori education, teaching in both private and public charter Montessori schools in Minneapolis, but she kept feeling the tug toward education entrepreneurship.

Dale Ahlquist, cofounder of Chesterton Academy (Kerry McDonald)

“I always wanted to have my own school,” Vital told me. She got that opportunity in 2018 when she launched Cosmos Montessori, a bilingual preschool and elementary public charter school in South Minneapolis. Cosmos is part of the national Wildflower Montessori microschool network that began in 2014 to support smaller, community-embedded, more accessible Montessori schools. Wildflower helps teacher-entrepreneurs like Vital who want to launch their own schools. The network now has more than 60 microschools across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Most are private schools, but Wildflower public charter schools operate in Colorado, Minneapolis, New York City and Washington, D.C. Today, Vital is leading another Wildflower microschool, Greenbrier, also in South Minneapolis.

Skola Microschool

Just outside of the city, in Roseville, another longtime educator, Kristin Fink, launched Skola Microschool in 2022. A classroom teacher in a conventional private school for 16 years, Fink was growing increasingly frustrated by the standardization and rigidity of traditional schooling. When Covid hit in the spring of 2020 and her school went remote, Fink, like so many parents across the U.S., created an informal “pandemic pod” for her two young children and a couple of neighbors.

“That sparked everything I knew to be true,” said Fink about the learning pod. “Kids want to learn, and if you fuel their fire, they’ll go much further than you could ever take them.” When she returned to in-person teaching in the fall of 2021, Fink was hopeful that there could be meaningful changes in how schooling was done. She was disappointed.

Kristin Fink talks with a learner at Skola Microschool. (Kerry McDonald)

“Everyone was just trying to get back to the way it was,” said Fink, understanding the eagerness for a return to normalcy. “But I thought that this was our chance to build something new. I felt so philosophically alone in my workplace. Why would anyone ever want to go back to the way it was?”

The next fall, Fink and her longtime colleague Ginger Montezon, opened Skola as a faith-based K-8 microschool. All students are recognized homeschoolers who attend the program up to five days a week at an annual cost of $6,250. With about 25 mixed-aged learners, Skola is as big as Fink wants it to get. “I want to be kid-facing not admin-facing,” said Fink, explaining that if she grew bigger or scaled to new locations she may lose the time to teach, which is her driving passion.

Retaining the intentionally small, individualized atmosphere of Skola is a key priority, but Fink is supporting the growth of more schools like hers in other ways. “We’ve hosted 12 current educators in our space and four of them have launched or are planning to launch their own microschools,” she said, adding that she will be welcoming five public school teachers from southern Minnesota later this month who are also interested in opening their own school.

Homeschooling Collaboratives

Fink’s full-time microschool for homeschoolers is representative of many of today’s emerging educational models. Parents and teachers alike crave more educational autonomy and flexibility and are seeking and starting alternatives to conventional schooling.

Amy Marotz, founder of Awakening Spirit Homeschool Collaborative. (Kerry McDonald)

This is particularly true for parents of children with special learning needs. In Stillwater, Amy Marotz launched a full-time homeschooling collaborative, Awakening Spirit, to serve the distinct needs of gifted and neurodiverse learners. After earning an education degree and teaching at a Minneapolis charter school early in her career, Marotz began homeschooling her own children and saw a need for a dedicated program to address neurodiversity within a holistic, nurturing environment. She now runs the program from her home with about a dozen learners and, like Fink, is helping other aspiring founders to create their own microschools, homeschooling collaboratives, and similar learning models.

Veteran homeschooling parents have known for years how homeschooling and its various iterations can support customized, creative education. Some of them, such as Rebecca Hope, are helping a new generation of parents navigate alternative education options. After homeschooling her five children through high school, Hope launched Mid-Metro Academy in 2020 as a twice-weekly, faith-based homeschooling program offering a la carte classes to local middle school and high school homeschooled students. Located in Roseville, Hope’s program now serves more than 200 homeschoolers and continues to grow.

Rebecca Hope, founder of Mid-Metro Academy

This small sampling of innovative schools and spaces in and around the Twin Cities demonstrates the variety and breadth of emerging learning models I am seeing across the U.S. From faith-based programs to secular options, Montessori models to classical, home-based and storefront, school, homeschool or something in between—entrepreneurial parents and teachers are creating a medley of more personalized, low-cost learning options for families.

As Awakening Spirit’s Marotz told me: “When I started in 2017, no one had heard of a microschool. Now, there are so many options. That is what we need.”

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