Some families find freedom with Newport microschool

Guide Jessica Rothbart, second from left, settles kids into core skills time when they work on math, reading and English at Micah Studios in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 18, 2024. From left are Chelsea Martin, 9, Rothbart, her daughter Kairi Rothbart, 8, and Izzy Pitts, 8. Three of Rothbart's children attend the “individualized learning” center and her three older children work there as interns. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Guide Jessica Rothbart, second from left, settles kids into core skills time when they work on math, reading and English at Micah Studios in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 18, 2024. From left are Chelsea Martin, 9, Rothbart, her daughter Kairi Rothbart, 8, and Izzy Pitts, 8. Three of Rothbart's children attend the “individualized learning” center and her three older children work there as interns. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

Michael Martin, 16, of Claremont, left, settles in to take a practice General Educational Development algebra test as Kain Rothbart, 8, of Newport, right, looks over a worksheet about cows during a core skills work period at Micah Studios in the basement of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Micah Studios is an “individualized learning” center that receives tuition through New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts and state scholarships. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Michael Martin, 16, of Claremont, left, settles in to take a practice General Educational Development algebra test as Kain Rothbart, 8, of Newport, right, looks over a worksheet about cows during a core skills work period at Micah Studios in the basement of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Micah Studios is an “individualized learning” center that receives tuition through New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts and state scholarships. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

As rain begins to fall outside the Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., Izzy Pitts, 8, of Newport, middle, and Miriam Breisch, 10, of Claremont, consider building a fort with a tree branch as Cece Pitts, 11, cleans up after making a mud stew during free time at Micah Studios on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

As rain begins to fall outside the Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., Izzy Pitts, 8, of Newport, middle, and Miriam Breisch, 10, of Claremont, consider building a fort with a tree branch as Cece Pitts, 11, cleans up after making a mud stew during free time at Micah Studios on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

Jessica Rothbart works through a conflict between her son Kain, 8, and Hunter Pitts, 6, right, during the Micah Studios weekly visit to the recreation center in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Rothbart formerly substitute taught in Newport before starting Micah Studios with Stacey Hammerlind, and works there as a

Jessica Rothbart works through a conflict between her son Kain, 8, and Hunter Pitts, 6, right, during the Micah Studios weekly visit to the recreation center in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Rothbart formerly substitute taught in Newport before starting Micah Studios with Stacey Hammerlind, and works there as a "guide." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Micah Studios students and staff make their way past the SAU 43 office to their space in the basement of the Epiphany Episcopal Church after a weekly visit to the Newport (N.H.) Recreation Center on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Micah Studios students and staff make their way past the SAU 43 office to their space in the basement of the Epiphany Episcopal Church after a weekly visit to the Newport (N.H.) Recreation Center on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Stacey Hammerlind, right, one of two

Stacey Hammerlind, right, one of two "guides" at Micah Studios, shops online to replenish craft supplies with Miriam Breisch, 10, left, during project time at the Newport, N.H., alternative school on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Izzy Pitts, 8, of Newport, works on math word problems during a core skills work period at the Micah Studios “individualized learning” center in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Izzy Pitts, 8, of Newport, works on math word problems during a core skills work period at the Micah Studios “individualized learning” center in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Micah Studios students, from left, Hunter Pitts, 6, Miriam Breisch, 10, and Izzy Pitts, 8, pet golden retrievers Dudley, left, and Clifford, right, in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Steve Tybus, of Croydon, chanced to pass by the group during their outdoor free-time and stopped by to give them some time with his two trained therapy dogs. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Micah Studios students, from left, Hunter Pitts, 6, Miriam Breisch, 10, and Izzy Pitts, 8, pet golden retrievers Dudley, left, and Clifford, right, in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Steve Tybus, of Croydon, chanced to pass by the group during their outdoor free-time and stopped by to give them some time with his two trained therapy dogs. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news — James M. Patterson

Justin Lord, 16, of Newport, writes an application essay for a FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) summer program during core skills time at Micah Studios in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Lord, who is enrolled in the VLACS virtual learning academy, the culinary program at Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center and is an intern at Micah Studios earning $15 an hour, is struggling to find an educational setting where he feels productive and comfortable.

Justin Lord, 16, of Newport, writes an application essay for a FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) summer program during core skills time at Micah Studios in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. Lord, who is enrolled in the VLACS virtual learning academy, the culinary program at Sugar River Valley Regional Technical Center and is an intern at Micah Studios earning $15 an hour, is struggling to find an educational setting where he feels productive and comfortable. "The traditional environment just wasn't really working for me," said Lord. But he has also found that he is not retaining information in an online format and he misses seeing his friends in class on a daily basis. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

A sign from a demonstration in favor of New Hampshire's Education Freedom Accounts hangs in the Micah Studios space in the basement of the Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2025. The alternative school accepts EFA money and state scholarships to meet its advertised $8,000 tuition. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A sign from a demonstration in favor of New Hampshire's Education Freedom Accounts hangs in the Micah Studios space in the basement of the Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2025. The alternative school accepts EFA money and state scholarships to meet its advertised $8,000 tuition. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Hunter Pitts climbs on the picnic table outside Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., while having lunch with fellow Micah Studios students, from left, Miriam Breisch, 10, Kain Rothbart, 8, and Cece Pitts, 11, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hunter Pitts climbs on the picnic table outside Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., while having lunch with fellow Micah Studios students, from left, Miriam Breisch, 10, Kain Rothbart, 8, and Cece Pitts, 11, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Kain Rothbart, 8, reads a story book to his fellow Micah Studios students at morning meeting in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Kain Rothbart, 8, reads a story book to his fellow Micah Studios students at morning meeting in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Chelsea Martin, 9, second from left, and Morgan Rothbart, 11, third from left, wave to students walking home from Newport Middle High School as they work on planting a bed of flowers with Micah Studios intern Justin Lord, left, and guide Stacey Hammerlind, right, outside Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 18, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chelsea Martin, 9, second from left, and Morgan Rothbart, 11, third from left, wave to students walking home from Newport Middle High School as they work on planting a bed of flowers with Micah Studios intern Justin Lord, left, and guide Stacey Hammerlind, right, outside Epiphany Episcopal Church in Newport, N.H., on Monday, April 18, 2024. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-19-2024 8:03 PM

Modified: 04-22-2024 4:54 PM


NEWPORT — Tucked in the basement of Newport’s Epiphany Episcopal Church, Micah Studios is a newcomer to the Upper Valley’s alternative education landscape.

Founded in the fall of 2023 by two educators disillusioned with the town’s public school system, Micah is a one-room schoolhouse offering personalized education to its inaugural cohort of 11 students. It is a microschool — a small, multi-age learning center with a flexible approach to education.

On a blustery mid-March morning nine children, ranging in age from 6 to 13, played and socialized in the corner yard of the church. Four girls giggled as they piled onto two Adirondack chairs; a huddle of boys raced trucks on the wooded edge of the yard.

Returning inside a half-hour later, three of the younger kids headed to the table in the center of the room to practice problem-solving by playing Guessing Game, a board game.

Others resumed working on Peeps dioramas they’d begun the prior week at the Library Arts Center across the Town Common. Eleven-year-old CeCe Lee’s, of Newport’s theme was The Salem Peeps Trial, inspired by a history project. Chelsea Martin, 9, of Claremont, created an elaborate funeral setting for a “deceased” marshmallow dubbed Rest in Peeps.

“Kids who are struggling and unhappy deserve to have options,” Micah Studios co-founder Stacey Hammerlind, a 56-year-old Newport resident, said in an interview.

She and Jennifer Rothbart, a 36-year-old Newport resident, founded Micah Studios with little teaching experience — neither hold state certification — and minimal funding, but a passion for creating a unique learning experience for students from lower-income families who are not thriving in public school.

As far as Hammerlind and Rothbart are aware, Micah is the only microschool in the Upper Valley. Still it has company among other forms of alternative education in New Hampshire. The state offers several K-12 pathways outside of public schools and public charter schools, including homeschooling, microschools, learning “pods” and hybrid versions of all three. The state’s Learn Everywhere program offers credit for participating in approved art, music, athletic and academic programs outside of school. The Work-Based Learning program allows students to participate in paid internships with local employers.

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In the spring of 2021 New Hampshire payed $5.8 million to Arizona-based microschool company Prenda to establish multi-age learning “pods” throughout the state to combat COVID-19-related learning loss. There are currently 36 “Prenda Pods” in New Hampshire, though none are located in the Upper Valley.

“People are creating models left and right,” Hammerlind said.

The days at Micah typically begin with breakfast, followed by a morning meeting. Mid-morning is core skills time, with curricula tailored to each student’s needs and learning level. Before lunch, the kids meet to reflect on their work. The afternoon is devoted to projects or field trips.

The Richards Free Library, the adjacent Library Arts Center, and the Newport Recreation Center are part of the constellation of local resources that Micah’s learners use regularly. For adventures further afield, Rothbart has a 12-passenger van that’s insured for driving the kids on field trips, which are planned based on student interest.

So far they’ve seen performances at the Claremont Opera House, visited the Statehouse in Concord, the McAuliffe-Shephard Discovery Center’s Planetarium and the Artistree Community Arts Center in Pomfret.

“We are a learning center,” rather than a school, Hammerlind said. Unlike public schools or public charter schools, Micah does not have to meet state attendance or curricular requirements. This “frees us up to work on whatever the kids are passionate about and whatever they need to work on,” Hammerlind said.

For instance, recognizing that Chelsea had an aversion to math but an interest in business, Rothbart and Hammerlind created a math curriculum for her based on cash registers, banks, and stores. Other kids hone their math skills in the kitchen while doing hands-on cooking projects, or though online programs that make learning feel like a game.

‘The system is broken’

Rothbart worked for five years as a substitute teacher and library manager at the Richards Elementary School in Newport. She has homeschooled her six children “on and off for many reasons,” she said. Three of Rothbart’s children attend Micah as learners, and her three teenage boys help out as interns through the state’s Work-Based Learning program.

Hammerlind, a registered nurse with a background in public health, has a master’s in educational leadership and served for five years as a family and community coordinator in the Newport School District. She was motivated to create Micah Studios in part by her youngest son’s experiences in the public school system.

“He was so miserable he ended up dropping out midway through his senior year,” she said of her son, Sam. “It would have prevented years of suffering and anxiety and depression if something like this had been available.”

Micah’s co-founders appreciate the hard work of district teachers and staff, but take a dim view of Newport’s public school system, which ranks among the lowest in the state for math and reading proficiency.

“I believe there are amazing people in the school,” Hammerlind said. “I have nothing but respect for them. I just think the system is broken.”

Hammerlind points to the district’s inability to meet the needs of students who are struggling, either because they have unmet learning needs or because they are bright but bored.

“Everyone is so constrained in what they can do and what their day looks like,” she said. “There’s no capacity to provide for the kids that are left behind, and likewise, the kids that are really smart.”

‘Not for everyone’

Parents typically reach out to Micah Studios, Rothbart said, because their child is experiencing bullying in the public schools or the school district is failing to follow through on Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, requirements for things like extra time, breaks, quiet work spaces and modifications to assignments.

Newport resident Meghan Pitts has three children at Micah Studios. For her then-7-year-old daughter, CeCe, “the bullying was getting really bad,” in the local public school, Pitts said.

It was mainly happening on the bus, and a group of boys were targeting her, Pitts said.

“She was being threatened. I let the school know and the bus company know and they were arguing over who was responsible,” Pitts said. “The principal told me he would look into it. He never called me back.”

When Pitts, a single parent, began looking at alternative options she considered homeschooling, but her work schedule made that impossible, so when Micah Studios became available, it seemed like a good fit.

“Micah’s been a lot better for them,” than the public school, Pitts said. “They are a lot less stressed. They are happier.”

Izzy and her 6-year-old brother, Hunter, are still struggling with some behavioral challenges, Pitts said, but the staff at Micah “work around how she acts.” Hunter goes on walks with one of the older boys, which helps to “kind of mellow him out for the day,” she said.

Pitts is hoping to keep her kids in Micah until they graduate, she said.

Micah isn’t a solution for all learners. This spring, Rothbart and Hammerlind were approached by the family of a 17-year-old high school freshman who was reading on a third grade level, Rothbart said. In the end, the student chose to take a full-time job instead of attending Micah, but it was an eye-opener for the duo.

“School is great for some kids, but not for everyone,” Hammerlind said.

Oversight and support

Critics also worry about scant oversight of academic standards and lack of teacher certification at microschools.

Newport Superintendent Donna Magoon said she supports parents in having options but is concerned about a lack of oversight in alternative settings.

“In a public school, your teachers have to be certified. With these ‘pop up’ schools, they don’t have to be. There is no one that is really monitoring what is going on in these schools, as there is in a public school,” she said in a telephone interview.

“I don’t want to come across as that I feel that one is better than the other,” she said.

While Magoon has a close working relationship with the local Montessori school that includes familiarity with the curriculum and instruction, that is not the case with homeschooled students or students in smaller alternative programs.

A lack of in-house behavioral and mental health supports is another common criticism of alternative education models.

“We have a team of special ed teachers. We have a team of mental health workers, and clinicians right on school grounds,” Magoon said.

In responding to concerns about behavioral and mental health supports, champions of alternative education often point to the small size of microschools and the ability of adult guides to respond to struggling students in flexible and innovative ways.

“Of course, special educators provide a really important service. But sometimes changing the environment, changing the approach, really goes a long way in addressing a lot of these things,” said Peter Berg, assistant director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, or AERO.

Hammerlind, too, leans on size and flexibility in considering mental health challenges.

“Depression, anxiety, (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) — those things tend to go away when you get out of the school setting, because the pressure’s not there,” she said.

“If you’re an ADHD kid , we’re not asking you to sit in your class in a cha ir all day,” Hammerlind said. ” If you’re anxious, we just slow it down.”

She acknowledges that there are kids that Micah would not be able to accept and notes that there are microschools specifically for children who are neurodivergent or have higher-level behavioral needs, though not in the Newport area.

Paying for it

Critics of microschools fear that channeling state money to alternative programs is causing slow but irreparable damage to local public schools.

Each of Micah Studio’s families pay the $5,088 tuition with money provided under New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs).

Education Freedom Accounts were created in 2018 to allow lower-income families to use part of their child’s local public school funding to pay tuition at private schools or pursue alternative learning options. EFA money may not be used for homeschooling.

To be eligible for EFA funding a family’s income must not exceed 350% of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means that the maximum eligible income is $109,200.

As of this fall, more than 4,000 students have taken advantage of the EFA program, according to the state Department of Education.

While EFAs have been criticized for undermining and undervaluing public education by funneling money away from district schools to alternative ventures, Magoon is more worried that parents who opt for the EFA money may not fully understand what they are giving up.

“If you receive EFA money, you get nothing from the public school unless you pay for it,” she said. “I don’t think parents realize that.”

She is concerned that families who homeschool and rely on the district for sports, arts programs or academic classes will lose out because in order to accept EFA money, families much relinquish their homeschool status and no longer have access to district resources.

“Have we changed what we offer kids? Absolutely not,” she said. “But what I worry about is what if the money runs out.”

Hammerlind is keeping her eye on SB 442, which is making its way through the state Legislature and if passed, could increase the minimum income requirement for EFAs to 400% of federal poverty guidelines and allow more students to consider options like Micah.

“We’re hurting financially,” she said, “but with more kids it will be viable.”

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan@vnews.com or 603-727-3208.