West Virginia Microschool Failure Leads to State Investigation and Reflection

By Linda Jacobson
March 3, 2024

As of August, Kelly Romanishan believed she had discovered the perfect educational setting for her child at an inventive startup located in a rented two-story residence. The establishment promised STEM education, art programs, and the “necessary tools to take on the world.”

The West Virginia mother initiated a $2,200 payment from her Hope Scholarship, an educational savings account that allocates state funds for tuition or homeschooling fees.

However, the situation at The Hive Learning Academy deteriorated swiftly. Rather than having structured meal times, children were left to fend for themselves, leading to concerns like Romanishan’s son feeling hungry and reluctant to access food from someone else’s refrigerator.

Another parent, Kathy Dailey, observed a similar scenario with her 13-year-old at the establishment in Martinsburg, where students appeared disengaged and immersed in their phones.

Romanishan expressed her frustration by characterizing The Hive as nothing more than a glorified babysitting service.

By the Christmas season, several parents, including Romanishan, sought refunds and alternative arrangements, prompting the involvement of state Treasurer Riley Moore, who initiated an audit and investigation into ESA-supported initiatives that included The Hive Learning Academy.

West Virginia state Treasurer Riley Moore launched an investigation into Hope Scholarship violations that included The Hive Learning Academy microschool. (West Virginia State Treasury)

This investigation marks the first government inquiry into a self-proclaimed microschool, posing a significant moment for a movement that burgeoned during the pandemic, now encompassing 125,000 schools nationwide, as reported by the National Microschooling Center.

While championed by Republicans and fueled by ESA expansion, microschools operate with a level of independence from government oversight, as the West Virginia incident reveals the challenge of managing freedom while upholding public accountability, even for the movement’s staunchest proponents.

Kelly Romanishan, a parent who enrolled her son in The Hive, contacted the state treasurer’s office to ask about a refund of Hope Scholarship funds when the microschool closed. (Courtesy of Kelly Romanishan)

“We’re in a transitional market,” asserted Jamie Buckland, director of West Virginia Families United for Education, a non-profit offering guidance to parents and vendors in the sector. Buckland suggested that states employing ESAs should better equip school founders and support families in navigating their educational options.

Questioning the lack of government-devised guardrails and parameters, Buckland pondered the industry’s efforts in establishing their own safety measures.

If we don’t want the government to provide the guardrails and the parameters, what is our movement doing to provide our own guardrails?

Jamie Buckland, West Virginia Families United for Education

The treasurer’s office, acknowledging complaints of specific Hope Scholarship infractions, refrained from disclosing the investigation’s magnitude or timeline. Although considering law enforcement involvement if necessary, no charges have been brought forth as of yet.

During an interview with The 74, Hive founder Kaela Zimmerman elucidated her financial struggles in sustaining the initiative, having repaid over $15,000 in Hope funds to the state.

Reflecting on the incident, Romanishan confessed to the emotional and disruptive toll, lamenting the difficulty of placing trust in future educational endeavors.

“It becomes challenging to entrust someone else, despite the community’s need for a commendable microschool,” she commented.

Kaela Zimmerman, who opened The Hive Learning Academy, a microschool, used some of her own money to buy supplies when fewer students enrolled than she expected. (Kaela Zimmerman)

‘We tried our best’

Zimmerman initially envisioned The Hive to facilitate social interactions for her children, alongside co-founder Kristin Volpe, renting a space, adorning it with maps, and assimilating curriculum tools from preferred homeschooling programs. Expectations were high when 30 families registered; however, merely eight students showed up, leading to financial strains on Zimmerman.

With insufficient revenue, Zimmerman and Volpe pursued additional jobs to sustain the initiative, as the girls embraced various roles, including warehouse employment and bartending to cover expenses.

Despite their resolute efforts, the lack of adequate resources forced Zimmerman and Volpe to make compromises, affecting the educational experience offered at The Hive.

West Virginia’s approach to microschool authorization falls short of seeking comprehensive business or educational plans from entrants, mandating background checks for staff and enrollment notifications to districts. To gain fees, participants are only required to present a W-9 and record Hope funds from parents.

Identifying the root of their demise as capital deficiency, Zimmerman acknowledged failing to secure a grant from the Vela Education Fund, resulting in financial shortfalls.

Disheartened by the lack of state support during the program’s closure, Zimmerman sought guidance on reimbursing ESA funds, ultimately repaying a substantial portion to the state.

The endeavor’s limitations made it evident to Zimmerman that venturing into the microschool sphere demanded more than good intentions; Rachelle Noble from Microschool Solutions echoed the sentiment, emphasizing the necessity for a robust financial plan.

Rachelle Noble, center, runs Microschool Solutions, which advises aspiring microschool leaders. (Courtesy of Rachelle Noble)

Having overseen Prenda’s network expansion, Noble recounted a pivotal moment when she decided to close two programs within a Kansas school district, emphasizing the importance of academic focus in microschools.

Amar Kumar, CEO of KaiPod Learning, stressed the high failure rate among emerging microschools and emphasized the imperative of financial viability for founders before joining the organization’s catalyst program.

The integration of public funds through ESAs heightens accountability, with the National Microschooling Center reporting an increased acceptance rate among microschools.

Post-The Hive episode, Zimmerman expressed lingering admiration for the microschool concept but indicated hesitance in pursuing another venture due to the substantial resources and business acumen required.

Venture capital advocate Chris Stewart expressed concerns about public funding backing microschools, highlighting accountability issues and the potential for fraudulent activities in ESA programs.

Recent indictments in Arizona underscored the risk of misuse of ESA funds, exposing fraudulent practices within the system.

Despite the prevalence of such incidents, supporters maintain the notion of buyer discretion, underscoring the importance of thorough research before selecting a school.

Believers in the market’s self-regulating capacity remain optimistic that fraud and substandard options will eventually be phased out.

Kelly Romanishan eventually received a $1,340 refund of the $2,200 she paid The Hive. She estimated that her son only received about 16 days of learning. (Courtesy of Kelly Romanishan)

Despite eventually receiving a partial refund for her son’s absence, Romanishan grappled with feelings of failure and regret over the ordeal, emphasizing the importance of recognizing warning signs and conducting due diligence.

Vela Education FundThe 74

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