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Guerrilla academies

Diana Kapp | March 27, 2012 | Lifestyle Story City Life News and Features

What it is: A seven-month-old institute of decidedly nonacademic learning, where kids spend the day building, welding, knitting, making candy, filming movies, and doing anything else that’s deemed sufficiently mind-expanding.

Who’s behind it: Gever Tulley, the son of beatniks, who excelled in the tech world with no conventional credentials and thinks kids learn best when their hands are as active as their brains.

Why the excitement: The school is unconstrained by standards, testing, grades, or schedules, yet still manages to have high expectations for students.
Reality check: Many parents admit to intermittent freak-outs about abandoning the treadmill entirely. It sounds great to forgo trigonometry and spelling for flute carving, but what happens if a kid wants to go mainstream for middle or high school? Getting in: With just 23 of 30 slots filled, Tulley is still accepting students for the current academic year as well as for 2012–13; his eventual goal is 70 to 80 kids. 1960 BRYANT ST., S.F.; SFBRIGHTWORKS.ORG; $19,800/YEAR

What it is: A 19-month-old independent JK–2 in the Mission whose founders have serious cachet in the social media–startup world.

Who’s behind it: Twitter’s former chief science officer, Abdur Chowdhury; Zynga associate general counsel RenĂ©e Lawson; and several other parents whose kids used to attend the same Mill Valley private school.

Why the excitement: As befits the school’s center-of-the-tech-boom roots, the teaching mantra is “scientific method”—meaning all topics are approached using inquiry, hypothesis, experimentation, and discovery. This translates into giant handmade abaci in the main hallway, decomposing pumpkins in the classroom, and a medieval village–style siphon to water the garden.

Reality check: So far the campus consists of borrowed facilities at a Greek Orthodox church; finding permanent digs isn’t easy in Boom Central.
Getting in: The entrance requirements include a “playdate”/interview tailored to each kid. 245 VALENCIA ST., S.F.; ALTAVISTASF.ORG; $20,000/YEAR

What it is: A one-room microschool inside a Richmond district synagogue with the best teacher-student ratio this side of Mary Poppins: two adults, five kids.

Who’s behind it: Stay-at-home moms Rebecca Dake, who suffered sticker shock at the tab for a year of kindergarten at Brandeis Hillel ($24,200), and Erin Cooney, who went 0-for-21 in the city’s public school lottery. Rather than giving up or going the homeschooling route, they hired ex–San Francisco Day teachers Rebecca Schneider and Jack Schumacher (who are married to each other) and threw up their own shingle last fall.

Why the excitement: For a mere $8,600 per student per school year, kids get every ounce of their teachers’ attention. Says Dake: “This is a middle-class choice for the middle class.”

Reality check: The whole operation feels a bit ad hoc at the moment, not unlike a preschool co-op, and the future is unclear. The currently minuscule class roll doesn’t belie that impression.

Getting in: Spaces are available now. For 2012–13, they hope to grow to 10 kindergartners and 10 first and second graders. 301 14TH AVE., S.F.; SFSCHOOLHOUSE.ORG; FROM $8,600/YEAR

What it is: Oakland’s first charter K–2 Montessori/ “design-thinking” fusion, opening its doors in August.

Who’s behind it: A host of Teach for America alums, Valley entrepreneurs, and Bay Area public school vets—including Susie Wise, founder and former director of the K–12 Lab at Stanford’s—all of whom recognized a kindred spirit in the Italian humanitarian Maria Montessori, who revolutionized early-childhood education 100 years ago.

Why the excitement: First off, it’s free, meaning it’s $10,000 to $20,000 less per year than other Montessoris around here. And this style of teaching—where students work with their hands and different ages are taught together, with kids learning at their own pace—is a hit with many parents.

Reality check: Lumping grade levels together works great for four-year-old prodigies reading second-grade books and older kids playing catch-up. But what about students in the middle?

Getting in: The initial round of applications drew 350 for 240 spots (for kindergarten, that meant a lottery). Grades 3–8 will follow at one grade per year through 2018; there are plans to add a pre-K if there’s enough funding. 2111 INTERNATIONAL BLVD., OAKLAND; URBANMONTESSORI.ORG; FREE

What it is: A still-in-the-works private school for young children with motor disabilities, using an approach known as conductive education (CE) that is widely accepted in Europe and Australia.

Who’s behind it: Tartine Bakery’s co-owner and pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt, who was unhappy with the local options for her four-year-old daughter, Archer, who has cerebral palsy.

Why the excitement: CE schools are rare in the U.S. and virtually nonexistent in the Bay Area. “[Children] do everything they do in regular preschools and kindergarten, with the addition that they learn how to use their bodies,” Prueitt says. For most toddlers, learning to walk is instinctive, but if they have a motor disability, it can be harder. Conductive education, she says, “has unequivocally helped Archer in becoming mobile.”

Reality check: The center faces a number of challenges to becoming a full-time school (such as finding a suitable patch of real estate) and has no projected opening date. But it does offer a six-week summer camp.

Getting in: The camp currently has openings; go online to find out details—and to make donations to help the full-time school get off the ground.


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