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The new, (hopefully) improved, totally DIY school

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

HIDDEN IN AN OLD MAYONNAISE FACTORY IN THE mission, Brightworks school is a colorful affront to pedagogical convention. The cavernous, free-form space, where kids slide-race across the floor in their socks or invert into frog pose during morning circle, is a jumble of plastic-spoon sculptures, a wind-tunnel laboratory, and, under the stairs, a side of student-cured prosciutto—leftovers from a lesson on anatomy and food production. In this seven-month-old school without classes, grades, tests, accreditation, or even teachers (they’re “collaborators”), long division isn’t learned by putting pencil to paper, but by transforming 60 pounds of ground pork into several dozen sausages neatly encased in pig gut.

Founder Gever Tulley, a boyish, balding 49-year-old whose idea of business casual is a pair of overalls, is himself the product of an unconventional education. Bored to tears at UC San Diego, he dropped out in 1982, taught himself advanced code, and eventually landed at Adobe. In 2005, he founded Tinkering School, the weeklong summer sleepaway in Half Moon Bay (and now in Austin, Baltimore, and three other cities), on the premise that kids are exceedingly competent and do best when left to their own devices. The happy campers build fantastical roller coasters and working hang gliders. Brightworks is Tinkering School writ large.

The closest thing to a curriculum is a series of broad themes that compel students to create and learn, using whatever methods, materials, or tools grab them. On one recent Friday afternoon (theme: By Hand), an 11-year-old boy sat designing a robotic arm on Google SketchUp, a program he had taught himself to use. Another was torching a spoon to try to bend it into a circle, thereby learning the properties of metal and how molecules react to heat. “It’s 23 students on individual educational paths,” Tulley says.

It’s also at the vanguard of a new education revolution, one that feels entirely Bay Area in its idealism, optimism, fascination with technology, focus on the individual, and gleeful embrace of disruption. In one corner, you have Stanford professors launching their own cyberuniversity (with 100,000 students signed up for the first class); in another, the incubator Imagine K12 and its bumper crop of education startups; and in between, more newfangled schools, tutoring ventures, and personalized learning tools than anyone can keep track of. “Education is one of the most talked-about things in the Valley right now,” says Yelp founder Russel Simmons, who blithely dismisses most, if not all, of the dominant models of schooling in this country—public, private, and charters included. “The first wave of Internet entrepreneurs have kids who are school age. They’re like, ‘Screw this.’”

Simmons isn’t a parent himself, but he has donated $100,000 to Brightworks—he fell in love with the school after seeing it on the content-sharing site Quora. He’s also launched Learnirvana, a new e-learning venture that uses repetitive quizzing to teach Japanese, Korean, and more. “I’m not interested in anything related to the current system,” he says, shuddering at memories of the suburban Chicago public schools he attended (though if Yelp’s IPO is any indication, that education has served him just fine). “There’s a well-understood historical pattern of how things change,” he says, one that favors upheaval over incrementalism. In other words, you have to blow things up. “That’s why I’m leaning toward no compromises—a first-principles approach.”

Frustration over the decline of California’s once great public schools is just one of the reasons so many innovators are taking reform into their own hands. There’s an ongoing backlash against charter schools, fueled by community and parental disappointment over their rigid testing standards, lengthy wait lists, and dismaying failure rates. And there’s the sense, reinforced by books like Daniel Pink’s Drive and A Whole New Mind, that even many academically excellent private schools are dogmatic and outmoded, unable to nurture the kind of creative, nimble, resilient “design” thinking needed to thrive in a fast-changing, chaotic world. (That’s a sobering notion when tuition approaches $22,000 per year per kid—the Northern California average.)

“Today’s school model was created in the 1900s to prepare factory workers,” says Jim O’Neill, managing director at Clarium Capital, the hedge fund founded by first-in Facebook investor and academic bomb-thrower Peter Thiel. O’Neill, an associate deputy secretary of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush, runs the Thiel Fellowship, the libertarian billionaire’s radical effort to encourage college-age prodigies to do like Mark Zuckerberg and drop out. O’Neill and his wife are also homeschooling—aka custom schooling—their three kids in Marin. “We’ll do it as long as we feel we can offer something better” than regular school, he says.

The new popularity of homeschooling may be the most telling sign of just how deeply the DIY ed-reform ethos has penetrated into the psyches of average parents. A method of education that used to be associated with Christian fundamentalists and hippies living off the electric grid is now a fast-growing local phenomenon with a vast array of classes and resources (many of them not at home) to provide structure and support. Though local figures are hard to come by, 200 families are active on the Marin homeschool Listserv, nearly three times the figure of just two years ago. And the National Home Education Research Institute estimates that there are now 2 million–plus home-schooled children nationwide, more than twice as many as in 1999.

The concept of “custom” is central to what the disrupters are trying to achieve in many of their local experiments, which range from the one-room San Francisco Schoolhouse with its 2:5 teacher-student ratio to on/offline hybrid Flex Academy, where kids race, or plod, through their studies together, but at their own pace. “There’s a growing awareness that kids learn differently,” says Sandra Hern├índez, CEO of the San Francisco Foundation, one of the area’s largest funders of education reform. “‘One size fits all’ is suboptimal as you [try to reach] kids with spectrums of learning disabilities and different strengths.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the founders’ Silicon Valley–oriented social circles, many of these experiments focus on gifted, middle-class, tech-enabled kids who are often misunderstood or bored in traditional environments. “Giftedness can come with quirky neurological behavior,” says Glen Park homeschooling mom Anita Benjamin. “These kids don’t fit in a lot of ways. I think [traditional] school does a better job of serving kids who lie in the middle of the bell curve. At either end, it’s not easy.”

Hence the appeal of a place like Brightworks or QuantumCamp. In a basement adjacent to Downtown Berkeley BART, QuantumCamp’s Michael Finnegan and Ryan Nurmela—with degrees in materials science and physics, respectively—teach an eclectic range of science and math courses to K–10 students, mainly homeschoolers and kids hungry for more than what the typical school-based science class can deliver.

Their methods have proved successful enough for them to take out trademarks (Moment of Discovery, Concept Stringing, Arisen Knowledge, to name a few). Finnegan’s chemistry students don’t just hear the story of Russian scientist Dmitri Mendeleev, father of the periodic table. They channel his thought process, employing the same kinds of tools and logic he used, to re-create one of the most important aha moments in science. “We want to shift the burden of learning over to the student,” Nurmela says. “If info comes from the teacher, then they aren’t owners of that knowledge.”

The good news is that there are dozens of similarly impassioned education experiments happening all around the Bay Area: new schools being invented from scratch, existing schools being retooled in farsighted ways, innovations that are transforming public schools, private schools, virtual schools, charter schools, unschools. What follows is a rundown of 14 of the most intriguing options, some so new they’re still being launched. Think of them as provocations. Whether they succeed or fail in the long run, the goal is to inspire kids, parents, teachers—and imitators—right now.

These new schools aren't the only ones challenging the status quo. We asked a dozen local education experts to name the existing Bay Area schools, both public and private, that are also busting conventions. Their 30 favorites are found in "Old Schools, New Tricks."

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