The "parental angst" that walks through her door is familiar territory to Rhonda Racine, founder and director of Menlo Park's Lydian Academy, an accredited, one-to-one tutoring service.
As the product of Palo Alto schools and mother of two Palo Alto High School graduates, she's acquainted with the community's culture of achievement and the anxiety shared by many who worry their children don't fit in.
Her thriving six-year-old business, which offers customized instruction in a "non-stress environment," targets needs that traditional schools, public or private, cannot always fill.
That includes helping students with learning difficulties, discipline problems or those who have overextended themselves academically and are trying to get back on track. Another population of students is more advanced and trying to get ahead.
For $70 an hour, a student can take a class or two -- or an entire high school curriculum, including AP classes -- on Lydian's "campus," an office space overlooking El Camino Real.
"People have this idealized version of what the Palo Alto profile is and sometimes feel their child is different from the profile and worry about that," she said in an interview around a table in her sunny office.
Outside her door, the office was a quiet hum of a dozen students and tutors, working one-to-one in cubicles.
"Parents who sit around this table have tough situations," Racine said.
Sometime the student has learning disabilities or discipline problems. Others have non-school passions that have pulled them off the academic track.
"I certainly understand that value system when it comes to Palo Alto families," she said.
"You try to offer some doors they don't know about and keep doors open that resonate with the family and priority system.
"For example, there are lots of college programs people don't know about that are highly academic but also make room for the arts. They might not have heard of those paths."
In ceremonies at the Stanford Faculty Club May 19, Lydian will graduate 12 high school seniors who are full-time students at Lydian. Three of those live in the Palo Alto school district. Others are from Menlo Park, Los Altos, Hillsborough, Saratoga, Half Moon Bay and Redwood City.
Last year, Lydian graduated nine full-time seniors.
One of them was a Palo Alto boy whose father said Lydian helped his son achieve the academic focus that had eluded him in larger settings, where he tended to be the class clown.
"I did the same when I was in high school, so I understand it, but as a father I wanted him to be in an environment that would bring out the best of his academic potential," said the father, whose son is "doing very well in his first year away at college."
Paly 2010 graduate Sarah Kortschak found "a little bit of relief from the Paly pressure cooker" at Lydian, where she completed Algebra II, physics and chemistry in a one-to-one setting, her mother, Marcia, said.
Diagnosed when a student at Duveneck Elementary School with dyslexia and auditory processing issues, Sarah graduated from Charles Armstrong School in Belmont before enrolling at Paly.
"At Paly, there were many great fits and courses there for her, and some that were made more challenging because of her learning differences, so we used Lydian to balance the high school experience," Marcia Kortschak said.
Sarah remained a full-time Paly student, where she thrived in some classes but went off campus for one-to-one instruction in others. Her physics teacher at Lydian "made the whole world come alive and physics make perfect sense," Kortschak said.
Kortschak is now at the University of Southern California, studying in the university's school of theater and fine arts.
Palo Alto district Superintendent Kevin Skelly said programs such as Lydian fill a need for some students. The district's stated policy is to honor up to 40 units of coursework from accredited, off-campus institutions such as Lydian.
If a class is taken at an outside institution, it is noted on the Palo Alto transcript, he said.
Racine, the daughter of educators -- her father was principal at Cubberley High School in the 1970s -- has been passionate about schools since her early teens, when she was devouring books by psychiatrist William Glasser and writer Jonathan Kozol.
She was a newly minted teacher when Proposition 13 budget cuts swept California schools, so she returned to school to study computer science and worked as an engineering manager for two decades.
"I certainly was able to support my children in their choices of colleges, but it wasn't my passion the way education is," she said. "All the problems you're faced with in education day to day come very naturally to me."
Racine helped her parents, who own the School for Independent Learners in Los Altos, before striking out on her own with Lydian in 2006.
She bootstrapped with existing accredited curricula to attain provisional accreditation and obtained full accreditation for her enterprise in 2009.
Often, students who come to her have been "academically traumatized," and her top priority is to "build some academic confidence and get them loving learning again.
"The effects of trauma in academia are similar to what they might be elsewhere," she said. "Not that they've necessarily had bad teachers, but they're super-sensitive and internalize these things in a way that makes them feel stupid or inadequate.
"If it happens at a young age, all or parts of their learning can get stuck. They think everybody else knows how to add fractions when denominators aren't the same, so they're too ashamed to ask, and all this energy goes into hiding their differences.
"We work to unpack all that."
At graduation, she said, there's not a dry eye in the house.