When regular school doesn't work, Menlo Park enterprise offers help

Lydian Academy addresses 'academic trauma'

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.

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2 people like this
Posted by An-Apple-A-Day
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 12, 2012 at 5:44 pm

So what is the total cost of putting a student through this school at $70/hour? At this rate, 4 hours a day, 4 weeks a month costs $5,600 and $7,000 a month for a five hour day. That would come to about $20K-$30K per 4-month semester. Not cheap.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 12, 2012 at 6:18 pm

Although this is a good alternative for student who has trouble to study at Paly or Gunn, it is very expensive. How many regular students can afford it? How to compare an A from this place versus an A from Paly and Gunn. So, students who go to this academy will have much high GPA??? As GPA is so important to apply for a college, like UC, not sure how fair it is for other students at Paly or Gunn who study very hard but only get a B.

A more fair way is that these students who study in this academy should take a "normal" test at Paly or Gunn instead of just transfer bunch of As into their transcript of Paly or Gunn.

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Posted by paly grad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 12, 2012 at 11:34 pm


This has everything to do with learning and nothing to do about grades. It has everything to do with the needs of the kid and nothing to do with making sure that kids can be ranked by the same scale. Even if they get A's, the courses probably aren't listed as honors courses, which is what also matters if you're trying to climb your way to the top of the college application pool. I doubt that many super-competitive students and parents would pick this. Good thing there are options for non-traditional kids, even if they're pricey and out of the reach of many who need those types of services.

2 people like this
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 13, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Lydian and SIL both operate on the idea of mastering skills - teachers work with students until they understand the material. They are WASC accredited, just like Paly, Gunn, Menlo Atherton, etc. This is a great resource for students, although expensive. My child was an "academically traumatized" students that was helped a great deal by Lydian. She came away feeling competent instead of stupid.

I am REALLY pleased to see the Dr. Skelly is supportive of this school and admits that schools such as Lydian "fill a need" for some students. This support has taken years of time to build. Now if we can just get the PAUSD teachers not to feel insulted if kids take classes outside of Paly...

Parent - students can only take 8 semesters of classes outside of PAUSD, probably not enough to significantly change their GPA. If student who take classes outside PAUSD are required to take a "normal test" at Paly or Gunn, should students transferring from other "easier" school districts be required to take "normal PAUSD" tests for all the classes they have already passed?

Paly Grad - Lydian and SIL also teach AP classes, some kids take AP classes there that are not offered at their local high school.

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Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on May 14, 2012 at 8:32 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comments were moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by paly parent, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on May 12, 2012 at 2:32 p.m.:

Lydian is a great resource for students. My child was an "academically traumatized" students that was helped a great deal by Lydian. She came away feeling competent instead of stupid.

I am REALLY pleased to see the Dr. Skelly is supportive of this school and admits that schools such as Lydian "fill a need" for some students. This support has taken years of time to build. Now if we can just get the PAUSD teachers not to feel insulted if kids take classes outside of Paly...


Posted by just so you know..., a resident of the Leland Manor/Garland Drive neighborhood, on May 12, 2012 at 5:39 p.m.:

colleges know the difference between a student with Paly classes on their transcript and a student with Lydian classes on their transcript.

I'd be interested in seeing how many students get A's at Lydian. In my professional experience, I haven't heard of a single student getting anything other than an A.

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Posted by Janet
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 14, 2012 at 9:24 am

I am very glad that Lydian is in the community, even thought my kids haven't taken anything there or at the other one. We have a couple friends who have (when they needed extra support), and they did very well, including a very strong AP exam score they attribute to the course at Lydian.

One-on-one classes must be expensive, but is it so much more than private schools in the area? Thankfully we Palo Altoans have world class public high schools and aren't used to $30k/yr privates like so many other folks on the peninsula.

2 people like this
Posted by former Paly mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 14, 2012 at 10:49 am

Thank God for Lydian and SIL. Without them my daughter would not have graduated from Paly. This ties directly to the discussion of the Paly math and science departments' refusal to offer a "regular" lane of math and science for "regular" students. God forbid if your child is anything other than extraordinary!! If the Paly math and science teachers won't teach a regular lane then they should at least consent to students taking classes at institutions like SIL and Lydian. As it is now, you need the department head's approval and Guidance approval; unless of course you have a 504 or ISP.

Rhonda is a fabulous educator who has the best interests of the students at heart. I highly recommend Lydian for anyone who has a student who struggles.

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Posted by Newbie
a resident of Midtown
on May 14, 2012 at 11:13 am

Are there some other local schools that could be recommended for a teen that has recently been diagnosed ADHD?

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Posted by Charles
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on May 14, 2012 at 11:43 am

I'd be interested in the answer to Newbie's question, too. And also if anyone has experience with the middle and high schools here and how they deal with a teen with ADHD. Can one be successful in the public schools?

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I have an ADD kid who struggled at Jordan, but is doing ok at Paly. The organization requirements at the middle school level probably would have overwhelmed him even without the ADD issues! Green Ivy is helpful in organizing kids with ADD and could probably recommend a local school for you.

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Posted by sarah
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 14, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Newbie and others,

The Bodin Group in Los Altos are excellent educational consultants who help find schools for kids at risk or who have learning differences. They are expensive. They are worth it. Someone told me they reduce their fees for families in need - you would have to check that.

The front page of the website focuses on kids with serious issues like drugs, but they serve a huge range of kids and under the "What We Offer" they specifically mention ADHD.

I have two friends who have used them - one for slipping grades (turned out to be eating disorder - the Bodin group caught it and referred them to specialists )- and one for learning difference - both families were thrilled with Bodin and both kids are happy and healthy and now in great colleges.

Web Link

good luck!

Like this comment
Posted by JulieB
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 14, 2012 at 9:03 pm

We used them for tutoring and we paid $80 per hour, so I think the facts are incorrect. They were helpful for high school, but not for college classes. In our experience, they were a total waste of money for college.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 14, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Wow,only $70 per hour? Lucky they aren't located in an area with a zip code premium...

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on May 14, 2012 at 11:21 pm

I think that it is good for families who can afford to be able to purchase less stressful education for their kids, whether through private schools or SIL or Lydian. But for many families, this is out of reach. Yet their kids may suffer from the overly competitive environment and overly difficult courses, along with excessive homework loads. For most ADD/ADHD kids, Gunn is anathema. I think that is probably acknowledged by all. The question is what can we, as a community, do to ensure that all kids, regardless of whether they are academic all-stars or regular kids, or struggle with learning differences, can be successful in our public high schools?

I would hope that we can have schools where every child can thrive, academically, socially, and emotionally. It is unfortunate that so many parents have to remove perfectly normal children from our system in order to escape from academic stress.

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Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 14, 2012 at 11:48 pm

ADHD tips? Organization is the key. Keep every day organized and break tasks into manageable blocks of time with short breaks built in. The breaks can't be longer than the work blocks. Half hour work, 15 minute break, and so on, whatever works best for the student. Shorter breaks if possible. Go over the organizer every day at least once, but preferably before and after school. If that habit is established, a lot of the difficulties caused by ADHD should begin to drop off and become more manageable.
You have to stick with it and maintain the organizer religiously, and the work block stuff will need some supervision, but if you work at it, everyone should see the benefits pretty soon. And it will cost a lot less than $70 an hour and will help you avoid the medication trap.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2012 at 11:45 am

I don't understand this quote from Michelle Dauber, above, "It is unfortunate that so many parents have to remove perfectly normal children from our system in order to escape from academic stress."

Isn't Michelle Dauber the one who is behind the INCREASE in PAUSD high school graduation requirements so that they match UC standards?

If she is so concerned about student stress, then why is she advocating adding to that stress by increasing graduation requirements?

Like this comment
Posted by ADD Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on May 15, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Steve C.: Please don't propagate the myth that medications for ADD are a 'trap', and overly simplistic directions like 'just get organized' are the complete answer. Your advice is sound, but it's only part of the solution. It certainly helps, and is an important discipline for kids to develop, but the truth is that their brains do work differently and exhorting them to 'stay organized' or 'just focus' doesn't work by a long shot. There are also different degree of severity of ADD and ADHD.

ADD/ADHD is a recognized neurobiological condition. The medication is clinically proven to make a significant improvement, despite the popular wisdom that it's somehow a trap or way over-prescribed. I speak from experience, because I'm a parent that avoided medication because of all of these false assumptions, for at least two years. When we finally did try it, it changed my daughter's life. She is fortunately on low dosage, and she has learned to manage her medication very effectively. But there is absolutely no question she needs it, and it makes an enormous difference in her 'executive functioning skills' particularly her ability to stay focused, her working memory and her speed in processing information. She is now an "A" student, something we always knew was possible, because there was no question that she was bright. But she couldn't stay focused, and it drove her crazy.

Think of this metaphor, because it's very apt. Ask someone who wears prescription glasses to remove them, and then ask them to read this message. When they can't, would you tell them to simply focus, try harder, be more organized, not be so lazy or irresponsible? Of course not. I know you didn't say all this, but the truth is that that is exactly what ADD/ADHD kids have to deal with. The medication works. It's an important part of the therapy, along with organizational skills and in some cases cognitive behavioral therapy. If you would like more information, I recommend reading this:

Web Link

Thanks for listening.

2 people like this
Posted by Karl Mohn
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 15, 2012 at 2:28 pm

As a teacher at Lydian, I often hear the concern about getting "free As" or "buying your As" at Lydian. Let me dispel that myth right now:
Do many of our students get As in their classes? Yes. Have I given Bs in my classes? Absolutely!
Do our students get Cs at Lydian? Very rarely, and let me explain why: If my student is mastering less than 80% of the material, then as a teacher in a *1-on-1* environment I am not doing my job. This is one of the driving forces behind Lydian's model. Education is a two-way street; because I have the unique benefit to have a student 1-on-1, it is my job to make sure the material is covered in a specialized, but no less rigorous, way so as to meet his or her needs. No matter how amazing a teacher is, the sad truth is that in most public schools teachers are simply not given the necessary resources to meet *every single student* where they are.
That is why Lydian exists - I can.
To go back to my earlier point, if I feel a student is not mastering an acceptable (at least B-level) amount of the material, I try a different track. I meet the student where they are. I frame and re-frame as necessary until the student understands, and in a 1-on-1 environment, you can tell. (That's one of the things I love most about teaching here - being able to be at eye-level with the students and *see* that AHA! moment when it all clicks.)
So when a student excels at a school like Lydian it shouldn't be surprising. We are giving them the 1-on-1, hands-on support that they felt their public institution did not or could not provide.
So I don't have to give away a "free A" to a student when I have the tools and resources to make sure they can succeed on their own. As one commenter above put it, quite perfectly: "This has everything to do with learning and nothing to do about grades."

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on May 19, 2012 at 12:13 am


The person who is "behind" the A-G graduation requirement is not me, it's Kevin Skelly. I happen to agree with him about this. And the reason is to increase minority achievement. Palo Alto has a longstanding problem with the achievement gap, at least some of which is attributable to teachers and counselors who have low expectations for minority students and place them in the lowest tracks based on racial stereotypes and assumptions. Raising the graduation requirements for all students helps to create accountability around minority college-readiness. Minority students are extremely overrepresented in the group of kids who are not graduating A-G.

But you already knew that and your point was just to say something snarky about me, not to get information.

Like this comment
Posted by MinorityPAParent
a resident of Barron Park
on May 22, 2012 at 10:11 am

My son has struggled for years in Palo Alto schools. I think it is important to have other options like Lydian and SIL for kids. I could not send him to Gunn for high school because I knew he would not be successful. After searching for his options for high school, we found Mid-Peninsula High School in Menlo Park and he will start in the fall.

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Posted by Corey
a resident of Barron Park
on May 20, 2013 at 1:28 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

I was a student there for my senior year and I am highly embarrassed to have graduated from this "school." Needless to say this is a place where concerned parents drop off their "problem" children, thinking that it is a quick and painless way to fix their issues. Sadly, it is not, as Lydian Academy's low standards of academics give the illusion that their kids are succeeding, where in fact Lydian's academic standard of a wink and an instant A does not prepare students for any academic endeavors that may come afterwards. My main moral concern with the institution was their willingness to accept students with severe learning differences when they have ZERO people in their staff who have any sort of real credentials to work with this type of student.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] I am lucky to be attending college in spite of my mistake of attending this institution [portion removed.] The fact that this institution is academically accredited is inexplicable and I advise that parents and students both steer clear of Lydian. The experience and work ethic that comes with attending a real school far outweighs the benefits of paying for some token A's. It is shameful how little thought is shown in simply profiling this institution without any in-depth research or looking at the negatives.

1 person likes this
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 20, 2013 at 8:43 am

Both of my kids have taken classes at Lydian and both have had excellent teachers. They absolutely learned the material and one child is now inspired to study the subject he took at Lydian in college. I don't think Rhonda is there full time, she hired a Director of the school.

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Posted by English prof
a resident of Stanford
on May 20, 2013 at 8:52 am

This piece does read like a puff piece. Did the reporter seek out interview subjects independently or just accept referrals from the business owner?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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