Where Palo Alto students learn in a class of one

Fusion Academy tailors instruction to kids' learning styles

Imagine a secondary school where homework is actually just classwork because it's done at school, where there are no Advanced Placement (AP) classes and the class size never tips over one, with each student receiving individualized attention in every class.

It might sound like a pipe dream to Palo Alto families all too familiar with battles over homework, raging debate over academic pressure and full-to-the-brim classrooms, but it's not. This model of instruction is the reality at Fusion Academy, a new alternative middle and high school that opened in Palo Alto just last week. It's one of a growing number of private schools opening in the area that offer a non-traditional way of teaching and learning.

Fusion Academy is a fully accredited private school with more than 20 campuses in California, Texas, New York and New Jersey, including Bay Area locations in San Mateo, Los Gatos and San Francisco. Its model draws on the school's humble beginnings as a one-on-one tutoring program created in founder Michelle Rose Gilman's southern California garage in 1989. The program became so popular that she ran into traffic-control issues on her street, the company lore goes, so she eventually opened a full-time school in 2001.

Fast forward to East Bayshore Road in Palo Alto in 2015, where a nondescript office building behind U.S. Highway 101 has been turned into Fusion's latest campus. This Tuesday morning, Los Altos High School student Riley Fujioka sat side-by-side with her graphic arts teacher -- with electronic music playing softly in the background -- as she edited a photo on a Mac desktop computer in the schools' combination art studio and science lab. Toward the end of class, the teacher pulled up a calendar titled "June/July 2015 -- Riley + graphic design," a totally personalized view of Riley's summer course for the next few weeks.

Every class at Fusion -- whether it's graphic arts, English, music geometry -- looks different for every student. Armed with an in-depth profile of his or her student crafted from meetings with the parents to flesh out the student's academic and social-emotional weaknesses and strengths, each teacher creates a lesson plan targeted to that student's learning styles. Palo Alto Head of School Christiana Martinez told a group of parents about a student in southern California who couldn't get through "Dracula" for his English class but loved music, so his teacher asked him to make a book on tape in the school's recording studio (all campuses have one). Daniel Wright, who teaches music, Spanish and French at the Palo Alto campus, recorded songs in Spanish with music students that drew from vocabulary they were working on in their Spanish class.

Physical education is also non-traditional: It's the only group class at Fusion and it's done off-site at local parks or even gyms. Yoga is also offered as a PE substitute.

The lesson plans are also, of course, malleable. In a one-on-one setting, students ideally become more comfortable speaking up about what's not working for them academically or telling a teacher when something might be going on outside of school that's distracting them from school work, Martinez said.

Fusion operates on a block schedule, with students moving from each 50-minute class to 50 minutes of built-in homework time (dubbed "homework cafe") supervised by a teacher, then to their next class. Each campus has a "social" and "silent" homework cafe to accommodate differing learning styles. In Palo Alto, the social version includes a large black couch with colorful pillows, giant black beanbag and bookshelves with everything from algebra textbooks and "Of Mice and Men" to "The Hunger Games."

A standard full-time student has at least three classes each day, with lunch with the entire school for an hour in the middle of the day. Schedules can also be customized to a student's needs or extracurricular commitments.

For high school students, Fusion is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (the same organization that gives accreditation to Palo Alto and Gunn high schools), so many head to four-year colleges or universities after graduating. And though no AP classes are offered -- "there's a level of academic pressure that comes with AP that we just don't really get behind," Martinez said -- students can take honors-level coursework that will weight their GPA in the same way an AP class would, and tutoring is offered to students who want to take an AP exam.

Classes come with traditional grades (though always given with "a ton of communication" and feedback, Martinez said) and tests. Since it's a private school, there is no standardized testing.

The year-round school also offers summer school, after-school tutoring for first-grade through college students and a "class for credit" program for students who might need to make up credits in a course they did poorly in at their traditional school.

At a school "coffee chat," held last month in a conference room at SAP's HanaHaus downtown, were a father with two sons in high school looking for summer language programs; a father considering either full-time school or tutoring for his 11-year-old son, who has learning difficulties; and the mother of a rising Paly junior whom she described as a little bit "lost" at the traditional school. Martinez said about 40 percent of Fusion students do have a diagnosed learning difference like ADHD or dyslexia, 30 or 40 percent are "just anxious" or not thriving in their traditional school for a variety of reasons and the rest are "kids who wanted something different." Each campus has a licensed counselor on staff, and sessions can be seamlessly built into a student's regular class day if the family opts to do that.

Fusion Palo Alto has already enrolled 17 summer school students and has 11 full-time students set to begin in the fall. Enrollment is rolling but will be capped this year at about 20 to 25 full-time students and build up to a 70-student maximum. There are always more high school students, as the school likes to keep the middle-school cohorts small to build relationships during an often difficult time socially. High school students also serve as mentors to the younger students, a mutually beneficial relationship, Martinez said.

Vickie Fujioka, the mother of graphic-arts student Riley, described Fusion as a much-needed breath of fresh air from Los Altos High School for both her daughter and older son Remy, who attended Fusion in San Mateo full time his junior year. Remy, who has been diagnosed with depression, had an individualized-education plan at Los Altos High that "just wasn't working," and he had a hard time focusing in school while dealing with depression, she said.

"Remy said it (Fusion) saved his life," Fujioka said. "It helped him refocus. He didn't feel like he was drowning in a sea of kids at Los Altos High."

Remy loved writing, so Fusion made all his classes about writing, even chemistry. (He wrote about the impact of the nuclear bomb in Japan for one assignment.) And Fujioka said while he didn't get straight A's at Fusion -- that wasn't why he went there -- he was much more engaged, focused and happy. One teacher whom Fujioka described as her son's mentor still calls him often to check in.

Riley, on the other hand, is a straight-A student and All-American diver with a penchant for perfectionism.

"We need her to calm down," her mother said. So she's at Fusion Palo Alto this summer taking graphic arts to relieve her workload next year. Her class is designed around a career interest in fine arts.

Fusion tuition is not a flat rate but rather per course, per semester. A standard middle school class (30 sessions in 15 weeks) costs $3,870 per semester, per class; a standard high school class (25 sessions in 12 and a half weeks to allow for either an accelerated or slower pace) is $3,400 per semester, per class. A year of tuition for a middle school student taking seven courses -- the number that public school students in Palo Alto take -- would be $54,180. Tuition for a high school student taking five or six classes, like Paly and Gunn students, would be $34,000 and $40,800, respectively.

Comparatively, AltSchool, an alternative K-8 school opening in downtown Palo Alto this fall, charges a base tuition of $26,250 for elementary school and $27,000 for middle school. The school day there is flexible, with core subjects bookmarked by personalized learning and students' particular extracurriculars or interests. AltSchool offers mixed-age classes with low student-to-teacher ratios.

At Fusion Academy, extended 30-session high school courses and honors-level classes cost $3,870 each. After-school tutoring is $75 per session with no minimum or maximum required number of sessions.

For families interested in finding out more about Fusion, the school regularly hosts tours and information meetings. Upcoming meetings include a lunch on July 9, noon to 1 p.m., and an open house on July 22, 6:30-8 p.m. More information is posted at

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8 people like this
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 3, 2015 at 9:01 am

And this is what is wrong with this area. Where is the social development, the playing in the school yards, the arguments, the laughter, the flirting? We are creating perfect sheep whose only goal in high school are to produce grades to get into a college the vast majority cannot do anything with, except accumulate even more debt.

Disturbing and needs to stop.

2 people like this
Posted by GreatIdea
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 3, 2015 at 9:56 am

I wish this were available when my kids went through PAUSD. It would really reduce the stress from homework, and the pressure from teachers to perform relative to other kids in the class.

Maybe a focus on learning would grow out of such an arrangement.

Keep going!

2 people like this
Posted by Hey Mom!
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 3, 2015 at 3:03 pm

My older son went to Fusion in San Mateo. He was their 5th student enrolled and in the first graduating class. He was so miserable at Gunn after his first year that we knew we had to make a change.

Fusion was the best decision we could have made for him. He is now a confident college sophomore--he even made the deans list in his first year.

15 people like this
Posted by arthur
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 3, 2015 at 4:21 pm

I wish some research had gone into this article , like the real research I did when I looked into Fusion's San Mateo campus a few years ago. That way it might not sound like an advertisement. Here's what I learned, all 100% verifiable with internet searches alone.

(1) That ~$4,000 number is PER SEMESTER, per course. So if you're carrying a 6 course load for a full year, you're looking at at around $48,000.

(2) The one-on-one may be great, but you don't get very much of it, even at that dramatic price point. [When I looked, they were selling 20 hour semesters for a price that was lower, closer to $3500 each.] That's $175 per hour. But more disturbingly, who can master a semester of course material and growth in 20 hours of class time? [Compared to 1 hour per weekday at a traditional high school, you'd be done with your "semester" in 4 weeks.]

(3) This isn't anything new to Paly and Gunn parents. There are actually two similar schools, SIL and Lydian Academy, that are both locally owned (non-chain) schools that have been popular for years, both for full-time placements or a class or two.

Please do more homework next time Weekly!

15 people like this
Posted by arthur
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 3, 2015 at 4:44 pm

Correction (More Accurate Math):

This is based on the rates listed Fusion's website for the East Palo Alto, Bayshore location:
Web Link

- A 6-course school year (two semesters each) of "extended" high school courses would total $46,440.
- Each semester of those "extended" classes costs $3870 for 30 instructional hours, so ~$130 per hour.

- A 6-course school year (two semesters each) of "standard" high school courses totals $40,800.
- Each semester of those classes costs $3400, so $136 per hour.

I also looked at Glassdoor to try to see the employee side, and it's not very pretty. Apparently only a small fraction of that revenue to finding good teachers. That said, I may be biased, as that was my impression a few years back. I might have been interpreting what I saw on glassdoor through that preconception.

2 people like this
Posted by Numbers
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 4, 2015 at 12:02 am

Many private high schools have comparable income, but use classes. A teacher of a class may warrant and get a premium for that extra capability; some people make excellent tutors but can not manage a class. I would guess you can get more understanding and more student learning for the same price or even a lower price 1-1 because so much attention in traditional teaching is on class management. Then there is prep, grading, curriculum adjustments etc. that have to be approached with more attention to organization.

The point is that lower pay might have a good explanation unrelated to greed or low quality.

1 person likes this
Posted by A Student
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 4, 2015 at 3:38 pm

How can anybody learn when somebody's looking over their shoulder all the time? True learning takes place only when the cycle of curiosity, experimentation, failure, analysis, and retry can occur without needless distraction. The best teachers know when to get out of the way.

3 people like this
Posted by a parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 8, 2015 at 8:33 am

Wow! The math Arthur did on Fusion's tuition is very disturbing because their not-so-clever attempt to hide the numbers makes it look like Fusion thinks we are stupid.

I don't know about you, but when it comes to health, education, and welfare, I look for the highest integrity from my providers - be they doctors, teachers, or dentists and Fusion doesn't meet even mediocre standards for integrity.

Why? Because if you look at Arthur's breakdown of the hourly cost of one-to-one instruction for classes, it's $136 - $175/hr. Contrast that to their published tutoring rate on their website of $75/hr.

What does this mean? Clearly they are banking on our stupidity not to do the math for course instruction that Arthur did. Instead they throw us a lost leader tutoring rate that they hope sticks in our minds as the basis for their tuition model. But Fusion's investors - American Education Group in Michigan - don't know us here in Palo Alto. We actually do have brains in our heads and we can do the math.

Oh - and look at Glassdoor pay rates. It is very clear that only a drop of that $136 - $175 is going to the most important part of the educational equation - the teachers! Do you think they love their jobs?

On top of that, they are calling their East Bayshore campus Palo Alto. With a lovely view of the freeway and next to the East Bayshore post office, it's clear they are trying to profit from the prestige that comes with a Palo Alto address, but that campus is not in Palo Alto. I guess if you are run by investors in Michigan, you might not be aware of those kinds of nuances.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 8, 2015 at 2:50 pm

@ a parent -- "but that campus is not in Palo Alto"

Yes it is in Palo Alto.

1 person likes this
Posted by a parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 9, 2015 at 12:47 pm

Sorry, Fusion is NOT in Palo Alto.

Check with the USPS (US Postal Service). I went directly to the USPS zip code lookup site, and even when I entered the address as being in Palo Alto, as Fusion so hopefully claims it to be, the USPS comes back with East Palo Alto (see cut-and-paste from USPS website, below).

Don't get me wrong - I think East Palo Alto has just as much to offer as Palo Alto, but it's clear that Fusion's deceptive or pathetically mis-informed claim about being in Palo Alto is so they can profit from the prestige of a Palo Alto address - whether it's true or not.

Here is a fun fact for you: one of the things out-of-towners usually don't know about Palo Alto is that Fusion's 94303 zip code is partially in Palo Alto, and partially in East Palo Alto. Go figure.

Is Fusion's claim to be in Palo Alto explicitly deceptive? Or is it because the center of Fusion's operation is in a whole different time zone (a quick Google search puts their investors in Michigan), and no one bothered to check?

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter whether EAST is in the address or not. What does matter is that far-away investors think they can pull the wool over our eyes with their not-so-clever tactics.

But we are not as stupid as they think. Everyone in Palo Alto is either an entrepreneur or knows one, giving us plenty of entrepreneurial experience to figure out who is behind the curtain and to sniff out Fusion's game.

Speaking of the Man Behind The Curtain, just for grins, look up Jeffrey C. Poole, COO of Fusion Academies at American Education Group, LLC. Here are excerpts from Mr. Poole's bio on the Bloomberg site:

"He served as President of the privately-held Spartan Oil Corporation. He provided strategic direction and leadership for improving overall company operations, revenue and gross profit. ... He held a variety of general management, sales, marketing, and operations roles with Waste Management and Dow Chemical. Mr. Poole holds a BS degree in Food Systems Economics and Management and an MS degree in Agriculture Economics, both from Michigan State University"

Why do I care about all this? Because just about everyone in Palo Alto cares about our schools and about education. That's why most of us are even here. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't trust a guy who ran an oil company and a chain school like Fusion with MY child's education.

As promised, here is proof that Fusion is NOT in Palo Alto. The first part is the address as I submitted it to the USPS zip code lookup. I entered the address using Palo Alto as the city, consistent with Fusion's claim. The USPS returned the full address, which is in East Palo Alto. The following text is cut and pasted directly from the USPS zip code lookup site:
You entered:
Here's the full address, using standard abbreviations and formatting.
EAST PALO ALTO CA 94303-3236

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 9, 2015 at 1:43 pm

Fascinating find, parent. I get the same USPS result.

However, here's what the Santa Clara County tax assessor thinks:

Property Information - Assessor's Parcel Number (APN): 008-01-003
Situs Address(es): 2191 E BAYSHORE RD PALO ALTO 94303-3219
Mailing Address: 2191 E BAYSHORE RD PALO ALTO CA 94303-3219

I don't claim to know anything else about Fusion Academy or its credibility.

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

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