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 fusionacademy.com/academy/palo-alto/welcome.