Monday, February 28, 2011

Flex Public Charter Schools

I’m always interested in innovative schools so I visited San Francisco Flex Academy last week with two friends. This is a free (well, your taxes pay for it, like public school) charter school for 9-12 graders. Two more are opening soon – one in Silicon Valley and one in the Mt. Diablo district.

The way these schools work:

They operate on a traditional school year calendar, with traditional school hours and holidays. They follow the California curriculum standards. The building isn’t your typical school structure. The one in San Francisco looked like a converted hotel with a comfortable lobby, student lounge with fireplace, library (with very few books since the school uses mostly virtual tools), cafeteria, a board room, and one big open room filled with individual study carrels. On the periphery of the big room were small break out rooms where a teacher and one to ten students could convene.

All students come to school, grab their laptop (provided by the school), go to their carrel and begin working. They work in five 70-minute sessions with ten-minute breaks and a lunch break. They check in on line to set up their work plan for the day. If they feel like starting with math, they start with math. If they work better on English or science first thing in the morning, that’s where they start.

They follow the K-12 online, interactive curriculum.

When they need help, they raise their hand and an academic coach (who is constantly walking the room) helps them. Teachers monitor their progress on line and call on students individually or in groups to help them in areas that need help. Students may also work in small groups.

The focus seems to be on mastery instead of on grades, although grades are given. When a student masters a concept, she moves ahead to the next level. Tests are given and progress is constantly monitored by a teacher.

Homework? It seems minimal. The students may continue to work at home on something they are doing at school, but the goal is to have them working at school and meeting their goals so that they do not need to bring it home. Because it’s virtual, some students may finish up some homework on the bus on the way to school on their smart phone, for example.

This seems to work well for any type of student. The slower learner works at a slower pace and the quicker learner works faster. Every student must meet goals, but goals are individual and the work they do toward meeting those goals appears to be non competitive. Every student must master subjects, but at their own pace.

What about extracurriculars? Well, they are minimal or students can form their own clubs and create any extra curricular activities they choose. They could choose to start a soccer team, for example, or a chess club, or a dance. It’s up to the students.

Or, perhaps they don’t want any extra curriculars after school, so then they are free to come home after school (to little or no homework) and do what they want with the rest of their day - sports, music, rest, art, work, volunteer, etc.

Sound interesting?

If you are interested in learning more about the Mt. Diablo Flex school (slated to open next fall in Pleasant Hill or Walnut Creek) you can go to this informational meeting:

Mt. Diablo Flex Academy
Info Session

Tuesday, March 1

7:00 PM

Walnut Creek Public Library

1644 North Broadway

Walnut Creek, CA 94596

Or, I suggest a visit to the SF Flex Academy with your son or daughter to get a feeling for this type of innovative school and whether it would be a good fit for your student. I was impressed.

Any thoughts?


  1. Wow, Kerry this sounds like a NEW idea for school hitting kids right where they like to! I live a bizillion miles away from California so something like this for my kid is not likely to happen when she's ready for high school..I wonder, do they do any group work or get together and Skype with a teacher (or other students)somewhere in the world, kind of like they do at university in small group formats.

  2. I have some cautious optimism about the Flex Academy that you have described so well, but red flags were waving as I went through your article, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

    The first concern that surfaced was: Who is writing the software, and is there a peer review process for it? The concern here is that software coming out of the state of Texas or some other academically biased area may, for example, promote the use of materials that eliminate things like Darwin's theory of evolution in favor of intelligent design. The potential for abuse is greater than one might expect.

    Another concern that came to mind was: Who is performing the statistical studies that will validate the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of Flex Academies as compared to traditional academic environments? Good statistical studies require lots of data that take several years to compile. It's no trivial task.

    While it sounded great initially that slower children get to work at a pace ideally suited to their diminished academic pace, perhaps this is not the best thing for these kids. Isn't it possible that a slow child who is pushed frequently to work and comprehend at a pace faster than would naturally result from the student working in isolation may experience mental development that would otherwise not occur. And, if a slow child has always learned at a slow pace perfectly suited to his abilities, what happens when that student tries to function in the adult world where there is no tolerance or concern for slowness?

    I wish my concerns stopped there, but another thought was: Will there be long-term health risks, primarily for the eyes and hands, associated with having kids spending so much time working on laptop computers day in and day out. Remember, kids tend to go home from school and get on computers to stay connected with friends, etc. It sounds like a life with an awful lot of optical and digital strain.

    While there are some good homework help and online tutoring websites out there that strive to help students learn and not to cheat, there are plenty of others that lack integrity; Flex Academies put students in an environment where that type of "help" will be easy to rely on. Isn't it possible, therefore, that some of the work done online by students at Flex Academies may not be their own, including tests and quizzes?

    I would be relieved if someone could address these issues and put my mind at ease.

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