A Hybrid High School grows in San Francisco

Beginning less than a month ago, the San Francisco Flex Academy, a charter school with a corporate curricular engine, comes close to my model of a new school, and it doesn’t meet in a school building. This high school takes place in an old ballroom under chandeliers (albeit a ballroom with robust wifi, fast laptops, and an engaging online curriculum.)   And, oh yes, it has teachers, too, but many less than in a normal school, and not doing as they normally would.

Flex Academy teachers–like the depicted Dan Kirshner (also VP of the curriculum supplier) are facilitators of online learning that the kids do individually. They wander the room as helpers, the opposite of autocratic pedagogues. A 19 September SFChronicle article describes what goes on in its “classroom”:

Teachers help students when they have questions, and they also pull students out of classes for lectures, debates, science labs or other activities. Otherwise, the students are expected to learn on their own during the traditional four years of high school. But they can move quickly through subjects they excel at and pace themselves though more challenging topics.

At the same time, Flex Academy will have dances, field trips, and sports–all American high school traditions. It is chronologically synchronous too, normal high schools. Each kid is required to “show up every day to a bricks-and-mortar building” from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The article defines a “hybrid” as “combining self-paced online learning with a structured schedule, significant oversight and face-to-face interaction with peers and teachers.”

Before endorsing it, I’d like to know more about that final piece, the significant “face-to-face” going on in Flex Academy. What does it include? Because in any successful learning community, there must be meaningful human interaction.  I of course am talking quality, not quantity of human interaction. [A traditional teacher in my position will tell you that sometimes, getting away from the enforced sociability of classrooms is good. Some classes definitely run too long. With 30 plus kids in a small classroom, stress levels rise, and learning consequently dips.]  

I’d want there to be significant frequency of human interaction, too. I do not believe that daily face2face time is unreasonable.  We are social animals, after all.

If Mr. Dan Kirshner asked me how to enhance the quality of the face2face, I would suggest gathering the students across age levels and subject area for regular, required discussion. These would be “authentic” discussions, conducted around engaging curricular questions.  I would further suggest that  there be excellent cross-curricular and cloud-based learning projects among students in small groups and pairs. What wonderful learning opportunities for cooperative and collaborative behaviors his setting affords–the stuff our times demand!

According to Daniel Pink, the three qualities of the ideal workforce of the future (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) could be fostered in a Flex Academy. And training our kids to work out of their right-brains means we’ll have a growing economy into the foreseeable future.

If I could, I’d ask Dan Kirshner about the actual K12 inc. curriculum, and the sorts of learning activities and web 2.0 games it offers.  According to the article, “students can choose from 130 courses – including 15 advanced placement classes, five languages, marketing, game design or oceanography.” What sort of supplementary, “real-life” experiences would mix with the online courses to make them relevant? And what sort of guidance, if any, are students given in their selection of courses?

The “first school of its kind in California,” the Flex Academy seems to have no entrance requirements. According to the article, attendance “is open to any high school student who is interested in attending.” [None but the brave so far?] I’d ask Mr. Kirshner whether going large-scale, and serving a general student population is in his business plan, and how a diverse student body can be achieved.

I’d ask him further if certain essential conditions for this school can be guaranteed:

  • self-motivated learners:  no school-master to tell them what to do, you need teens with strong self-guidance system to learn in this school.  or if they don’t have it yet, who are willing to develop one. These people–often intrinsically motivated–are rare among adults, most of whom require laws or incentives to produce. Then again, such schooling might re-produce
  • flawless, reliable tech performance:  the Internet must be instantaneous, the programs bug-free, and the equipment durable enough to disappear:  any technology, sufficiently advanced, is invisible
  • sensible student-teacher ratio:  the small staff at the Flex Academy needs to be large enough to handle simultaneous learning issues. Beyond a certain point, it gets frustrating to kids who may require more assistance.

Without these, I’m pretty sure the Flex model crashes.

And I’m sure I know what Mr. Kirshner would say but I’d ask him anyway:  can the sole supplier of Flex Academy be trusted? Is the school in danger of educational “mono-culture”? What is K12 Incorporated, anyway–why should we trust its curriculum? We are assured that it is the highest quality out there

My final big questions for Mr. Kirshner are whether the solution offered by the Flex Academy is scalable; that is, if it works on the small scale, whether it can be implemented successfully and ubiquitously at a large scale? And would he not agree that the ultimate hybrid any high school aspires to be, traditional or not, is a school that develops into a meaningful community while fostering the flourishing of individual learning? What does that hybrid high school look like?

2 responses to “A Hybrid High School grows in San Francisco”

  1. I perceive more skepticism than hope in this article of the Flex academy. Is K12,Inc. the only for profit curriculum provider? What about MacMillan McGraw-Hill? or Harcourt? Since it is the first attempt at such a hybrid school, why not encourage K12,Inc. in their attempt to better our nations schools. Compared to the public school education I received, this model at least offers a hope of improvement for my children.


  2. You are correct, Lee, that there is skepticism in my description, but there is also hope. That there are such hybrid models growing is extremely hopeful, and I can hardly wait for the results. But since I am largely ignorant of the K12, Inc. curriculum, and since the corporate imperative is to report profits, and since I have been witness to other corporate experiments in education that were neutral or destructive of educational ends, I remain skeptical. Perhaps you have more reason to be hopeful of K12, inc., or of corporate forays into public ed? Thank you for your response, Lee!


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