The new school: innovators pioneer experimental schools in the California Bay Area


by Prameela Kottapalli and Jackie Gao

In the past few years, various experimental schools have opened in California, from Khan Lab School in Mountain View to Brightworks and AltSchool, both in San Francisco.

Experimental schools, or alternative schools, are educational institutions that implement a unique, innovative style of learning. Common features between these schools include later start times, smaller class sizes and mixed age groups.

Khan Lab School, founded by Salman Khan of Khan Academy, opened in Mountain View in September of 2014. The school is a non-profit independent organization that provides education for students of ages five to twelve, and homework and grades are completely eliminated from the project-based curriculum. Each day, Khan Lab School starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 3:30 p.m.

Brightworks, based in San Francisco and established in 2011, is a K-12 charter school that places students in mixed-age learning groups, enabling them to learn from their classmates and be exposed to knowledge that is outside the scope of their age group. Constructed warehouse-style, the alternative school is complete with an art studio, an observation science lab, and a no-shoes play area for students of all ages.

These schools place emphasis upon resourcefulness and creativity of their students instead of their ability to take tests. The goal of experimental schools is to engage children in the classroom, and for them to learn free from the stresses of conventional schools. In addition, while reducing overall stress rates among students, schools that employ the experimental model produce substantially fewer student dropouts.

According to Brightworks school founding staff member and program coordinator Justine Macauley, learning in a low-stress environment free from the expectations of conventional high schools enables students to grow and become more innovative human beings.

“A lot of schools, because there are a lot of expectations about grades and tests and homework, it drives up that sort of stress where the expectations that students have are not necessarily beneficial to their health and their overall growth,” Macauley said. “It’s more important for students to be resourceful and creative rather than knowing how to take tests, to work, and to follow curriculum directions.”

Another experimental education facility, AltSchool, was founded in San Francisco and has many other locations opening this year in Palo Alto. Open to students from Pre-K to eighth grade, the school removes grade level barriers among the students and encourages them to be highly involved in STEM domains. In addition, AltSchool’s San Francisco branches offer all students personalized language programs, allowing them to develop proficiency in foreign languages from Spanish to German.

Max Ventilla, CEO and founder of AltSchool, strongly believes that world-class education should be accessible to everyone in order to create a better society.

“Education is critically important not just for this country, but for the world and to improve what’s wrong with the world and to make the world the type of place that we want to be in,” Ventilla said. “We shouldn’t just have a tiny sliver of the population that receives what we would all agree is a first rate education.”

This piece was originally published in the pages of the Winged Post on Jan. 27, 2016