Innovation Schools and Youth

Innovative schools offer Palo Alto parents new ways to educate children

The Bay Area is known for being a hub of innovation, where entrepreneurs come to try out new ideas and create groundbreaking approaches to old problems. And as these trailblazers settle down and start to have families, it’s no surprise that they are turning their penchant for disruption to the K-12 education arena. Here in Palo Alto and in San Francisco, new start up schools including Helios, AltSchool, Synapse, and BrightWorks have emerged in the past five years that allow children to interact with curriculum in ways that are a significant departure from a traditional public school environment.

Palo Alto Pulse did a little digging to find out what these schools are offering and why they are appealing for local parents. What we found is that they all share a commitment to personalizing the education experience, giving kids freedom to learn through doing and exploring and avoiding a ‘one size fits all’ approach to education.

Five years ago, Helios School started with 35 children in one room at the Oshman JCC. This year the school moved to an 18,000 square foot campus in Sunnyvale to accommodate its growing K-8 enrollment. Helios is focused on educating children who are identified as “gifted” and allowing them to pursue their interests through thematic instruction with long blocks of time to work on in depth projects. In Helios middle school, these educational experiences are structured “to require the learner to take initiative, think critically, problem solve, make decisions, and be accountable for the results.” In Helios lower school, teachers, “strive to create compelling topics that set the stage for life-long learning strategies.” The next information session for Helios School is February 4th.

AltSchool students on a field trip. Photo credit: TechCrunch

AltSchool students on a field trip. Photo credit: TechCrunch

AltSchool is a network of four schools based in San Francisco that is opening a new campus at 850 Emerson Street in Palo Alto in fall 2015. AltSchool, which was founded by former Google engineer Max Ventilla, has raised over $30 million in venture capital funding and


AltSchool’s founder Max Ventilla

aims to educate children to become the entrepreneurs of 2030. With that goal in mind, AltSchool creates learning environments that are focused on helping each student meet his or her own unique learning goals through a curricular plan called, appropriately, a “playlist.” AltSchool has hired a team of over 20 engineers to develop proprietary software that helps manage student learning and allows teachers to monitor progress and make changes and improvements.

Unlike regular independent schools, which have selective admissions due to capacity constraints, AltSchool aims to eventually accommodate all interested students and families by opening new micro schools that require minimal administrative overhead or upkeep. Its first school in Palo Alto is likely to have 30 students, but depending on the interest from parents, AltSchool could open one or more additional second micro-schools in 2016 or even in the middle of the school year. AltSchool, which is a new kind for-profit company called a certified Benefit Corporation, envisions making money through its tuition-based micro school campuses and by licensing its software to other schools and educators. Applications for AltSchool are due January 15th but the enrollment will be rolling and on-going. The school aims to enroll a diverse population of students and families and encourages all interested parents to complete the application process even if they are still pursuing other options for their children.

A colorful project hangs from the ceiling at Synapse. Photo credit: Synapse School

A colorful project hangs from the ceiling at Synapse. Photo credit: Synapse School

Synapse School, which was started in Palo Alto in 2008 by Karen Stone McGowen (the founder of Nueva School), offers a small-group setting that is geared towards gifted learners.  Synapse is part of the Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Network and strives to integrate social emotional learning (SEL) into every aspect of the curriculum. According to the Synapse website, the school aims to educate the changemakers of tomorrow through small group, project based learning,   “because future problem solvers need to be able to see solutions for problems, and also consider the human implications..they need skills to assimilate many forms of data, both logical and emotional, and use these to make creative, strategic and insightful decisions.” The Synapse campus is in Menlo Park and includes 154 students in grades K-8. Applications to Synapse School are due January 22nd. 

And although it is not in Palo Alto, BrightWorks is another cool new school offering students and parents a dramatically different alternative to a traditional educational

Brightworks facility in San Francisco. Photo credit: Brightworks

Brightworks facility in San Francisco. Photo credit: Brightworks

environment. BrightWorks started in San Francisco in 2011 with 19 children and is built around the idea of students ‘tinkering’ with ideas and projects to gain knowledge and skills. BrightWorks’ philosophy is that, “the world desperately needs voracious, self-directed learners who see tough problems as puzzles. In response, we are making a disruptive new model for education—one that puts the individual child in the in the center of the learning experience.” BrightWorks is located in a former mayonnaise factory in San Francisco’s South of Market and the space is utilized to foster the creativity and tinkering that are hallmarks of the school’s approach to learning.

BrightWorks co-founder Gever Tully

BrightWorks co-founder Gever Tully. Photo credit: BrightWorks

According to BrightWorks’ website, “We use real tools, real materials, and real problems to encourage students’ love of learning, curiosity about the world, ability to engage, tenacity to think big, and persistence to do amazing things.” Over the course of each school year, students work in multi-age ‘bands’ to complete three ‘arcs’ of a thematic project- exploration, expression and exposition. Due to BrightWorks unique approach to learning and small size, parents are required to complete a lengthy application and admissions process, which is due February 2nd.

About the author

Victoria Thorp

Victoria Thorp

Victoria is the founder and editor of Palo Alto Pulse and has lived in Palo Alto since 2007. Victoria's diverse professional background includes working as the editor of , as a senior writer for KIPP and Teach for America, and as a radio producer for City Visions on KALW (91.7FM San Francisco). She is a graduate of Leadership Palo Alto and a member of the Palo Alto Partners in Education Advisory Board.

She has a BA in English from Tufts University and Masters in Education and Secondary Teaching Credential in English from UCLA.