By Kyle Palmer

Every weekday, Chanel Hines commutes from Walnut Creek across the Bay Bridge to an office building in downtown San Francisco. When she arrives (usually around nine), she logs into her computer, sits down at her desk, and checks her schedule for upcoming appointments. Then she might begin working on a project or head to a meeting down the hall.

This sounds like a typical day at the office. But Chanel is 15 and a sophomore at the San Francisco Flex Academy. This is not work; it’s high school.

The Flex Academy—housed in the old San Francisco Press Club building near Union Square—is nearly two years into what one of its teachers calls an “interesting experiment,” where students do most of their coursework online, set up appointments with their teachers via email, and sidle up to their classmate’s cubicle if they need help with an algebra problem.

“You have a lot of freedom here,” Chanel said. “But you still need to get your work done, or you won’t be successful.”

Like all of her classmates, Chanel has a cubicle, one of many spaced out in the Press Club’s old banquet hall, with an oaken bar (now empty) off to the side and crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The atmospheric setting is unique, as is Flex’s academic approach.

The 165 students take all their courses online through software provided by the for-profit education company K12. Each semester, the students work through a series of lessons in each of the four core subject areas—English, Math, Science, and History. Plus, they take an online elective from a menu of more than 100 options provided by K12, spanning topics such as Macroeconomics, Audio Engineering, and Art History. (Chanel is currently taking French III).

The brunt of the academic work is done online, with each student’s assignments, homework, grades, and assessments tracked and compiled onto an online dashboard that can be seen by their teachers and parents. Some students say they don’t even know what grades their peers are in. “In traditional public schools, there’s segregation between grades,” says student Sophia L. in the school’s promotional video. “At this school, I don’t really know who’s in what grade. I just talk to anybody.”

“It’s an intriguing approach,” English teacher Megan Jacquot said. “When I first heard about the school, I was interested in the amount that technology is used.”

You might wonder what Jacquot does if her students take their classes online. Jacquot said her job at Flex is not that much different from her previous job teaching English at a traditional public high school in Illinois.

The Flex Academy is located in San Francisco's Press Club building downtown.

“I’m in front of kids from 9 a.m., when school begins, to 3:15, when it ends,” she said. “There is this misconception that there is no teaching going on here, but I’m teaching all day.”

Jacquot pulls students in individually or in small groups to help them with particular concepts when they’re struggling with the online course material. Jacquot says she can track student progress online and target her interventions. For instance, on a recent school day, a group of students were in Jacquot’s classroom—a converted library with wood paneled bookshelves set into the walls—learning how to add citations to research papers.

“I really get to know what’s going on behind the scenes with my kids,” she said. “Like with this research paper: I know exactly where all of them are in the writing process. Who’s drafting, who’s finishing up, and who needs help researching. I know all my students really well.”

Flex founder and CEO Mark Kushner said this setup mimics real life. “What do you do when you have a problem with a project at work? You seek out your colleagues or your boss and you work through it,” he said. “That’s what these students do here.”

Kushner and other Flex officials do not shy away from touting the school’s alternative approach. On its Web site, Flex is advertised as “one of California’s first five-day-a-week ‘hybrid’ public high schools.” A makeshift sign in the front window of the San Francisco campus reads: “The Future of Public School Education is Here” — a bold signals that school officials are confident in their model. In fact, Flex opened a brand new, state-of-the-art campus in Silicon Valley just a few weeks ago.

Yet kinks are inevitable. On the same day Jacquot was teaching citations in her class, the wireless Internet went down throughout the entire building. Students working independently at their cubicles soon became restless. In the old banquet hall, some students sat listlessly in their chairs. Others clicked “refresh” on their school-issued laptops with little apparent satisfaction.

“Like any school, when the Internet goes down, it’s a nightmare,” Principal Royce Conner said. “But we run on our staff. When this happens, we make copies, get out our books, and teach. It doesn’t cripple us.”

Conner admitted, beyond mere technical mishaps, Flex is dealing with other growing pains. For instance, he said the student attrition rate last year was too high, the product of students not being prepared for Flex’s different approach to learning.

Megan Jacquot teaching a small group of students about putting citations into research papers.

“We need to really work on making sure families and students know what this place is about before they enroll,” he said.

“That number is not where I want it to be currently,” he said. “We need to really work on making sure families and students know what this place is about before they enroll.”

To that end, Conner said Flex opens up the school for tours every week for interested parents and potential students, so they can see firsthand how students at Flex must be self-motivated in order to succeed.

“It’s so different here,” Megan Jacquot, the English teacher said. “A lot of the students we get are not ready to be self-motivated. We have to teach them those skills so they can be successful at directing their own learning.”

Likewise, Flex officials are learning that even though the school’s academic work is built upon technology and the Internet, students can still waste a lot of time online if not properly monitored.

“We’re installing software in our servers so that kids can’t access sites like Facebook,” Conner said. “We’re constantly stressing that the computer is a tool to help you learn and you need to use it responsibly.”

But the Flex program does work for certain students.

Senior Albero Berul enrolled in Flex in its inaugural year last year and said he has thrived in his new environment.

“My old school was just big and wasn’t working for me,” he said. “I mean, my chemistry class had, like, 45 kids in it and bleachers in the back of the room.”

At Flex, Albero said he has been able to focus on schoolwork and was recently accepted to college in Rhode Island. Despite that accomplishment, Albero said there are tradeoffs to being at Flex.

“I really miss marching band,” he said. “I loved that. But here [at Flex], I just feel much happier, which is vital.”

Chanel Hines concurred. She said she used to play lacrosse and soccer at her old public high school, but since Flex has no sports, she now plays on Bay Area club teams. She said she likes her new situation.

“School is my main priority,” she said. “My mom says it’s like my job.”

  • Interesting idea. From the sounds of that marching band comment though it doesn’t sound like the students have extra-curriculars. I would hope these students can still participate in sports and the arts in school and after school. 

  • Disappointedparent

    We were very hopeful that Flex would work for one of our children, but found it did not come close to living up to the promise. He left Flex after a short time. He did not leave because he was
    not “…prepared for Flex’s different approach to learning…” but because
    the curriculum was terrible. It was essentially pages from old style
    textbooks uploaded to k12’s computer system. Perhaps it’s better now. We liked the people and appreciate how hard they’re working to try to make something new and useful in a setting that is pretty useless for many or most students – namely, public high schools.

  • I think that a vital ingredient that must be missing is access to the Arts, PE and practical work in the Sciences, and from my memory of school, these were some of the best parts of school. With a push for creatively minded individuals in business, this model for education seems to be the least likely to make the creative thinkers we need to solve unseen future obstacles in world. I am a music and drama teacher and see my subjects as vital to helping students problem solve across other curriculums.  

  • Beyondtool

    I think the nutshell is the lack of self-motivation in many students. You can wax on about determination, passion and commitment but if students couldn’t be bothered then a system like this is just not going to work. I teach self discipline every day with my students but they are kids after all and sometimes that means they just shirk responsibility.

    Perhaps it really is a cultural problem as Indian students seem happy to squeeze into a packed room like sardines for the opportunity to learn.

  • teach the whole studnet

    This generation is already disconnected enough from people by being overally connected to technology. There is an increase in bullying because you can say or do whatever you want since it is done through technology. When are we going to go back to teaching students life skills? Well rounded people. Not all people are going to be working in jobs where there is no people interaction. I think i this is just sad.

  • Linda Dawson

    SIATech Charter High School has been using a similar model for over 12 years in partnership with Job Corps. SIATech values both teacher-student and student interactions in a unique and effective learning environment. All curriculum is aligned with state standards and our 15 Job Corps partners provide the career technical training that serves as our elective program.
    We have 19 campuses in five states and serve a 100% former dropout population. Our teachers are highly qualified. We use a high tech, high touch curriculum and delivery model that engages and challenges students in a rigorous, competency based model. We successfully reover formerly isengaged students by teaching the whole student. Over 11,000 former dropouts have graduated from SIATech so far.

  • Barbara Hass

    If 40 is the new 30, isn’t 16 the new 6?  We ought to allow children to be children, long enough to learn the curriculum required for K-12 AND long enough to learn the lessons of childhood.  The rest of their entire lives will consist of adulthood and work environments.  I don’t believe that my peers wish they had more time to sit in their cubicles.  This design that mimicks a workplace is dreaded and disdained by workers who are relegated to jobs in front of computers;  this office design has proven to reduce productivity, increase depression and create new chronic illnesses in adults.  Why would you want to start this process at a younger age?  Give kids an environment where they can be the best kids they can be;  they will show up for school, learn, be proud of their work and feel nurtured by their teachers and environment.

  • Juju Switz

    Balance my friends…what is a school without sports, music and art? Technology is important but not at the expensive other equally important skills. Why would parents send children to a workplace-like environment sitting in cubicles all day.. they have the rest of their lives to spend in those places. Give them back their adolescence.

  • My child is NOT a test score

    Talk about yet another way to disconnect us from each other.  Seems to be the focus that we should stare at a computer screen all day and not develop relationships with living, breathing, feeling, real-life LIFE.   “Flex founder and CEO Mark Kushner said this setup mimics real life.”  Which real life is this CEO referring to?  Once again, a CEO making decisions about education….What about whole child, art, sports, music, community, spirit building in school.  When does this happen at Flex?  Good for learning, but learning what?  This type of use of technology seems lacking in human touch, which is the life I hope to maintain for our world.

  • Ajitha

     I like the idea but there definitely  are tradeoffs… What about the emotional bonding between a teacher and student?
    What about the regular peer grouping and interpersonal skills which is an essential part of growing to be mature social beings?  What about  school sports events  and rock bands?Maybe a healthy blend of both would bring in the balance.

  • Madalin60

    Is this a private school?  Who is paying for this?  I haven’t had an increase in pay for five years and will not receive one next year.  Maybe we just need to throw out the teachers and let the “expert” CEOs try to teach.  I’d like to be a fly on the wall and watch.  I use computers almost daily, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be like a business.  I just want the kids to come to school, enter my class on time, and try to show some interest.  I work with the best and brightest and challenge them to be the best.  I spend hours making my classes interesting, exciting, and challenging.  I spend loads of my own money for those items that make the class special.  Believe me, it takes more than computers and internet.  You can watch all the squid dissections you want on youtube but nothing beats getting your hands on one!  Just ask my middle schoolers! 

  • Cjk

    Balance and clear reasoning is the key; online learning can be a tool, another choice for students to meet graduation requirements while also focusing on their passions whether that be on or off campus. The reality is, that this wil be a cheaper way to implement education and it is much easier to update than text books for budget strapped states. It is also a familiar  way for students to approach learning and become more in control of their personal journey without feeling slowed down or embarrassed by where they fit it ‘the box’ of progress. More and more respectable colleges are requiring online courses.  (Check it out). If used properly this can/will be a wonderful tool: Used properly and with consideration for “true education” being the key. No other reason should be considered appropriate.

  • hello there and thank you for your info – I have certainly picked up something new from right here. I did however expertise some technical points using this web site, as I experienced to reload the site many times previous to I could get it to load correctly. I had been wondering if your web hosting is OK? Not that I’m complaining, but slow loading instances times will sometimes affect your placement in google and can damage your high quality score if advertising and marketing with Adwords. Well I am adding this RSS to my email and can look out for much more of your respective intriguing content. Make sure you update this again very soon..

  • Jeffreysmith

    I am sorry you deleted all the comments- a bit odd.
    The parents had far more insightful evaluations of what is really going on
    than does this article. It would be helpful for curious readers to restore the original document
    with the orginial comments.

    • Anonymous

      Sorry about that, Jeffrey. The comments didn’t appear because of a back-end issue with Disqus, but should all be there now.

  • Jeffreysmith

    I am sorry you deleted all the comments- a bit odd.
    The parents had far more insightful evaluations of what is really going on
    than does this article. It would be helpful for curious readers to restore the original document
    with the orginial comments.

    • tbarseghian

      Sorry about that, Jeffrey. The comments didn’t appear because of a back-end issue with Disqus, but should all be there now.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor