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 You're never too young for a cubicle: Students at Flex Academy's San Francisco campus.

Virtually one-on-one

The promise: Tech tools make learning cheaper, more efficient, and more democratic.

FLEX ACADEMY

WHAT IT IS: A computer-based chain of charter high schools that get kids out of the house and into an actual classroom.

WHO'S BEHIND IT: Mark Kushner, founder of Leadership High School, California’s first urban charter high, and a board member at University High and Town School for Boys.

WHY THE EXCITEMENT: Other human beings! But kids still work at their own pace. Content provider K12 employs 150 developers (including game designers) to make courses interactive and fun, and beefs up the curriculum with key strategic partnerships (like the one with foreign-language heavy-weight Middlebury College). So far, there are 130 course offerings, including 15 AP classes—and if students are efficient during the day, there’s no homework.

REALITY CHECK: The class-rooms feel like call centers. The student-teacher ratio is scary, too: six teachers, four “academic coaches,” and one counselor per 200 kids. Student clubs are so far nonexistent. And it’s hard to discuss Jane Eyre in a 30-minute English class where everyone is moving at his or her own speed.

GETTING IN: So far, two schools are open, in Morgan Hill and near Union Square in S.F., with three others in the works. k12.com/sfflex; free

STANFORD UNIVERSITY ONLINE HIGH SCHOOL

WHAT IT IS: An entirely virtual 7–12 independent school that grew out of a gifted-youth program.

WHO'S BEHIND IT: Stanford runs the school, which is why all the teachers are affiliated with the university (70 percent have PhDs).

WHY THE EXCITEMENT: Kids can take Stanford-approved, college-level classes like Electricity and Magnetism and Making Moby Dick in rigorous, 10- to 12-person seminars from their bedrooms—plus they’re offered 17 AP classes, in everything from music theory to Mandarin. There are even 30 digital versions of student clubs, including Yearbook, Student Government, and Model UN.

REALITY CHECK: Best for kids who are waaaaay ahead of their grade academically but not socially.

GETTING IN: Virtual is still pricey ($14,800 for a full academic load, $9,200 for part-timers, $3,200 for a single course, $3,500 for the summer). Just like applying to college—think PSATs, SATs, short essay questions, a personal statement, and teacher recs. epgy.stanford.edu/ohs

KHAN ACADEMY

WHAT IT IS: A free library of online tutorials that somehow manage to teach complex concepts (polynomials, cube roots, the vagaries of the Electoral College) in 10-minute bursts. The method has proven so popular and effective that several Bay Area schools-—Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto and Summit Prep in San Jose included—are introducing the videos into their existing curricula.

WHO'S BEHIND IT: Idealistic ex–hedge funder Salman Khan, whose modest goal was to tutor his math-challenged relatives via YouTube. Pretty soon his list of fans included John Doerr, Reed Hastings, and Bill Gates (who has donated $15 million to the cause).

WHY THE EXCITEMENT: After completing the pilot program, at Egan Junior High School in Los Altos, 41 percent of seventh graders tested “proficient” or “advanced” in math, versus 23 percent of kids pre-Khan. Videos teach the basics at night, freeing up class time for deeper learning—and teachers for higher-value work, like helping kids who are stuck.

REALITY CHECK: Other online-ed innovators may argue that short and sweet is also shallow and fleeting. To address this shortcoming, Khan Academy now
posts daily homework and problem sets.

GETTING IN: The videos and problem sets are free. khanacademy.org


ROCKETSHIP EDUCATION

WHAT IT IS: A network of public K–5 college-prep charter schools in San Jose that aims to eliminate academic disparities among low-income students by combining traditional class settings with online learning and active parent involvement.

WHO'S BEHIND IT: Teach for America vet Preston Smith and John Danner, founder and ex-CEO of San Mateo software company NetGravity.

WHY THE EXCITEMENT: With a student population that’s 80 percent English-language learners, these charters are posting test scores to rival those at some of the best schools on the Peninsula. One reason: the Learning Lab, where students practice drills in math and language arts using computer programs that send weekly performance-data reports to teachers.

REALITY CHECK: The approach to learning is great for driven students who are struggling because of external issues, such as lagging English skills; kids already making the grade may be less inspired.

GETTING IN: The wait list is long, but new schools keep opening (including one in San Francisco, as early as 2013), so there’s hope. rsed.org; free

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