Earlier this year, 12-year-old Ana Zeiger did what many middle school-aged students fantasize about: she stopped attending middle school and joined an experimental private school without homework or letter grades or all-day direct instruction. She left Crittenden Middle School to join Khan Lab School, Khan Academy's startup-style private school in Mountain View, and she said she had no problem getting used to it.
"I knew what I was getting into, and I was really excited for it," Ana said. "I've learned so much in the last few months."
Ana is one of nearly 100 students to join the founding families of Khan Lab School, which started two years ago in the heart of Mountain View. The private school has tinkered with, deconstructed and re-shaped the traditional educational model, offering families a chance to take part in a highly experimental school model. Since its founding, the school has drawn the attention of educational leaders across the globe, many of whom have stopped by for a tour.
The school has grown quickly, doubling in size to 60 students during its second year and growing to 97 students at the start of the school year in September. School officials say they don't plan on slowing down either, and aim to bring enrollment up to 400 students in the coming years.
Khan Lab School is the brainchild of Khan Academy's founder, Sal Khan, who became a prominent figure in the education world after launching Khan Academy in 2006 with the goal of providing a "free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere." The courses on Khan Academy depart from the traditional education model in many ways, focusing on conceptual understanding and mastery of content rather than giving students a letter grade and moving them on to the next class.
In an ambitious effort to take these ideas offline and into a real classroom setting, Khan launched Khan Lab School in September 2014. The school has no grades, no homework, and dissolves grade levels into five "independence levels" for children ages 5 to 15. Schedules are fluid throughout the day and include time for both direct instruction as well as independent "goal" time for personal work. Students even set goals for themselves each year, giving them a chance to excel in fields that interest them.
The school also ditches a summer break in favor of a 12-month school year, and hosts a extended-day period that ends at 6 p.m. Even during the latter parts of the day, most of the students stick around and stay busy working on classroom activities, according to Kat Clark, the school's marketing and communication manager.
Ana, who has been at the school for only a few months, has already taken part in a major project that explores the idea of cultures and systems -- which branches off into a plethora of topics including math, art, science and humanities that are interconnected. Students were tasked with creating their own country that would vie to be the next location for the Olympic games, and Ana and her group had to come up with a system of governance, an economic structure and a list of strong, compelling reasons why it should be the country of choice.
At a parent-student exhibition event last week, a panel of judges, including Sal Khan and school staff, agreed that Ana's group had made the best argument for hosting the Olympics in their country.
Mikki McMillion, the lead teacher for the oldest students at Khan Lab School, said the Olympics project is part of what the school calls "concept-based learning," a spinoff of project-based learning, with the goal of teaching students what it means to be a global citizen. The contest from last week is really just for fun, she said, but it's still a good opportunity to learn about teamwork and competing with one another while still being supportive.
Ana's father, Roni Zeiger, said he's been really impressed with the school so far, and said he was drawn to the Khan Lab School after seeing how much students are given a say in their own education. Students feel involved in the lesson plans and are given leverage to set their own goals each year, he said, a stark contrast to a more rigid, top-down public school system. A typical school week might have 12 hours of direct instruction and eight hours of project-based learning activities, with the all of the remaining hours devoted entirely to independent goal time.
"It's a really student-centered approach," Zeiger said. "Students are trusted in their pursuit of their learning goals."
Families interested in Khan Lab School -- and who can afford the $23,000 in annual tuition -- are interviewed by school staff to make sure they are a good fit for the experimental school, Clark said. They have to be on board with the idea of a school that functions similar to a startup, constantly trying new things in the classroom to see what works and what doesn't. Family and student retention has been strong, hitting 95 percent last year, and many of the middle school-aged students this year are ready to become next year's inaugural high school class.
The big question is where the school will go next. Staff working at Khan Lab School have presented the model at education summits and conferences around the world, and allow frequent tours by educators to see the nuts and bolts of the experimental school. But what about expanding the school itself?
Khan Lab School currently operates out of an office building on Villa Street, and has been converting portions of the available space into classrooms as the school expands. In June last year, the school received a conditional use permit to expand into a northern portion of the office building -- roughly 2,300 square feet -- in order to bump enrollment up to 95, according to city planner Elizabeth Cramblet.
In the near term, there's still room to grow, according to Dominic Liechti, the executive director and head of school. The Khan Lab is applying for a new conditional use permit to expand into the remaining 5,500 square feet of space in the building and crank up enrollment to as high as 215 students by the 2019-20 school year. The extra space will be an integral part of accommodating high school-aged students, who will be the founding students of Khan Lab School's "upper class" next year.
While the school has grown at breakneck speeds -- increasing enrollment by between 50 and 100 percent year-to-year -- Liechti said the school will be cooling things down, and plans to limit growth to 30 percent at any given year. But in the long term, he fully expects that Khan Lab School will eventually be too big to fit in the office suite, and will need to look at either a satellite location in the Bay Area or move the school's location entirely.
"I am ultimately looking at 400 students in total," Liechti said. "That's what we're aiming for, but not all at this location, for sure."
Since Khan Lab School launched in 2014, school officials said that interest in the school has skyrocketed, with applications pouring in to be part of Khan's grand experiment to bring back the one-room schoolhouse model, only with better technology. Parents like Zeiger say they are confident in the model, and aren't worried that academic rigor is thrown to the wayside. Report cards may be gone, but there are still evaluations and self-evaluations to make sure students are on track, and the extended day schedule gives students the opportunity to do classwork that might otherwise by assigned as homework. Ana said she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's nowhere near the stress of homework," she said.