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Khan Academy's experimental school is thriving

Khan Lab School grows to nearly 100 students, with plans to expand to 400

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.

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10 people like this
Posted by one room school, +$20K/year
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Nov 7, 2016 at 10:41 am

a private school with tuition northward of $20,000 and a clientele of parents probably exceeding the family education background of either Los Altos SD or Cupertino SD

this will be a great model for private schools, having very well educated families as clients

10 people like this
Posted by Nice
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Nov 7, 2016 at 3:07 pm

Well, it's great that the kids of those who can afford tens of thousands of dollars in tuition get to have such a student-focused school with little homework and no stress.

Just spare a thought for the kids of the rest of us. They are slaving over worksheets from dumbed-down classes, bored out of their minds by-the-book teaching with few bells and whistles, fun projects, or choice at our local, factory model middle schools.

It's an exciting new world for some of them. For most, not so much.

17 people like this
Posted by JP
a resident of Shoreline West
on Nov 7, 2016 at 3:25 pm

If this was started by some corporate titan, I'd be worried like the two posts above. But Khan Academy's goals have always been the opposite -- how can good teaching be accessible to everyone? I have faith that this is the first step toward something that will help everyone.

9 people like this
Posted by JH
a resident of Shoreline West
on Nov 7, 2016 at 5:00 pm

City Council members and candidates be aware. I suspect many comments about this article will be about either how wonderful/innovative Khan Academy is or about the high tuition at the school - I agree on both points. Here is my personal issue. This school is a daily nightmare to me and my neighbors since it opened. In fact in the few short years since Google bought this property it has been more problematic in terms of noise, traffic, tree killing, and disruption. With the school lease being just one major issue. The parking lot of a beautiful tree landscaped and lhistoric office complex in a predominantly residential neighborhood became the "school yard" for Khan Academy. It was all done fairly secretly (there is still no sign or direct contact) and rubber stamped by the current city council without adequate input from the community as a "Provisional Use Permit". They had already operated for a year prior with no notification to neighbors - we thought the screaming children were some type of Google day care. it gets worse all the time. Now there are significantly more, noise and larger numbers of older kids (as the article supports), They have butchered more trees, installed ball courts, picnic tables and use whistles.

Below are the comments we submitted to the city council - when we received a single post card notification about the school - 2. days before the meeting and when we complained were informed that it didn't really matter because the city.council was inclined to "approve". Wonder if they would have felt the same if it were adjacent to their house?

The surrounding residential neighbors bought property or choose to live adjacent to a quiet, office building not to a K-12 school. Furthermore, our understanding is that this property is construction restricted due to a historic designation and that the building and the lovely heritage trees on the property would stay the same. No permits or variances should be allowed to change this situation. A school puts particular negative impact on the adjacent neighborhood due to early drop-offs, noise, traffic from children arriving/leaving and playing outside. A private school at this location will be drawing students from outside of Mountain View rather than just neighborhood residents to a residential area already subjected to increased noise and traffic from area companies and increased development. Already whatever more limited day-care/school that Google has been operating there without seemingly any notification or neighborhood input process has resulted in screaming children playing in the "office" parking lot turned "playground" each weekday. We were never significantly impacted from this property prior to Google taking ownership - in the short time they have had the property it is already more disruptive to the surrounding properties and now this even more substantially impactful proposal.
Even if we were not being directly impacted by living so close to the property we would not be supportive of allowing a private school at this location. There is already an existing private school one block away at Shoreline and Dana. The recent headlines are that the district does not have funds and sufficient or projected enrollment to open a new public school. We support strong public neighborhood schools and feel making another private school further erodes that promise by segregating students by socioeconomic means.

59 people like this
Posted by ann
a resident of another community
on Nov 7, 2016 at 6:03 pm

i applaud the Kahn Academy for going outside the box...Bravo to them.... looks like it is successful... listen and learn from them....and just a thought...public schools are getting paid $7grand? per student per year....and the public schools are not and i are paying for them.....and they are seriously lagging behind..

17 people like this
Posted by Mom of public school student
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Nov 7, 2016 at 11:32 pm

Well 7k is three times less than 21k... I beg to differ!
If I could afford it I would send my kid to khan in a heartbeat
Public school is a testing mill and it is a cheer wonder that teachers manage to squeeze in enrichment and inquisitive learning...
I volunteer a ton and it is amazing how many obstacles are there to easy joyful learning...

146 people like this
Posted by Jerry
a resident of North Whisman
on Nov 8, 2016 at 8:52 am

It's time for our state and county school boards to wake up! The Khan School is just the canary in the coal mine that is about to collapse around us. It demonstrates what education should/could be like. The manufacturing model of education (classrooms, cohort progress, grading) is dead, and the corpse is starting to stink. We're no longer competitive across the world. We keep touting how our salvation is our capacity for innovation. Well, it's time to innovate at the core of our society: our schools. I feel for JH's dislike for the noise and disruption. So let's move the Khan strategy into public schools. If education codes get in the way, let's get them out of the way. What's more important to us? Compliance to outdated codes or bringing our children to a productive and satisfying adulthood?

14 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Rex Manor
on Nov 8, 2016 at 11:57 am

Well, the district started to innovate with Stevenson, and then stopped. Now instead of everyone getting a choice in education for their kids, only those who can win a lottery get that choice. I thought they were going to expand the school, or expand the idea to another school, but then they stopped. Now the school board seems completely fine turning away 130 kindergarteners from Stevenson last year, a good percentage of whom I bet have exited the public schools and have enrolled in private. I consider our family lucky. We did not win the Stevenson lottery but have enough money to make up for the districts failure by sending our child to a great, innovative private school (not Khan lab school, but a similar private school). But I certainly wish that all who wanted it were given the choice, or access to this type of school without having to win a lottery or needing a spare $25 grand lying around. At least the Khan lab school is offering choice for some when the district does not.

14 people like this
Posted by Educator/homeschooling mom
a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2016 at 6:38 pm

It feels like khan lab is a lot like what we homeschooling moms do with our kids for FREE.... 23,000 a year...... Really?
I am very appreciative of Khan Academy and its plethora of lessons and tutorials.......but......I would have really had more respect for Kahn Lab if it had been for free, and if its student body were composed of children from various socio-economic backgrounds.

6 people like this
Posted by @Parent
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2016 at 11:47 pm

Stevenson has expanded. When PACT was a program at Castro, there were 150 kids, now there are 390 and it seems to be on track to expand to 450 (three classrooms per grade). It can only expand so far. As a parent at Stevenson, I would support the program expanding to other schools, but the parents at the other schools have to ask for it and support it for that to be a possibility.

3 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Willowgate
on Nov 9, 2016 at 11:11 am

schools do have physical limits, but we can still fault the board for not working on increasing capacity for a popular program.

7 people like this
Posted by Jamie Chapman, Nampa Idaho
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2016 at 5:23 am

I would love to be a part of bringing this concept to Idaho. I ave one big question. I thought Bill Gates original funding of millions to Sal Khan cam with a stipulation all tutoring and learning would always remain free. How does $21,000 tuition per year fit into this?

3 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2016 at 12:42 pm

@homeschooling mom: Yes, your work with your kids really does cost that much! I would love to homeschool but I am just not wired for that. I would much rather pay 23 grand a year :)

@parent: The problem is that good schools are happy with the status quo for the most part, and not so good schools have parents who just can't be bothered to be involved in their kids' education.

3 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2016 at 9:33 pm

The democratization of education is one of the most imporant, liberating,
social and political movements that we can all encourage, and I hope the
speed, simplicity and efficiency of this effort increases constantly like
Moore's law until we can lift this country out of the dark ages of ignorance,
and into the light and a time when we can get past the kinds of problems
we have today.

3 people like this
Posted by Schoolmom
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Nov 10, 2016 at 10:14 pm

@Plane Speaker: people with means and a broad outlook will be sending their kids to expensive schools with progressive philosophies, whereas the less fortunate will be stuck in schools full of kids who are disadvantaged and it takes them years to catch up and they never really do; schools with the drill or kill approach, testing as the ultimate goal and worksheets as the ultimate teaching method.
I do not see much democratization happen. Yes there are idealists who subject their kids to low quality neighborhood schools when they could do much better, but they don't make a bad school good.

5 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2016 at 11:32 pm

Schoolmom, the promise of automated learning is enormous.

First, because any time someone has a problem learning something
that place can be marked and alternative explanations and methods
to teach it can be developed.

Second, because it can be replayed and replayed to reinforce the
lession - for anyone.

Third, because it frees up people from the routine teaching jobs for
large groups to attend to individual students having problems or

What all of these developments to is to make teaching and learning
more efficient and much less expensive, and hugely versatile and

Initially, it may be expensive, but soon it will be like Wikipedia, a huge
tree or human knowledge with an automated guide and paths to take
people though to high academic levels - and to the newest developments.

It could be incredibly great and an exponential leap in the education
of the world. I hope that education at this point will be seen as a human
right and that everyone will have access to this tool so that the rift between
the educated and uneducated will vanish, and that will lead to the lessening
of inequality and an understanding of human rights.

3 people like this
Posted by Schoolmom
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Nov 11, 2016 at 8:44 am

@Plane speaker:
Teaching, especially younger kids, is much more than just stuffing them with explanations and facts- and even more than letting them discover those via technology. It is about emotionally connecting to the person who is teaching them, and this connection has to be mutual.
As for inequality in education, it is not so much about access here in the Silicon Valley. You will be surprised how well equipped title 1 schools are; kids from disadvadvantqged areas are bussed to the best schools of the best districts and given free meals - still the achievement gap is huge. So much education happens in the home, including formative years 0-3 (free preschool is available to 3-5 yo kids from disadvantaged families, but they are already behind by that time as compared to their more fortunate peers).
Three are too many soft and fluid factors in education which just elude studies. Mother's IQ, education level of parents, access to early enrichment opportunities GUIDED BY AN EMOTIONALLY CONNECTED ADULT- these are some of the researched factors.
I am all for equality but it won't be so simple :(

3 people like this
Posted by one room school, +$20K/year
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Nov 11, 2016 at 9:21 am

@School mom. equality - all kids get $24K/year? Perhaps you do not realize that the programs you seem to think are fully funded, or operating, are NOT. There are no busses going from Mountain View to Los Altos - carrying poor kids to their free pre kindergarten classes. There are no Title 1 free hot lunches for the very few poor kids in the Los Altos school district as far as I know.

So how about we try equity? The kids from poor families, usually tied to the parents poor formal education, actually get more programs. Free after school academic programs. Fun programs. Supportive to working parent programs. That these same families get summer learning (all year learning) opportunities - like the Kahn School kids do?

In the Mountain View District,they definitely do not have enough money in their 0-3 year program to offer places for all the disadvantaged families that apply - or could use the help.

3 people like this
Posted by Plane Speaker
a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2016 at 11:01 am

Schoolmom, I am not really referring to young children ... the needs of
young children in "school" are much more than education.

I was referring to making education as wide and broad as possible.

Young children need safety, monitoring, socialization, fun, play, etc.
Not really what I was talking about.

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