Flexibility and Personalization at the School for Independent Learners
In a changing and fluid landscape of K-12 schooling, the School for Independent Learners (SIL) based in Los Altos, CA has carved out a distinctive niche for itself in the demanding ecosystem made up of Silicon Valley parents and students. SIL, which celebrated its 20th birthday earlier this year, has its origins in a modest tutoring organization that strived to provide academic enrichment and support to a growing legion of students in the South Bay area. Today, SIL is thriving as an accredited one-to-one and small-group private high school, with a “mastery-based” approach and a technology driven, individualized approach to instruction.
SIL was established by Dr. Herman Ohme and Jean Ohme, who had observed the lacuna of the traditional school system and its attendant casualties, at close quarters in the course of stellar careers as educators and administrators. SIL’s story is unique, not so much in the organization’s ability to sustain itself in a crowded market, but more in its remarkable ability to continuously evolve and stay lock step with changing consumer needs.
As the footfalls of students at their tutoring center grew over the years, so did the inevitable clamor for SIL to evolve into an accredited institution. As a WASC-accredited middle- and high-school (Western Association of Schools and Colleges), SIL now awards transferable UC-approved course credit. This provides credible ballast to high-school transcripts, and counts toward college admissions without any ambiguity. “Our tutorial students realized that they often received the equivalent of full-time instruction in several courses at our center. It was perfectly logical on their part to find a way to earn course credit for their studies at SIL.”
Tutoring companies usually rely on laser like focus on consumer requirements for their continued existence. SIL understands that there is little or no elbowroom for errors in judgment or quality. This durable attribute has served SIL well in its new incarnation as a school, and is reflected in the commitment to the individual needs of students and parents.
The SIL Learning Process
SIL’s modus operandi is simple and compelling. They have a single point agenda that revolves around student learning—the backbone of any good education. To this end SIL:
- Allows any student to enroll full-time or part-time at their discretion. SIL helps every student craft an individualized curriculum.
- Performs (at no cost) a transcript study, to help the student determine which classes to take to graduate high school and apply to college.
- Offers a selection of classes that is rich, varied and approved by the UC and CSU systems without any caveats or footnotes. While upholding state standards, each UC-approved course is tailored to meet the needs of each individual student.
- Enables students to complete their coursework at a pace suited to their individual needs and constraints. Classes may be structured as one-on-one sessions and/or small groups, as decided by the student(s).
- Affords the student the freedom to drive the pace of a class, in consultation with the assigned instructor. As part of SIL’s ‘mastery learning’ approach, a student completes a course as soon as he or she is able to demonstrate a mastery of the material.
- Does not impose restrictions or requirements on the student in terms of a set schedule or minimum hours of instruction. However, the integrity and rigor of any class is preserved intact through a battery of assessments conducted at the student’s convenience.
- Helps students to remove the anxiety from education. Since the ‘mastery approach’ to learning allows students to retake assessments (at their own pace, without penalty), students are able to earn the grades they want, in a stress-free environment. Assessment becomes an integral part of the learning process, rather than the end of the learning process.
- Enables particularly bright and self-motivated students to complete year-long high-school courses quickly, with minimal instruction and basic scaffolding in terms of textbooks, online lesson plans, and tests administered by the school. This applies to all levels of coursework: college prep, advanced, UC honors, and AP.
- Charges tuition based on the number of hours of instruction provided and an hourly rate that is decided upfront.
- Makes the process of admission, instruction, scheduling, and assessment facile and frictionless.
Adaptability and Accreditation
Dr. Richard Gowers, one of three Directors of SIL, avers, “The dominant theme that is conveyed and propagated by SIL is one of complete adaptability to student requirements. We have a 13 year old who has finished his AP Calculus BC course, and is currently enrolled in Linear Algebra, but academic excellence is often purely incidental to the super-ordinate objective of student and parent empowerment.”
Furthermore, as a matter of practical convenience to parents, SIL is an authorized test center for AP tests, and freely supports test taking by all independent students; they facilitate this without any undue discussion or interrogation of the student’s needs or circumstances.
Ashley Sarver, another Director of SIL, observes, “Some schools that are WASC accredited do not have UC-approved courses. This makes a material difference. The entire SIL course catalog is UC approved. Incidentally, parents would be interested to know that there is a clear public record of all schools accredited by WASC, and easily accessible lists of all the UC-approved courses offered by these schools. Parents may view the UC-approved course list for any public or private school at http://doorways.ucop.edu/list. If you have doubts about the accreditation of your local school or any of its courses, independent verification is just a few clicks away.”
Although SIL’s approach may be akin to tutoring at first blush, their uniqueness lies in the deft and convenient bridging of the two hitherto divided worlds of supplemental academic instruction and accredited institutions, combined with a unique adaptability to customer requirements, thereby bringing relief to a beleaguered student and parent population. Most of their students are part-time, and choose to cherry-pick specific courses for a variety of reasons – enrichment, acceleration, intervention, dissonance with the local public school, experimentation and much more. SIL observes excellent due process in cases where students require grades and transcripts. The students’ regular school is engaged in the dialog at the very outset to ensure that there is no resistance downstream on the school’s part in awarding credits to the student for their work at SIL. Their course catalog is rich in breadth and depth and provides a complete bridge to college admission. Admissions counseling and recommendations are available to both part-time and full-time students.
SIL’s infrastructure and physical space lacks the expanse of a traditional school, but they are highly effective and completely in keeping with the flab-free nature of their entire operation. There is no compromise brooked for salient aspects of a comprehensive educational environment – laboratories, resource centers and a library, a functional gym, demarcated student activity areas, meeting rooms, and much more. Faculty is meticulously recruited from a vast pool of applicants for every position and are largely full-time. “We look for very specific personality attributes in addition to academic erudition. The ability to engage constructively and respectfully with students is paramount,” says Joshua Wise, SIL’s Principal.
SIL currently has about 200 students on its roll, each of who has weaved SIL into their academic tapestry in a meaningful and unique way. Further growth in enrollment is inevitable.
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