Editor’s note: In upcoming issues, ETM will be exploring perspectives in education and various educational models. These models are to serve as a means to show the wide range of options out there for us, as parents, to explore. Not every model will be the right fit for every child. But, hopefully, equipped with some ideas for educational options, you can find the direction that best fits the needs of your child. Without further ado, ETM brings to you the first in our education series: One-to-one Learning at Fusion Academy.
Fusion Academy is a nation-wide chain of accredited private middle and high schools (grades 6-12) that provide one-to-one classroom learning to their student body. The educational experience is completely customized to meet the needs of the students’ individual interests, strengths and challenges. Maliha Zaidi is a teacher in Math and Science at the Fusion Academy in Palo Alto, CA. ETM spoke with her about the unusual educational model that Fusion Academy employs.
Children that don’t necessarily fit into our standard public school academic model thrive at Fusion.
A: Thank you Maliha for talking with us today about Fusion Academy. Can you give us a little background on how Fusion Academy came to be?
M: The Fusion Academy model was started by Michelle Rose Gilman who was living in Solana Beach in Southern California. She was teaching for a special-ed program working one-on-one with students. One day, she showed up for work, and the doors were closed. The program had been shut down. Knowing how much of an impact the program was having on her students, she continued tutoring and mentoring from her own home after school.
Once parking became an issue on her residential street, she knew it was time to move into a space where she could work with more students. That was how Fusion Academy began over 25 years ago. This eventually grew into what Fusion Academy is now, an accredited school that has locations throughout the US including six now in the Bay Area. Each school has a small student body where students are taught their subjects in a one-to-one setting.
Children that don’t necessarily fit into our standard public school academic model thrive at Fusion. They cover the same subject material, but it is taught in a very nurturing, one-to-one, customized manner to suit each individual child’s needs.
A: So, Fusion does not have a traditional classroom, so to speak?
M: It is not traditional in that the classrooms at Fusion do not have many children, all within the same age bracket, in the same room to learn one subject. It is a classroom though. It is a classroom with one teacher and one student, for each subject. Each teacher teaches their specialization.
A: You teach math?
M: Yes, I teach math and science.
A: How many students do you see a day?
M: That depends upon my schedule. I can work all day if I want to. I see one student per hour. The classes are 50 minutes in length. For example, I’ll teach one student Geometry, then I’ll switch and see another student the following hour for Algebra.
A: How do they assign you students?
M: It’s based both on the timetable of teacher and student availability, and the information gathered during the initial intake when students first enroll at Fusion. The information gleaned during the intake is vitally important. They may see that one student could be a perfect fit for a particular teacher and the administration will try very hard to facilitate that pairing. I am a mother of younger kids, so maybe that is why at Fusion I am occasionally assigned some of the younger students who attend the school. They may see me as being more gentle or maternal so I could be a better fit for the 11-year-old students, for example.
A: Fusion Academy is for Middle School and High School students?
Interestingly, the issues that the students are struggling with tend to reflect what is going on in the greater community.
A: What kind of student does Fusion tend to attract? And how does the school deal with meeting, what I’m imagining, some very different individual needs?
M: As I mentioned earlier, there is always an intake session where the administration will meet the student and their parents, and talk to them about their collective goals. The primary thing is that the child should want to attend Fusion. That is big. The child and the parents need to understand and appreciate what Fusion is. If they do, then they will thrive there.
The intake is done so that the school can understand both the parents’ and the child’s goals and can say, with integrity, yes, Fusion can help you achieve those goals. The child can enroll full-time, meaning the student attends Fusion as their regular school, or the child can be a class-for-credit student, where they take only certain subjects for credit at Fusion. Those credits get transferred over to the school the child attends full-time.
To answer the second part of your question, what type of students do we typically get? This seems to change depending upon the area of the school. There are Fusion Academies scattered across the country. There are schools in California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Viriginia, and Washignton D.C. Here in the Bay Area, there are schools in San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Los Gatos, San Mateo, and Palo Alto. Palo Alto’s location just opened last year and this is where I teach.
Interestingly, the issues that the students are struggling with tend to reflect what is going on in the greater community. Like in one area, we may see many students that struggle with focusing in a classroom of 20+ students. In another area, we may see a lot of students that have issues around anxiety.
Some of the students we get have learning differences, and this could be a diagnosed Learning Disability or something that is undefined. Some kids are struggling only in certain subjects, so they opt for being class-for-credit students because they don’t want to leave their friends/community at their local school.
We get a good number of students that have problems with math, so they enroll at Fusion for their math credits. They get their one-on-one attention for math classes so they can slow down and really focus on absorbing the lessons at a pace that suits the them. Normally, this, in turn, brings them a measure of success and they start to feel better about themselves and their relationship to math. So, that is one example of why students with specific academic needs choose to come to Fusion.
I know this will not always be the case with every student struggling with anxiety, but when you do witness positive growth happen, it’s amazing.
With others, it’s just the opposite, where the problems stem from non-academic issues such as social issues. The student may be having bullying problems at their local school, or they have extreme shyness or social anxiety. Their anxiety can run so high that it has impacted their ability to do well at their local school. They need the more supportive environment that Fusion provides.
We had one student who had a very bad experience with her peers and teachers at her former school. She was very bright and very capable but because she was having such a difficult time at school, she was suffering personally and academically.
When she started at Fusion, she spent her non-class time at the Silent Homework Café. She did not trust other people. After being with us at Fusion for the academic year, she had really blossomed. This kid had friends, she was socializing again, and she had learned to trust others. She loved school so much she’d come in on Fridays (Fusion operates on a 4 day school schedule with Friday as an optional or catch-up day) and dance around to music. She was laughing and singing, which was just huge for her. This was a kid that came in completely closed off to others. First, she began to open up to her teachers because she felt safe and she could trust them. Then, slowly, it started happening with her peers. I know this will not always be the case with every student struggling with anxiety, but when you do witness positive growth happen, it’s amazing.
I also wanted to mention that Fusion Academy is not only for kids that have learning or social difficulties. If a child is gifted, the one-to-one classroom can support an accelerated course to meet the student’s abilities. Or if a child is involved in competitive athletics and needs different times to study, then Fusion can provide that flexible schedule.
image: Homework Café, Fusion Academy, San Diego, California
A: You mentioned a “Silent Homework Café,” what is that?
M: Fusion has a “Silent Homework Café” and a “Social Homework Café.” The “Silent Homework Café” is a space with beanbag chairs and tables where students can focus quietly on their studies and their individual space is respected. The “Social Homework Café” is a common space with couches and tables where students can sit with one another and socialize while they do their homework. The children choose which one to go to according to their moods and needs to get their homework done.
At a typical public high school, homework is piled on…how does this make sense is terms of providing an optimal space for adolescent growth?
This is another great thing about our academic model, how Fusion deals with homework. Homework is such a big issue for both students and their parents. At Fusion, we try to keep the homework at a consistent level and each class will have homework. But that homework is done at school. Nobody takes homework home. Teachers are accessible to assist with homework. The students choose between the “Silent Homework Café” and the “Social Homework Café” to do their assignments. This is big deal. The kids get it all done at school which leaves them time to do non-academic things when they are not at school.
At an average public Middle School or High School, the homework is piled on so high. The kids get done with their school day at 3pm, but then they have 3-4 hours of homework to contend with once they get home– not to mention any sports or other extra-curricular activities they might be doing. What– they are done with everything by midnight?! Then waking up early the next morning? How does this make sense in terms of providing an optimal space for adolescent growth?
A: Speaking of that space for growth, I want to talk to you about the social aspect at Fusion. Academically, Fusion resembles what some kids get in a home school program– Fusion sounds like a home school program away from home!
A big thing in the home school community is finding ways to socialize with other children; giving kids a space to play together, to learn alongside one another, and to build a sense of where they fit in within the larger community. How does Fusion enable their students to make the social connections that are so vital for teens and tweens?
The students have free time, open time, but they are never all alone.
M: It functions a lot like a regular school, in regards to how the children make and maintain friendships. Fusion’s homework cafés are the social spaces. Children will see most of their peers there. They have time to build friendships, navigate social relationships, and most importantly, they have sensitivity to each other’s situation which is really important. The students feel safe, and they feel supported. So, it is a great space that facilitates their evolution towards maturity.
The only thing they are doing by themselves is taking their academic coursework, which is something that our students desperately need. They need that one-to-one attention focused on them and paced for their needs. Other than the class time spent with their teachers, the students are free to socialize.
Our school is fairly small right now since we just opened last year. Currently, we have close to 40 full-time students, so everyone gets to know everyone else rather quickly! Our staff is there to help facilitate interactions. There is a homework café director who is there to help and coordinate as needed. The students have free time, open time, but they are never all alone.
In addition to the homework cafés, we also organize regular field trips and fun nights where we bring the entire student body together. We try to do as many inclusive events as possible. Additionally, we have quarterly goals for our full-time students. This comes in the form of both academic and social goals. So, there is a lot of focus on the growth of the whole person at Fusion.
If a new child comes in and, after the intake session, their goals include social skills, then that is a part of what the staff will help that child with. We will introduce them to the clubs and activities that exist at the school. We personally bring them into the fold. The students at Fusion have a lot of social interaction with adults and this tends to make them more mature. They have behaviors and interactions to model themselves on and opportunities to translate that to their peer relationships.
A: And where do the clubs come in?
M: The clubs are formed based on student interest. The clubs happen during the lunch hour. It’s the time that everyone has free and their schedules overlap. Otherwise the schedules are so individualized, it just wouldn’t be possible to hold club meetings at any other time.
Currently, we have a Chess club where everyone plays chess together, or they watch one another play. There was also a Spanish club, kids would practice speaking Spanish while eating their lunch, that club has dissipated for the time being. There is a Leadership club where kids have a chance to take on a leadership role. They get to choose to have a say in, for example, time-tables/ schedules or field trips, movie-nights, you get the idea.
One of our more shy students (one who was working on gaining confidence in social interactions) got together with a few other students and started an “Animal” club where they talk about and help animals, because that is what they believe in. That was really amazing to see– this shy student reached out to her peers and created this group independently!
In addition to the clubs, we also have a lot of board games out during lunch time. So students and faculty can play.
A: Let me backtrack for a second; can you talk a little bit more about the part-time students that take “class-for-credit”?
M: There are students who are full-time, meaning that they take all of their subjects at Fusion Academy. Then there are the “class-for-credit” students that only take certain subjects.
image: Entrance Lobby, Fusion Academy, Austin, Texas
A: How does that work?
M: The class-for-credit option works as such; the student is enrolled full-time at their local public school or another private school, and is taking classes at Fusion only for certain subjects.
There are several reasons to pursue this option. Like I said before, the students may be having a really hard time with one particular subject, or some kids may come to Fusion for only a few subjects because, for instance, they had a prolonged illness that they are recovering from. If you miss a lot of school, it is hard to catch up.
There is also the summer program, where kids can catch up on a subject over the summer then go back to their local school for the regular school year.
For kids that are class-for-credit, it’s a matter of fitting in their subjects taken at Fusion in a time frame that their schedule can accommodate. At Fusion, classes are offered from 7:30am- 6:30pm, so there is a wide range of times that a child can fit their Fusion classes into and still go to their other day-school program.
Our school runs from Monday-Thursday. We want the students to be able to do something outside of school on Fridays. There is the option for kids to come in to Fusion and catch up on some work, but most kids choose not to come in on a Friday if they can help it!
The majority of our students are full-time. The full-time students have access to all of the services that Fusion has to offer.
A: So, if all classes are taught one-to-one, what is the difference between tutoring and the one-to-one classroom?
M: The big difference between tutoring and mentorship, and the one-to-one classroom is our accreditation. If you take a subject as a class at Fusion you are earning middle school or high school credit. Obviously for tutoring and mentorship, the student is not earning credit, they are just receiving additional help around a certain subject that is challenging to them. And there is no homework for tutoring. For classes, there’s homework.
A: What does an average day at Fusion look like?
M: Let’s say the student’s first class is at 8:30am. They would go to their first classroom, each teacher has their own classroom and the child travels to each teacher’s space. The lesson lasts 50 minutes which starts out by discussing how their homework went. Then after the learning session they have a 10 minute break, followed by an hour of Homework Café. This is where they will do the homework for that particular class. Then they will have the next subject, along with a ten minute break followed by another Homework Café period (each class has a homework cafe time). This would carry on like that until lunch. Lunch is 12:30-1:30, the students eat and socialize, or just relax. As I mentioned before, this is the one time that the entire student body overlaps, so it is a social hour.
We have a ping pong table where both the students and the teachers play very enthusiastically. Students come into Fusion not knowing how to play ping pong and they leave ping pong masters! It’s a great way for the kids who have some social shyness or reluctance to come out of their shells.
We tend to have more high schoolers than middle school students, but the younger kids have a lot of energy in the Homework Café and at lunch time, so they make their presence known! That energy is currently getting channeled into ping pong! It’s great to see them included despite that they are a younger pack in a group of older students. They have a place in the greater community and are made to feel welcome and safe.
A: The full-time students who finish high school at Fusion will get their high school diploma from Fusion. Those that are class-for-credit get their diploma from their main school, correct?
M: Yes, that is correct.
Our goal is to build happy, confident, people who know how to meet the challenges presented to them.
A: For the kids that are full-time, and have had only one-to-one learning for their high school experience, how to they do with the transition to college? Because in college, you are really on your own to sink or swim.
M: So, here’s the thing with Fusion. Those of us who teach at Fusion are not just teachers but also mentors. Our whole purpose is not just to educate our students in the subject we teach, but also to help them grow into independent people. If one of the student’s goals is to improve their executive functions, then our goal is to help them develop the tools to organize themselves, and hopefully they will continue to apply those tools and systems once they are out in the real world. That is our goal, to build happy, confident, people who know how to meet the challenges presented to them.
We can do this because our educational model builds in the time for it. In a larger public school, teachers can’t do this because of the quantity of students that they have in their classes. That’s just how it is. Public school is geared toward the middle because it’s the way they can cast the biggest net for the number of students they have to manage.
A: Does Fusion offer what is sometimes referred to as a “Transition” year for kids that need it? Some schools, especially those that have large programs for kids with learning differences provide a transition year that acts like a post senior year of high school. This is akin to a college freshman year with training wheels, so to speak.
M: Yes, we do.
We have a really diverse tapestry of kids.
A: Do you have any interactions with the kids that graduate so you get a chance to see the fruits of your labor?
M: Because our school is still new, I haven’t had this experience yet. But I hear stories from the more veteran teachers that have come from other schools to this location in Palo Alto. They have seen students come back and relay their successes to their former teachers. Sometimes we will get emails from parents thanking us. We only had two students graduate last year so it’s all very fresh. One is finishing up some classes and applying for college. Every single one of our teachers is amazing, and we will be following our students’ development with interest.
Most of the kids coming from this area are on the college track. That is what we are hoping for all of them. We are here to provide support in one of the most awkward periods of their lives. Adolescence is tough. Peer interactions aren’t easy, and if you have a learning difference, that can make everything across the board more challenging.
We have a really diverse tapestry of kids. Fusion provides all the students with a safe environment where they feel acknowledged and respected. We see them and acknowledge them.
Individualized and differentiated education can make a world of difference for students that would normally be off the radar in a larger public or private school. And these kids have so much to bring to the table. We don’t want colleges or employers to miss out on what they have to give just because they weren’t met where they needed to be met back in middle school or high school. They just need a little support and they thrive!
A: Sounds incredible! Thank you Maliha for taking the time to talk to us about Fusion Academy.
M: Thank you!
Maliha Zaidi was born and raised on the other side of the pond in northern England. She moved to the US to attend college and received her degree in Molecular Biology from UC Berkeley. She has been working as a math and science teacher at Fusion Academy since last fall and has found a lot of satisfaction in the work she is doing. She is happily married with three young children and enjoys hiking, dancing, cooking, and playing board games with her family!
For more information about Fusion Academy, visit www.fusionacademy.com