Clementine explains how a sundial works. Photos by Andra Cernavskis

Start-ups in San Francisco don’t all look the same. While many think of pink mustaches or small machines that make paying with a card easy, there is also the kind of start-up that makes it possible for an 8-year-old to explain the process of how a sundial works or examine the language of a children’s book about dragons.

“I noticed that the book had a poetry rhythm,” says Clementine one morning during ‘circle’ time. She is referring to Draco’s Fire, a book one of her schoolmates brought in. Later she uses a scholarly tone to explain the sundial.

Now in its third year, Brightworks is a not-yet accredited, experimental K-12 school that is the brainchild of Gever Tulley, a former tech worker-turned educator. Like many other projects that have come out of San Francisco — projects that boast names like Twitter and Square — Brightworks started as an idea.

“What I had to show for it was this diagram of the pedagogical framework. This thing we call the ‘arc.’ And I went down to Stanford to meet with a couple of professors there to explain to them what I was trying to make and why I thought it was important,” Tulley says, his eyes gleaming and his voice thoughtful and slow.

When Tulley finished his explanation of ‘the arc,’ they said, “‘So wait a minute, let me get this straight, what you have just done is taken some kind of fantasy about what grad school is like and extended it all the way back to Kindergarten.’ And I said ‘Yeah, fundamentally, that’s the idea.’”

The ‘arc’ is “a curated journey” through a big idea. In other words, it’s a unit of study. At Brightworks, the school year is broken up into arcs.

The arc starts with an exploration phase when the kids delve deep into a theme and learn from experts. Then they spend six to eight weeks creating personal projects. At the end of the arc there is a week of presentations to family and friends.

As the sounds of a student playing a ukulele drift over the thin and incomplete walls that separate what appears to be a teachers’ lounge from the other spaces in the school, Tulley notes that the city “is fertile ground” for his ideas. “We are uniquely San Francisco.”

The school exists in the old Best Foods mayonnaise production plant. Inside, 32 students from 5 to 15 are divided not into classes, but into bands — a reference to the early, primitive groupings of humans. There are no grades or tests, and teachers are called ‘collaborators.’

Tree forts have been erected in the middle of the former factory, and there are no full walls.

“It’s important to have fuzzy edges…because you want this cross-pollination of ideas,” Tulley says. “Am I in the shop or am I in the art studio? Well, the answer is yes. You are in the shop and the art studio because those are connected.”

“How do you get from here to there?” Tully asks, pointing to the distance between the various fort-like structures. “You need a bridge. So the kids built bridges.”

The kids pitched their ideas to Justine Macauley, the school’s program coordinator. It was terrifying watching them actually complete the projects up on ladders, Macauley says, but she was impressed with the collaboration.

This is how Brightworks operates: the kids are meant to learn by working with each other instead of sitting in a classroom taking in facts.

It’s a mode of operating that is comfortable for Tulley, who describes his father as a beatnik poet who rubbed elbows with Jack Kerouac and his mother as a woman who uprooted the family and moved them all to Canada when Nixon won in 1972.

The family returned after Nixon’s resignation, and in junior high and high school, Tulley participated in an alternative program within his Northern California town’s public school system. It was there that he began coding. He went on to complete a quarter at UC San Diego but quickly left because he found it impossible to learn while sitting in classrooms with 300 people.

Instead, he went straight to work as a coder, succeeded, and was working at Adobe before leaving to develop his ideas about education.

Tulley first started forming his ideas eight years ago at a dinner party discussion about child-rearing techniques. Tulley was surprised at how many parents limited the activities he had done as a kid —activities like running around unsupervised at the beach or in the forest.

“Somehow that was seen as kind of crazy behavior now,” he says.

That night, Tulley — who is also the author of 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) —   declared that he would start a summer camp where kids would be free to learn by using their hands. He had four kids enrolled before dinner was over.

He ran the camp, the Tinkering School, on his ranch in Half Moon Bay that summer. A YouTube video of the kids building a rollercoaster that first summer went viral, and five other Tinkering Schools were established across the country.

Tulley’s had his own learning curve. Macauley says the school day at Brightworks is now more structured than it was the first year, when kids were given a lot of free time to explore their interests.

Fridays are still a vestige of that first year. Kids are given free time to pursue interests like aerial ropes or participate in classes like ‘Dangers Done Well,’ which allows students to do the things they aren’t supposed to do. They throw knives, fall from decent heights onto pillows, and discover what happens when various objects are put in the microwave.

“Brightworks is the school I always wished I had gone to,” Mackenzie Rose-Price, a collaborator, says in an airy, dream-like way.

She is young, wears Converse sneakers, and has the same side-swept bangs that some of the kids have. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz, she previously worked in gardens with home-schooled children to teach them about the environment.

Brightworks also actively integrates the new tools at society’s disposal for educating kids. The Mega Band — or, the middle-schoolers — regularly use their iPhones, many of which have stylish covers, to use the language app Duolingo in class.

Macauley explains that most students also blog and use Instagram to document their educational experiences.

In the morning, kids run into the school wearing trendy outfits and large smiles. They seem almost eager to start their school day.

Amanda Moore, Clementine’s mother, says that they have been a part of the school since the beginning, and she will keep Clementine there as long as she wants. Moore is an English teacher at The Urban School, a private high school in the Haight that was originally structured in alternative pedagogy.

She chose Brightworks because she saw so many of her own students having trouble with freedom and a lack of structure.

“If I gave them any sort of creative assignment, they freaked out and wanted a rubric and asked if they could just do an essay,” she says, adding that there are of course times she is concerned whether or not Clementine is gaining the “skills” that come out of a more traditional model.

Moore also wonders about the future make-up of the student body and whether it will begin to more accurately reflect the diversity of the neighborhood in which the school resides.

“I think that’s a real challenge in the next couple of years that it is going to have to face,” she says. “Having a little bit more socio-economic, cultural and ethnic diversity would be really nice.”

Tuition at Brightworks is $23,000 a year. Two thirds of the school’s families pay that fully. While examining the mechanics of a chair sitting next to him, Tulley says that the parents who send their children to Brightworks have all sorts of jobs, but that there are a lot of entrepreneurs in the crowd.

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Andra Cernavskis is a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. She is Canadian by birth but grew up in New Jersey and then San Francisco's Miraloma neighborhood. She has also spent time in Toronto, Buffalo, and Montreal. The Mission is one of her favorite neighborhoods, and she is thrilled to be back reporting in San Francisco.

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  1. $23,000/year tuition for a little kid… wow. Many people don’t make that as their gross income.

    It’s nice for the children of the wealthy that they get innovative education experiences.

    The problem is that such schools, and the economic-apartheid education system that emerges from them, lead to further decay of public education.

    In education, as in transportation, etc, influential folks at the top don’t try to fix problems which they don’t see.

    1. nutrisystem, having kids attend private school actually helps public education. The parents still have to pay the property taxes for the public school system and the fees on top. They do not get a reduction.

      Meanwhile SFUSD has less kids to teach and so can spend more per head as a result.

      23K is quite a lot though. the school I sent my kids to was about 16K a year. Definitely worth it.

      1. As if public schools haven’t suffered wave after wave of budget cuts. As if charter schools haven’t sapped public funding (then proven to be worse-performing). As if a wave of pro-privatization ideologues hasn’t overtaken public education.

        Hey, JJ, you’re one of those ideologues. Don’t be disingenuous in your prescription for public schools when you’re contemptuous of the very idea.

        1. It is possible to choose private education for your children without being “contemptuous” of public education. It’s a very personal choice that every parent makes whether to spend money on schooling or some other priority.

          We can debate whether the level of funding for SFUSD is adequate or not, but I do not believe that the existence of private schools affects that at all, as was being suggested.

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