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Sixth graders at Berkeley's East Bay School for Boys get an exercise in design and spatial reasoning while constructing their customized tool boxes.

The M-BEST program at Menlo School in Atherton encourages female students to explore subjects in math and science through speaker series, internships and hands-on workshops like this one on solar power and electric circuits.

The sky's the limit at the Athenian School in Danville, where students have already built two airplanes and have a third one in the works.

Old Schools, New Tricks

DIY disrupters and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs aren’t the only ones shaking up Bay Area education [see our April feature “The New, (Hopefully) Improved, Totally DIY School” in San Francisco’s print edition and here]. From Napa to San Jose, plenty of existing schools are also working to develop hands-on, creativity-igniting environments that prepare kids for 21st-century challenges and opportunities. At the heart of many of these changes is “design thinking”—applying to education the same kind of design principles (recognizing a problem, understanding the needs of users, then brainstorming and prototyping solutions) that led to the iPad and the Aeron chair. San Francisco surveyed a dozen education nonprofits, incubators, design thinkers, and other resources to find out which local schools are leading the way on innovation. Here are their top 30 picks.

 

SAN FRANCISCO

DOWNTOWN HIGH SCHOOL
PUBLIC CONTINUATION 9-12 IN SAN FRANCISCO
Says who: San Francisco Foundation
Why it breaks the mold: This completely project-based institution is one of only two continuation high schools in the San Francisco Unified School District that focus on providing an alternative for students who aren’t succeeding in a traditional school setting because of academic or disciplinary issues. Teachers work with each other and partner with local organizations to build an interdisciplinary, hands-on curriculum designed for smaller groups. Wilderness Arts and Literacy Collaborative students participate in habitat restoration projects at McLaren Park and Bayview Hill and present what they’ve learned at the end of each semester. Students in the PRISM course engage in Socratic discussions to learn about minority struggles against oppression.
Getting In: District administrators identify at-risk kids and recommend them for admission to the high school.
DOWNTOWNHIGHSCHOOL.ORG; 693 VERMONT ST, SF; FREE

IMMACULATE CONCEPTION ACADEMY
CATHOLIC PAROCHIAL ALL-GIRL 9–12
Says who: Specialty Family Foundation
Why it breaks the mold: Along with academics, the school emphasizes building real-world skills, self-reliance, and a tangible understanding of the value of a good education. Low-income students get an opportunity to attend a parochial school by earning their tuition through work-study positions at places like Bank of the West, Ernst &Young, and the Gap (where Justin Bieber brought one lucky girl lunch). “This place isn’t for everybody,” says assistant principal Mary Cerutti. “We need kids who can adjust to the workplace as early as freshman year.”
Getting in: ICA targets low-income families; applicants must qualify under the school’s income guidelines.
3625 24TH ST., S.F.; ICACADEMY.ORG; FROM $4,000

JUNE JORDAN SCHOOL FOR EQUITY
PUBLIC 9-12 IN SAN FRANCISCO
Says who: San Francisco Foundation
Why it breaks the mold: JJSE was one the early leaders in DIY education, founded in 2003 by frustrated teachers, parents and students who championed the small school design (they also helped pass a district-wide Small Schools by Design policy). The school was also among the first to introduce multiple methods of assessment. Students, for example, create portfolios of a major assignment for each class and present their work to the Move-Up Committee in the 10th grade and the Graduation Committee at the end of their senior year. With that kind of history, it’s not such a surprise that social justice issues arise in every aspect of the curriculum—a pre-algebra class, for example, studies ratios by investigating the how widespread mortgage rejection is among SF’s ethnic groups, and a vocabulary lesson easily turns into a heated debate about the difference between equality and equity.
Getting in: Students enroll through San Francisco Unified School District’s lottery process, but JJSE requires applicants to understand and express why they want to attend.
JJSE.ORG; 325 LA GRANDE AVE, SF; FREE

LICK-WILMERDING HIGH SCHOOL
PRIVATE 9–12
Says who: Susie Wise (former director of the K-12 Lab at Stanford’s d.school, Institute of Design), Stanford d.school, National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS)
Why it breaks the mold: At Lick, design thinking may as well be called design philanthropy. The curriculum pushes students toward civic engagement and using their know-how to help others—kids in the Philanthropy Initiative course, for example, partner with student government to research a global dilemma related to hunger, health, education, or the environment and donate $24K to alleviate the problem. Along with high-quality academic subjects, students also get hands-on experience in traditional crafts, from jewelry making to advanced woodworking (a skill that has been used to build desks for a charter school in West Oakland).
Getting in: About 120 are admitted to each freshman class, and admissions from the wait list are rare.
755 OCEAN AVE., S.F.; LWHS.ORG; $34,996/YEAR

SAN FRANCISCO UNIVERSITY HIGH SCHOOL
PRIVATE 9–12
Says who: Susie Wise
Why it breaks the mold: University’s 1:1 iPad initiative began just before Apple introduced its tablet in 2010, when teachers and administrators began prepping a program to transform the school into a digital environment. That meant replacing old classroom tools with apps such as iBooks, Keynote, and Class Organizer. In math, electives include courses on cryptography and descriptive statistics. Students experience the San Francisco art scene by meeting local professional artists, whose masterpieces decorate the school’s hallways.
Getting in: No more than 100 freshmen out of about 500 applicants are accepted. Students must submit SSAT scores and schedule a formal interview.
3065 JACKSON ST., S.F.; SFUHS.ORG; $33,750/YEAR

THE URBAN SCHOOL
PRIVATE 9–12
Says who: Oakland Schools Foundation
Why it breaks the mold: Urban has long been “high-teach and high-tech”—its 1:1 laptop program dates from 10 years ago. Teachers use Smart Boards in classrooms and create lecture videos that students can access ahead of class so that more time can be spent on hands-on projects and discussions. Foreign language classes use iPads to record sound files of students speaking, and English classes have nightly discussion groups online. Juniors in physics study gravity by trekking to the San Francisco Circus Center and using sensors to record their acceleration as they take turns swinging on a trapeze. Students in marine biology study the effects of algae on Stowe Lake.
Getting in: Applications are sent only to eighth-grade families.
1563 PAGE ST; URBANSCHOOL.ORG; $34,050/YEAR.

 

EAST BAY

THE ATHENIAN SCHOOL
PRIVATE 6–12 DAY AND BOARDING SCHOOL IN DANVILLE
Why it breaks the mold: “Experiential education” (“hands-on experimentation, real-life experiences, firsthand observation, and learning through discovery”) on a 75-acre campus at the base of Mount Diablo. Many projects are collaborative efforts among several grades. On Middle School Focus Fridays, kids spend all day studying one interdisciplinary topic (forensics, “crazy” chemistry, marble maze, Shogun Day) outside the classroom. In applied science, students are building their third two-seater airplane (their second one is for sale) and turning a gas car into an electric one. Then there’s AWE—Athenian Wilderness Experience, a 26-day backpacking trip in the High Sierra or Death Valley that’s a graduation requirement.
2100 MT. DIABLO SCENIC BLVD., DANVILLE; ATHENIAN.ORG; FROM $24,200/YEAR

DOZIER-LIBBEY MEDICAL HIGH SCHOOL
PUBLIC 9–12 IN ANTIOCH
Says who: ConnectEd
Why it breaks the mold: Dozier-Libbey’s philosophy of “mastery learning” means a culture where failure—and trying again—are expected, even encouraged. Certain assignments allow students a “redo” so that they can take teacher feedback and improve on their work. Seniors explore medical ethics in discussions about what kinds of people they would want to have around to rebuild the world after a disaster, and in human anatomy, freshmen “operate” on a fake human body. Students can participate on a number of medical-themed electives like emergency medical careers, sports medicine, and medical terminology.
Getting in: Students can enroll through the Antioch Unified School District’s Pathway Programs. Alas, there are already waiting lists for as far out as 2016.
4900 SAND CREEK RD., ANTIOCH; DLMHS-ANTIOCH-CA.SCHOOLLOOP.COM; FREE

EAST BAY SCHOOL FOR BOYS
PRIVATE ALL-BOYS 6–8 IN BERKELEY
Says who: Susie Wise
Why it breaks the mold: Boys will be boys, and EBSB is down with that. “We’re developing a school not for them, but with them,” says director of innovation David Clifford, “a school where it’s OK to be themselves.” Students spend the first week of school designing and building their own desks. To learn about cave paintings in Ancient Cultures class, students redecorated the classroom to look like Lascaux in France, complete with sounds of bats and dripping water.
Getting in: The interview involves 45-minute design (building the “ultimate desk” with a group of other applicants), math, and writing assessments.
1798 SCENIC AVE., BERKELEY; EBSFB.ORG; FROM $18,950/YEAR

ENVISION SCHOOLS
CHARTER 9-12 IN OAKLAND, HAYWARD AND SAN FRANCISCO
Says who: Edutopia, Buck Institute for Education
Why it breaks the mold: This charter is bent on getting low-income and first-gen immigrants into college, using a project-heavy curriculum designed by teachers across grade levels. Exams often take the form of presentations, and final projects have a defend-your-dissertation feel (imagine having to discuss a semester-long research project with a crowd of teachers, peers, families, and experts in the field). Students at the Marin campus have used handheld computers and probes to measure pH levels at a local watershed and built a scale model to present the information in class. At Metropolitan Arts & Technology in SF, a class called Metaphor Machines studies social change by building machines that represent historical turning points and other types of transformation; to symbolize the storming of the Bastille, one student built a match-lighting mouse trap that ignited a smoke bomb.
Getting in: Preference is given to residents in the school’s district, siblings, and children of staff and current/past Envision board members. Enrollment at is capped at 400 students per school, so expect a lottery.
ENVISIONSCHOOLS.ORG, FREE

FRED T. KOREMATSU DISCOVER ACADEMY
PUBLIC K–5 IN OAKLAND
Says who: Oakland Schools Foundation
Why it breaks the mold: A new directive instruction strategy, called backwards mapping, involves peer teaching to help bring students, mostly English-language learners, up to speed. First graders work with plungers and syringes to study the effects of air pressure. Students created exhibits for a civil rights leaders art gallery that celebrated the installation of namesake Korematsu’s portrait (he sued the government over WWII Japanese American internment camps) at the Smithsonian. KDA’s scores, which are approaching national averages, are a vast improvement over those at the failing, now-defunct elementary school it replaced.
Getting in: The school tries to keep the student population at around 388.
10315 E ST., OAKLAND; FREE

KIPP KING COLLEGIATE HIGH SCHOOL
PUBLIC 9–12 IN SAN LORENZO
Says who: Edutopia
Why it breaks the mold: At this charter, which targets low-income kids, every student must take AP classes, and the Socratic method—teaching and learning by asking questions and more questions—is the norm. Geometry students build cities that meet several different criteria, and those in finance play with fake dollars to simulate the stock market. Students also discuss global politics, civic leadership, and college-level psychology.
Getting in: Admission is based on a lottery system.
2005 VIA BARRETT, SAN LORENZO; KIPPBAYAREA.ORG/SCHOOLS/KING; FREE

LIFE ACADEMY OF HEALTH AND BIOSCIENCE
PUBLIC 9–12 IN OAKLAND
Says who: ConnectEd, Oakland Schools Foundation
Why it breaks the mold: It takes a village to pull kids out of poverty and push them into med school. On the academic side, Life Academy offers a hybrid of project-based and community-service learning, with special assignments and year-end exhibitions of students’ work. On the personal front, it provides support networks for its mostly low-income, Latino students and parents and addresses challenges like gangs and gun violence in class. In 10th-grade English, students are doing psychological analyses of literary characters and presenting their diagnoses to a panel of teachers and psychologists. Seniors get class time for internships at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital, which can involve observing surgeons in the OR or checking vital signs and helping with lab tests.
Getting in: With just 65 spots per class, expect a lottery.
2101 35TH AVE., OAKLAND; LIFEACADEMYOAKLAND.ORG; FREE

MANZANITA SEED ELEMENTARY
PUBLIC K–5 IN OAKLAND
Says who: Oakland Schools Foundation
Why it breaks the mold: Bilingual education has seldom faired well with critics and evaluative research, but the dual-language (Spanish and English) immersion program at Manzanita—which follows an “expeditionary learning,” or learning by doing, approach—is resulting in test scores well above the state average. Spanish is integrated into all classes (even math and science), and parents report that students become relatively fluent in both languages by fifth grade. In the past, a partnership with the Museum of Children’s Art allowed students to collaborate with local artists on class projects.
Getting in: For now, enrollment is capped at 280.
2409 E. 27TH ST., OAKLAND; OUSDES2.OUSD.K12.CA.US/MANZANITASEED; FREE

MAYBECK HIGH SCHOOL
PRIVATE 9–12 IN BERKELEY
Says who: Susie Wise
Why it breaks the mold: The mission is academic excellence in an atmosphere of collaboration rather than competition—with lots of outdoor time. The year starts and ends with mandatory, all-school camping trips, to which students may choose to bike (150 miles); in between are optional full moon camping trips and the occasional backpacking excursion as far away as India. In-house courses include paleontology, Russian literature, and LGBT history; students also get credit for classes at UC Berkeley and for biking to school (aka phys ed).
Getting in: One of the few independent high schools that doesn’t require standardized test scores (although you’re welcome to submit them), Maybeck does administer its own untimed math and English placement tests.
2727 COLLEGE AVE., BERKELEY; MAYBECKHS.ORG; $26,000/YEAR

METWEST HIGH SCHOOL
PUBLIC 9–12 IN OAKLAND
Says who: Oakland Schools Foundation
Why it breaks the mold: Transitioning from teen to young adult means figuring out how to interact with grown-ups, says Greg Cluster, who heads the school’s Learning Through Internship program. For high-risk kids in violence-plagued Oakland, having close relationships with adults is doubly important. Students get class credit for internships at places like Highland Hospital, Chez Panisse, and Makani Power, where one senior designed and built a prototype of a new wind-powered device.
Getting in: Ninth graders are admitted by lottery, while transfers are put on a wait list based on the discretion of Oakland Unified School District’s Student Assignment Office.
314 E. 10TH ST., OAKLAND; OUSDHS.OUSD.K12.CA.US/METWEST/; FREE

PARK DAY SCHOOL
PRIVATE BK–8 IN OAKLAND
Says who: Susie Wise
Why it breaks the mold: Park Day teachers adhere to a progressive philosophy, in which individual interests and learning abilities play a major role in how students are taught. Here, it’s just as important to come up with your own questions as it is to answer your teachers’. Students get tech-savvy as early as second grade, using multimedia to enhance artwork and poetry. In fourth grade social justice, students lead the school’s recycling efforts and work with local restaurants to reduce their paper waste. Eighth graders learn about physical science by using an energy bike to generate their own electricity in the classroom.
Getting in: Parents are required to attend an information meeting and school tour. Students must schedule a school visit, which includes an informal assessment in reading, writing, and arithmetic.
360 42ND ST, OAKLAND; PARKDAYSCHOOL.ORG; $18,450/YEAR (BK–4), $19,300/YEAR (5-–7), $20,000/YEAR (8)

PROSPECT SIERRA SCHOOL
Says who: Susie Wise, NAIS
PRIVATE K–8 IN EL CERRITO
Why it breaks the mold: The focus is on emotional learning as much as on brain smarts (although writing and math programs also win major kudos). Exercising empathy is deemed so important that every decision represents feedback and input from “users”—kindergartners, for example, are helping to redesign their own playground by interviewing peers and analyzing how much use equipment receives.
Getting in: Traditional entry points are kindergarten and sixth grade. But the lingering recession and fluctuations in the quality and finances of nearby schools (many students hail from Berkeley) mean that there may be unexpected openings in every grade.
TWO CAMPUSES IN EL CERRITO; PROSPECTSIERRA.ORG; FROM $21,000/YEAR

 

PENINSULA

BAYSIDE STEM ACADEMY
PUBLIC 6–8 IN SAN MATEO
Says who: Susie Wise
Why it breaks the mold: STEM—science, tech, engineering, and math—permeates every aspect of learning—even history and dance classes. Teachers are multidisciplinary, too—hired specifically because they have credentials in several subjects. Sixth graders use “design thinking” to prototype solutions to everyday problems (one class came up with robotic antibullying backpacks). Last year, the school’s technology lab was temporarily rechristened the Take It Apart, Put It Together Lab, with students doctoring broken appliances rescued from home.
Getting in: Families in the San Mateo Foster City Unified School District automatically qualify for a golden ticket; second priority goes to exceptionally bright kids in GATE programs from other districts. Note that virtually all electives are in the science-math-engineering-tech areas.
2025 KEHOE AVE., SAN MATEO; STEM.SCHOOLLOOP.COM; FREE

BURLINGAME INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL
PUBLIC 6–8 IN BURLINGAME
Says who: Stanford d.school
Why it breaks the mold: Two years ago, administrators brought in the Stanford d.school to redirect the curriculum to focus on teamwork, creativity, and problem-solving. Twice a week, students take project-based learning classes on such topics as video game design and entrepreneurship, sometimes in conjunction with nonprofits (Habitat for Humanity, ThinkQuest). In schoolwide design challenges, students have prototyped roller coasters and TV shows.
Getting in: The school accommodates some 900 students—and there’s no wait list.
1715 QUESADA WAY, BURLINGAME; BI-BSD-CA.SCHOOLLOOP.COM; FREE

THE NUEVA SCHOOL
Says who: Stanford d.school, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, NAIS, K-12
PRIVATE PRE-K–8 IN HILLSBOROUGH
Why it breaks the mold: This 45-year-old school was a pioneer in incorporating so-called design thinking into primary education; it opened its own Innovation Lab (I-Lab) in 2007 with help from Stanford d.school founder David Kelley. When teachers aren’t collaborating to design their own curricula, they can often be heard evangelizing at educational conferences around the United States.
Sixth graders in Health Innovations work with Kaiser specialists to come up with ways to improve healthcare through technology; one student has developed a project to help an Alzheimer’s patient recognize once-familiar faces. An entrepreneurship course has seventh and eighth graders creating a business model, Apprentice style, from Harvard B-school case studies.
Getting in: Applicants must take an IQ test and current students must retake the test every two years (a little counterintuitive for a school that boasts of its design-thinking–driven I-Lab).
6565 SKYLINE BLVD., HILLSBOROUGH; NUEVASCHOOL.ORG; FROM $20,080/YEAR (KINDERGARTNERS) TO $36,750 FOR EIGHTH GRADERS

SILICON VALLEY/SOUTH BAY

BIOTECH ACADEMY AT ANDREW P. HILL HIGH SCHOOL
PUBLIC 10–12 IN SAN JOSE
Says who: Edutopia
Why it breaks the mold: A techy school-within-a-school with a tight-knit, liberal arts–college feel (125 students and eight teachers), Biotech seeks out at-risk students—kids who can do the work but are nevertheless racking up Ds and Fs—and tries to turn them around. Seniors conducted a mock Senate debate on the use of embryonic stem cells. Students regularly shadow biotech professionals at the Valley’s top research centers like Stanford, Agilent, and Genentech.
Getting in: Because the goal is to open doors for students who never really had opportunities, Biotech recruits their kids, and students enroll at the end of ninth grade. 3200 SENTER RD., SAN JOSE; AH.CA.CAMPUSGRID.NET/HOME/ACADEMY+PROGRAMS; FREE

BULLIS CHARTER SCHOOL
PUBLIC K–8 IN LOS ALTOS
Says who: Susie Wise
Why it breaks the mold: Education can’t—and won’t—be held at a one-stop shop at Bullis. Here, students not only learn about how their knowledge can affect their own community but how they can bring about change in other parts of the world. Mandarin is taught as early as kindergarten, and in fifth grade, students add Spanish to their study plans—skills that will come in handy when sixth and eighth graders visit Costa Rica and China, respectively. In other programs, first graders test out their business skills at Kid Town, a mock bazaar where students create, market, and sell various products to fellow schoolmates and parents. Eighth graders, meanwhile, spend a unit learning how to develop apps with the help of Silicon Valley experts—doing market research, creating prototypes, and pitching their designs.
Getting in: Enrollment, which is based on a lottery system, is open to all California residents, but preference is given to in-district families. Spaces are limited and there are currently six applicants vying for each available seat, so expect a long wait list. And be aware: The school may be free, but sustaining quality programs is still likely to cost you. Parents are encouraged to donate as much as $5,000 per student.
102 WEST PORTOLA AVE., LOS ALTOS; BULLISCHARTERSCHOOL.COM; FREE

CASTILLEJA SCHOOL
PRIVATE, ALL-GIRLS 6–12 IN PALO ALTO
Says who: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs
Why it breaks the mold: The motto—“Women learning, women leading”—says it all, with the emphasis on global learning. The ACE (Awareness, Compassion, Engagement) Center facilitates student participation in hands-on social-justice projects around the world, not just the Bay Area. The Bourn Idea Lab, meanwhile, houses a robotics program, where students can take courses or join clubs to learn about Java, gears, and power trains (the school’s vision for a 21st-century curriculum unites engineering, mathematics, physics, design, psychology, materials science, and other disciplines). The Idea Lab has also hosted design-thinking training for teachers, by faculty from Stanford’s d.school. A-list guest speakers have included Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, and Al Gore.
Getting in: The application—student and parent questionnaires, teacher recs, transcripts, ISEE test scores, and mandatory interviews—comes with a $75 fee. Pressure to perform is high (some 85 percent of teachers have advanced degrees and more than half of seniors have National Merit recognition).
1310 BRYANT ST., PALO ALTO; CASTILLEJA.ORG; $33,590/YEAR

THE GIRLS’ MIDDLE SCHOOL
PRIVATE 6-8 IN PALO ALTO
Says who: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs
Why it breaks the mold: Girl power is the mission here, starting with how classrooms are organized (students sit at round tables reminiscent of a corporate board room, allowing them to have greater responsibility for their own learning). “[Middle school] is a time when girls find their academic voices start to be silenced,” says head of school. Deb Hof. “But this is the place where girls can lean in and really try things”—like computer science and woodshop, classes typically dominated by boys. Students program robots and use power tools to build condos for their pet hamsters. Seventh-grade entrepreneurs, meanwhile, have successfully pitched a hand-made jewelry biz to a handful of Valley VCs (in front of 400 people). A portion of their proceeds will benefit a local charity.
Getting in: The interview process includes a 15-minute show-and-tell, where applicants are asked to bring in an object of sentimental significance.
3400 WEST BAYSHORE RD, PALO ALTO, GIRLSMS.ORG, UP TO $27,882.50/YEAR

MENLO SCHOOL
PRIVATE 6–12 IN ATHERTON
Says who: Stanford d.school, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, National Association of Independent Schools
Why it breaks the mold: Science and tech education reimagined by people who live and breathe it. A class in applied science might involve building a Tesla coil and writing a journal-quality final paper. Seventh graders devote a full month to the “Dude, That’s Wrong” project, trying to solve a real-world problem (skin cancer, Proposition 13, the media’s effect on adolescents’ body image); high schoolers take pass-fail minicourses in topics like Disney Imagineering or the science of surfing; the M-BEST program offers workshops, field trips, mentors, and speakers (including astronaut Yvonne Cagle) just for girls.
Getting in: Around half of the 140 ninth-grade slots go to existing Menlo middle-school students.
50 VALPARAISO AVE., ATHERTON; MENLOSCHOOL.ORG; FROM $34,900/YEAR

SYNAPSE SCHOOL
Says who: Susie Wise
PRIVATE K–8 IN MENLO PARK
Why it breaks the mold: To educate “future change-makers,” Synapse sends them back, back, back in time. Each year, students try to channel the curiosity, creativity, and ferocious persistence of a different intellectual giant—the focal point of a single, overarching theme that links together every subject they study. Last year, the giant was Da Vinci and the theme was “intersections”; this year, it’s Thomas Edison and “turning points.”
Kindergartners get familiar with algebraic concepts by messing around with snap cubes and fraction tiles. Grades 3–5 are learning about software development by creating their own apps. For the year-end exhibition, students are making batteries and lightbulbs.
Getting in: Admissions requirements include an IQ test, a playgroup/interview, a parent interview, and a home visit.
3375 EDISON WAY; MENLO PARK; SYNAPSESCHOOL.ORG; FROM $22,000/YEAR

WALDORF SCHOOL OF THE PENINSULA
PRIVATE K–12 WITH CAMPUSES IN LOS ALTOS AND MOUNTAIN VIEW
Says who:
Tech entrepreneurs around Silicon Valley
Why it breaks the mold: Talk about counterintuitive—a school in the heart of Silicon Valley that discourages computers and other gadgets until late middle school. Instead, starting in first grade, students learn how to knit, crochet, cross-stitch, and sew—making dolls by seventh grade and their own pajama bottoms by eighth. During J-Term, high schoolers sign up for elective courses, some of which are designed and taught by fellow classmates, that explore the natural elements; to study fire, for instance, they learn to blow glass.
Getting in: Kindergartners are required to participate in a playgroup interview, while transfers applying to other grades must be prepared for interviews with teachers, various academic and overall assessments, and a weeklong school visit.
11311 MORA DR., LOS ALTOS; WALDORFPENINSULA.ORG; FROM $17,750/YEAR

 

NORTH BAY

MARIN ACADEMY
PRIVATE 9–12 IN SAN RAFAEL
Says who: Center for Ecoliteracy
Why it breaks the mold: A school so focused on allowing students to find their voice that they started to scale back on AP classes a few years ago—from 13 to just one, environmental science. No more final exams, either—they’ve been replaced by end-of-year projects. Each October, students participate in a conference on democracy, where they present and debate various political and economic issues NPR-style. Ninth graders study plant life in biology by creating their own victory garden, which they will also use to simulate life in the 1940s in their history class.
Getting in: The usual—application, teacher recommendations, transcripts, standardized test scores, plus an interview.
1600 MISSION AVE., SAN RAFAEL; MA.ORG; $34,775/YEAR

NEW TECHNOLOGY HIGH SCHOOL
PUBLIC 9–12 IN NAPA
Says who: Buck Institute for Education
Why it breaks the mold: It feels more Silicon Valley than wine country, with a fully Wi-Fi’d campus and the hangout Cybercafé. The “project-based” curriculum focuses on interdisciplinary, team-taught classes in which kids try to solve real-life dilemmas posed by locals. Not only is everyone required to complete internships and earn credits from Napa Valley College, but university professors do much of the teaching. In Mechatronics, students build stereo speakers, fans, and even robots with old computer parts. This year’s Bio-Fitness freshmen are helping a local chef create healthier recipes for a new cookbook by analyzing how the body ingests food chemicals (part of the final presentation is a cook-off).
Getting in: Admission is based on a lottery, but all applicants must submit a personal statement.
920 YOUNT ST., NAPA; NEWTECHHIGH.ORG; FREE