For families with young children the choice of where to live is limited by the cost of housing in a “good” school district, the suspect quality of the public schools in more affordable locations, and/or the ability to pay for private schools. In recent years the option of home schooling has gained momentum as well. But all these choices come with trade offs.

Does a family pay more for a nice house near a “good” public school with the understanding that both parents must work longer and harder with a smaller financial cushion while spending less time at home as a consequence? Does a family move to an entirely different town or state to keep costs down and get a good public school experience, but limit long term access to jobs and culture?

Does a family with a constrained budget live within its means, but suffer the effects of a lesser education in a “bad” school district? Is private school the best way to plug the gap? Or does one parent stay home to educate the kids directly with a corresponding reduction in cash income? And what about single parents with even less time and cash on hand?

Keep in mind, most schools of every kind in all sorts of districts come with some version of the same bureaucratic baggage and the occasional treacherous personalities – staff, students, and parents alike. Families mostly select for neighborhood demographics more than the schools themselves. Parents want their kids to rub shoulders with people who share their values. Cultural affinity is actually 90% of school selection. Wealth (or at least the ability to carry large amounts of debt) is a proxy for “good.”

A few doors down from my apartment in San Francisco there’s a group of people who have been working on this dilemma for several years. The family loves living in the city, but has questions about the nature of any public school education anywhere. They aren’t too keen on the private school options either. So in true San Francisco tech fashion they decided to do a school hack.

They knew great people in the neighborhood who had talent, skills, and passion. They knew other families who had school aged children who were also dissatisfied with the standard choices. So they started to experiment with cheap fun work-arounds in small groups. Above is a giant camera that takes wall sized photos. The kids learned about physics, chemistry, and art in a hands-on collaborative environment.

The kids were brought up to my roof where I keep bees and were given a biology lesson about where honey comes from and the importance of pollination for agriculture. They were in and out of my kitchen for months baking bread (more chemistry, biology, and nutrition lessons) and other dishes as they learned practical skills that also doubled as lunch. These are the kinds of things that are profoundly difficult to do in an established school. Administrators, lawyers, union representatives, and insurance officials would all go ballistic.

Here’s the storefront shop that’s currently serving as the incubator for the tech startup. You could call it the Uber or Airbnb of collective home schooling. They’re attempting to take the best most essential ingredients of a high quality education and cut away everything that’s superfluous. No gymnasium. No cafeteria. No class rooms. No library. No superintendent. No principal. No school bus. Just a dozen students, a teacher, and parents operating in whatever space works for them in their particular circumstances. What would it cost a small group of parents to crowdsource great teachers if there were no other ancillary expenses? They’re in the process of finding out.

Will this approach work for everyone in every location? No. Are there kinks that will need to be worked out? Sure. Will some groups fail? Of course. But the arrangements that ultimately succeed will provide a model for how to move forward. If this concept can work and be replicated, it has the potential to radically change the parameters of where and how families live. Time will tell.

(All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo)

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