Students applying to a new, private, alternative school opening in Palo Alto this fall are asked not about grades or test scores but to describe the qualities they like most about themselves and admire in others. A grid titled "How do you see yourself?" asks prospective students to evaluate themselves on qualities like willpower, curiosity, open mindedness and personal happiness.
The application makes Living Wisdom High School's philosophy clear: At school, students should focus not only on academic learning but also values like adventure, creativity, connections, self-discovery and joy.
Living Wisdom High School is an offshoot of the Ananda Living Wisdom School, which was founded in 1972 and has a Palo Alto location that serves elementary and middle school students. Living Wisdom is based on a philosophy dubbed "education for life," which espouses personalized learning that is both academically rigorous and personally joyful.
At the new Living Wisdom High School, which will open temporarily in two Cubberley Community Center classrooms in September, this means high academic standards are taught in small classes, through regular trips to a Half Moon Bay farm and with the nurturing of a specific interest or passion that might manifest in an internship, volunteer opportunity or focused project. At the heart of the program is individualization, said the high school's principal, Kabir MacDow, who has been a Living Wisdom teacher since the school's first campus opened in Nevada City, California, in 1977.
"As I explain it to parents, we put the student in the center," he said. "We're not putting a class in the center.
"The whole focus of that whole program is around that person," MacDow added. "Our job is to get to know who that person is, on all levels."
The school will start small this fall, aiming to enroll 15 to 20 students (whom MacDow calls "pioneers") who will be taught by three full-time and some part-time teachers. The school hopes to start with a freshman class but will accept students from older grades who are interested in attending this year, MacDow said. By the fourth year of its existence, MacDow hopes to have 80 to 100 students enrolled and to be in a more permanent location.
MacDow stressed that while Living Wisdom embraces its identity as an "alternative" school -- where things like daily meditation, overnight camping trips and self-awareness are front and center -- the school simply seeks to provide the same academic rigor that many local families expect.
"There is a choice to be made when considering high schools, but it doesn't have to be between academics and well-being," the school's website states. "There is an alternative."
Living Wisdom's high school curriculum meets the University of California and California State University A-G subject requirements and is aligned with the new Common Core State Standards, MacDow said. Students will get typical instruction in core subjects. But unlike at a traditional, large high school, mathematics, for example, will be taught using a combination of textbooks and online programs tailored to each student. Each student will have his or her own program and schedule, MacDow said. Classes will emphasize real-world and project-based learning, such as teaching students how to create a budget.
Teachers will also work with students to identify an area of "deeper motivation" — anything from wanting to be a doctor to loving animals or the outdoors — and pursue that, inside and outside of the classroom. Students will be given time to leave campus for internships, for example. Students can also take courses at Foothill College and receive college credit.
And while Living Wisdom is associated with the Ananda Church, "there will be no focus on religious dogma or on any one spiritual path, Ananda included" at the high school, unless a class broadly studies world religions, MacDow said.
Out of 72 current Living Wisdom School students, only three are actually connected with Ananda in any way, according to MacDow. Half of the school's eight main teachers are connected with Ananda.
The Living Wisdom team is hopeful that their approach will offer an attractive alternative to students and parents worried about often "unachievable" standards and high pressure placed on many high schoolers today.
"The academics are supported by this next step, which is self-discovery," MacDow said, "that sense that there's something greater inside, something more."
"What we're developing through this whole thing is an approach to education that many people understand and know and acknowledge is important but their hands are tied," MacDow said.
Living Wisdom High School is currently accepting applications for its inaugural class. Tuition is $29,850, with an additional $1,500 enrollment fee. There is no application fee. Partial scholarships and tuition assistance are available.
For those interested in learning more, the school will hold an open house this Thursday, Jan. 12, at 7 p.m. at Cubberley, rooms B4 and B5. To register, call 650-646-1066 or email email@example.com. Another open house will be held on Saturday, Feb. 11.
For more information, go to livingwisdomhighschool.org.