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More California kids are opting for alternatives to traditional education—just ask SF’s Independence High

Toward the end of the last school year—the first fully in-person return to campus since the pandemic started—something unusual for an alternative public high school in San Francisco started happening.

For the first time, students signed up to attend Independence High School—a small school centered on independent study—in such great numbers that a wait list was required. 

The list has continued to grow well into the fall, at one point logging 130 students. The Inner Sunset school currently has 65 students waiting to get in and expects to serve 300 students throughout the year, according to Principal Anastasia Klafter.

Other independent study programs in the Bay Area and across California also saw a boom in enrollment last winter, thanks in part to a new state requirement that schools offer independent study to provide continuity as in-person instruction returned. Some areas, like Southern California’s Temple City Unified School District, also required a wait list as of October 2021. (State officials did not report the number of independent study students pre-pandemic.) 

“This is highly unusual,” Klafter told The Standard of the wait list. “We’ve sort of made the intentional decision that we can’t take everyone, but we want to take more than traditionally we’ve been able. We also tend to attract students who have some measure of social anxiety, school phobia or negative experiences in school.”

While many families clamored to send their children back to school during pandemic-era campus closures, some students found they’re better off without the typical school structure. At an independent study program, students set their own schedules and attend small classes.

“The pandemic placed a spotlight on independent study, which previously had been an active yet little-known education alternative,” said Elvia González, education programs consultant with the California Department of Education. “While [school districts] are no longer required to offer independent study, it remains a popular choice in many areas.”

Students work in the cafeteria at Independence High School in San Francisco Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

In San Francisco, Independence High School faculty and staff are used to adapting curriculum on a case-by-case basis—a skill that became all the more important in the post-Covid school closure era as attendance plummeted. Students are on campus from five to 15 hours a week for classes rooted in project-based learning that allows students to apply their interests to their educational path.

It’s also a school with a wellness center to address mental and physical health, an advisor or supervising teacher assigned to each student and schedules devoted to learning lab, where students can receive academic support. The school also has a special education program for students with moderate to severe anxiety, depression, school phobia and school avoidance.

Many students transfer from other high schools where they struggled to learn and felt like they didn’t fit in.

Dynastii Wynn Noel, a 15-year-old Bayview native, felt like her last school in the East Bay was too strict and left her to manage problems like falling behind on coursework on her own. She also felt like she was looked at differently for being Black and Mexican.

“There was no freedom,” Wynn Noel said. “Every day just felt the same. There were so many kids. […] There was no one-to-one time until you came home with a bad grade or you were upset. I had to fend for myself so much.”

Dynastii Wynn Noel sits in the front row during her humanities class with teacher Peter Hippard at Independence High School in San Francisco on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

That cultivated a feeling of dread every morning, which led to Wynn Noel missing class. Her mother put her into homeschooling, but she eventually fell behind in her studies and began to miss the feel of a campus.

But Wynn Noel didn’t want to return to a big, fast-paced environment like her middle school, and her cousin, a graduate of Independence High, recommended the school. She ultimately enrolled at Independence and has since appreciated the school for its diverse student body and high level of support.

“It’s like we’re a little community,” Noel said. “We’re all accepting of one another. When there’s a problem at school, they’re really open to getting the kids together and having an understanding to fix the situation. They’re on me but not too much on me.”

Equipped to Have Patience

Recent data from an annual San Francisco Unified School District survey demonstrates how the pandemic affected student views on school climate. Feelings of safety have declined, dropping from 76% safety favorability in 2020-21 to just 65% in 2021-22. That may suggest students feel less safe and supported on campus than at home.

Some students start at Independence High after missing class for six months or more. The school hired an extra social worker to focus on chronically absent students who may be involved in the juvenile justice system or foster care, who face housing insecurity or who are dealing with other situations.

Through that extra guidance, students who have struggled to stay engaged in the past have swung to the other side of the pendulum under this model. One student, Jimmy Orellana Castillo, went from hardly logging on for online classes and not expecting to attend college to graduating early and becoming a City College of San Francisco student through the high school’s partnership.

Staff were able to match the student’s passions to school credit, like skateboarding for physical education, said Jennifer Roffle, head counselor at Independence High. And the social worker, Teresa Anderson, checks in on her students every day to say hello, to determine barriers to showing up and to build and sustain trusted relationships.

“We’re willing to wait it out,” Roffle said. “I don’t think other schools have the patience for that because that’s not how they’re built.”

Students draw portraits during an art session at Independence High School on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

The school also appeals to LGBTQ students. Liz Pena, a nonbinary teen, moved to the city from Florida, a state that has passed a slew of of anti-LGBTQ laws, including its infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

Pena, 17, went from a school where they said homophobia was normalized to a safe and supportive environment with a library boasting a massive LGBTQ book section. They said it’s “wild” that transgender students aren’t bullied and people use the right pronouns.

“Coming to Independence was absolutely thrilling,” Pena said of leaving their former school. “I’m not crazy or abnormal—that’s enough for me to stand up for myself against any homophobia or any discrimination.”

It’s not just about being at a school that’s supportive for queer students. The mix of independent study, big projects with classmates and flexibility has allowed for a more relaxing environment for Pena. They said the wellness center, loaded with snacks and supplies, is a good place to “cool your brain,” and there’s a piano on campus to practice in their free time.

“I didn’t realize how much school stressed me out until I had to be there for less amount of time,” Pena said. “The teachers go out of their way to check on me. You can go home and get the work done. I have lots of free time to just be me and de-stress.”

Independence High School’s principal Anna Klafter watches students work during an art session in San Francisco on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Klafter, the school’s principal, noted that schools are hamstrung when it comes to serving individual needs because of the way they are funded and required to operate based on attendance and the number of minutes students are in class.

“Every kid has a completely different schedule based on what they need,” Klafter said of Independence students. “I think it’s hard to be truly innovative when so many systems are wrapped up in an antiquated model of schooling. I wonder what it would look like if we moved away from this seat time model of funding and accountability and looked more holistically at what kids need at all the schools.”

Jennifer Wadsworth contributed to this report.