When regular school doesn't work
The "parental angst" that walks through her door is familiar territory to Rhonda Racine, founder and director of Menlo Park's Lydian Academy, an accredited, one-to-one tutoring service.
As the product of Palo Alto schools and mother of two Palo Alto High School graduates, she's acquainted with the community's culture of achievement and the anxiety shared by many who worry their children don't fit in.
Her thriving six-year-old business, which offers customized instruction in a "non-stress environment," targets needs that traditional schools, public or private, cannot always fill.
That includes helping students with learning difficulties and discipline problems, or those who have overextended themselves academically and are trying to get back on track. Another population of students is more advanced and trying to get ahead.
For $70 an hour, a student can take a class or two — or an entire high school curriculum, including AP classes — on Lydian's "campus," an office space overlooking El Camino Real.
Outside her door, the office was a quiet hum of a dozen students and tutors, working one-to-one in cubicles.
"Parents who sit around this table have tough situations," Ms. Racine said. "You try to offer some doors they don't know about and keep doors open that resonate with the family and priority system.
"For example, there are lots of college programs people don't know about that are highly academic but also make room for the arts. They might not have heard of those paths."
In ceremonies at the Stanford Faculty Club May 19, Lydian graduated 12 high school seniors who are full-time students at Lydian. Last year, Lydian graduated nine full-time seniors.
One of them was a Palo Alto boy whose father said Lydian helped his son achieve the academic focus that had eluded him in larger settings, where he tended to be the class clown.
"I did the same when I was in high school, so I understand it, but as a father I wanted him to be in an environment that would bring out the best of his academic potential," said the father, whose son is "doing very well in his first year away at college."
Paly 2010 graduate Sarah Kortschak found "a little bit of relief from the Paly pressure cooker" at Lydian, where she completed Algebra II, physics and chemistry in a one-to-one setting, her mother, Marcia, said.
Diagnosed with dyslexia and auditory processing issues when she was a student at Duveneck Elementary School, Sarah graduated from Charles Armstrong School in Belmont before enrolling at Paly.
"At Paly, there were many great fits and courses there for her, and some that were made more challenging because of her learning differences, so we used Lydian to balance the high school experience," Marcia Kortschak said.
Sarah remained a full-time Paly student, where she thrived in some classes but went off campus for one-to-one instruction in others. Her physics teacher at Lydian "made the whole world come alive and physics make perfect sense," she said.
She is now at the University of Southern California, studying in the university's school of theater and fine arts.
Palo Alto district Superintendent Kevin Skelly said programs such as Lydian fill a need for some students. The district's stated policy is to honor up to 40 units of coursework from accredited, off-campus institutions such as Lydian.
If a class is taken at an outside institution, it is noted on the Palo Alto transcript, he said.
Ms. Racine, the daughter of educators — her father was principal at Cubberley High School in the 1970s — has been passionate about schools since her early teens, when she was devouring books by psychiatrist William Glasser and writer Jonathan Kozol.
She was a newly minted teacher when Proposition 13 budget cuts swept California schools, so she returned to school to study computer science and worked as an engineering manager for two decades.
"I certainly was able to support my children in their choices of colleges, but it wasn't my passion the way education is," she said. "All the problems you're faced with in education day to day come very naturally to me."
Ms. Racine helped her parents, who own the School for Independent Learners in Los Altos, before striking out on her own with Lydian in 2006.
She bootstrapped with existing accredited curricula to attain provisional accreditation and obtained full accreditation for her enterprise in 2009.
Often, students who come to her have been "academically traumatized," and her top priority is to "build some academic confidence and get them loving learning again.
"The effects of trauma in academia are similar to what they might be elsewhere," she said. "Not that they've necessarily had bad teachers, but (the students are) super-sensitive and internalize these things in a way that makes them feel stupid or inadequate.
"If it happens at a young age, all or parts of their learning can get stuck. They think everybody else knows how to add fractions when denominators aren't the same, so they're too ashamed to ask, and all this energy goes into hiding their differences.
"We work to unpack all that."
At graduation, she said, there's not a dry eye in the house.
Lydian Academy's seventh annual graduation took place May 19 at the Stanford Faculty Club. Those receiving diplomas were:
Laura Archuleta of Los Altos, William Cannara of Menlo Park, Stephanie Olivia Engle of Menlo Park, Lea Gelman of Palo Alto, Evan Jacobovitz of Hillsborough, Eva Johnson of Saratoga, Merrill Magowan of Half Moon Bay, Greg Spotorno of Redwood City, Joe Strehlow of Menlo Park, Rebecca Suppes of Los Altos Hills, Dennis Willoner of Palo Alto, and Emma Winer of Los Altos.