But the parents and teachers who set up the Creekside 21st Century Learning Lab say it is just that. The school, they say, is an experiment in learning that others can emulate to teach students the skills most needed to thrive in today's complex and fast-moving world, and in ways suited to the myriad of different learning styles children possess.
Creekside has only 14 students — seven boys and seven girls — and only a fifth-grade class level. And, it may well last only this school year. A group of Portola Valley School District parents started the school when they found out last spring that one of their favorite teachers, Marcy Barton, was retiring from teaching fifth grade at Corte Madera School.
They wanted to allow their children to experience Ms. Barton's innovative teaching methods, and they wanted a place where others could see those methods in action.
"We don't want to just make a change for 14 kids. We want to make sure all kids have an opportunity for this type of education," says Linda Yates, one of the school's co-founders. The parents wanted "to take what some of our best and brightest teachers are doing already and showcase it," she says.
The time was also right for Ms. Barton, who started teaching in 1969. She decided in December to take an early retirement offer from the district, and thought she would spend more time sharing the integrated, exploratory approach to learning she had adopted.
In 2010, she wrote a book, called "Classroom for the Conceptual Age," for other teachers who wanted to use some of her methods. She had been asked to speak at more and more conferences, often to standing-room-only audiences.
"People want to hear this," Ms. Barton says. "I needed a bigger platform for these ideas, and they are ideas whose time has come."
A new way of teaching is needed, those involved in the school say, because traditional methods come from another era. "The (current) educational model was born out of need driven by the industrial revolution," Ms. Yates says. "It's just not relevant in the 21st century any more."
The teaching methods used at the school are not new — some are decades old, and Ms. Barton had been using many of them at Corte Madera for several years. In addition to teaching at Creekside, which she does for four and a half days a week, Ms. Barton has started a consulting company called ie21 to help others adopt her teaching methods.
Creekside students study the traditional subjects — including math, writing, science, art, foreign languages and social studies — but as part of integrated projects centered around what Ms. Barton calls "Big Questions."
The students' first project was "Who Am I?" Hung around the classroom are the results of that investigation — giant posters that include information about each student, including the results of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests that show their preferred learning and interacting styles, plus photos, drawings and essays that tell the teachers, the other students, and the students themselves, a lot about what motivates and interests them.
With the knowledge gained from that exercise, students can better understand what "tools" they need so they can learn," and develop their own tool belt," Ms. Yates says, which they can use the rest of their lives.
The current big question is: "How do we live in a sustainable environment?"
Learning at the school is self-directed, with children taking responsibility for their own learning, guided by their teachers, whom they call by their first names.
Students work with Ms. Barton three and a half days a week. Science and art teachers come in to work with the students on Fridays, while Thursday afternoons are devoted to "academies," four- to six-week-long classes in areas of special interest such as woodworking or building Lego robots.
In order to "dissolve the walls of the classroom," more than 20 field trips are planned for the year— from trips to Stanford to look at art or visit the design school, to Jasper Ridge, and to Boston and Williamsburg to study American history.
The school makes copious use of technology. Each student has a laptop and uses the resources of the Internet continuously. At home, if they have time, they are invited to add to a classroom blog. Their work is saved in a digital portfolio.
Because projects are flexible, different learning styles that might be labeled a disability in another school are simply adapted into the program. Traditional education is "highly differentiated," Ms. Yates says.
"All kids learn differently," she says. In the class of 14, students found they had 12 (out of the 16 possible) different learning styles when they took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator tests. "We need to create educational institutions that can be flexible," she says.
So the teaching methods used at the school use "universal design" so "all kids can learn," Ms. Yates says.
Because the school is not part of the public school system, students do not have to take standardized tests and classes do not have to fit the traditional schedule. Students will, however, take the Independent Schools Entrance Exam this spring.
Students helped to design the school. They also designed and made a school flag, and wrote a school pledge. And it was the students who came up with the school's name, although parents added 21st Century as part of the official name.
Parents pitched in to renovate the old cottage the school is housed in, tearing out carpeting and tearing down at least one interior wall. Parent Suki Eyre helped Ms. Barton design the school to her vision. In the "Science Room," a former kitchen with a concrete floor, they made a flaw into a feature using floor paint.
"I said, 'Marcy let's do something on this floor,'" Ms. Eyre says. "It's like a canvas — what do you want to do?" Ms. Barton responded, "Gosh, if you could put the world on the floor that would be great."
So, after five days of work, the world, complete with currents, land masses and their climates, took shape on the floor. The children can use it as a learning tool for a current project, which is about world explorers, "so it makes sense why the explorers went the way they went," Ms. Eyre explains.
Each room in the tiny school serves multiple purposes. The Reading Room, for example, has a built-in bench that can be used for reading, or for sitting at a table, and has the schools' files underneath it. Salvaged bookshelves line the walls and a curtain allows the room to be used as a theater or to divide it into two small, cozy rooms.
Because the budget was limited, "we used a lot of things that were being given away, (and) we used a lot of IKEA," Ms. Eyre says.
Ms. Eyre's son Ned is in the school. "It is magical," she says. "It just shows you how, without constraints, they get to follow things and they get to focus on personal interests they have. It's exciting for the kids."
Her son, she says, is "bubblier" than he was last year, and is even doing better at topics he has always struggled with. "Ned's not a natural writer," Ms. Eyre says, but with his class work, including the school blog, "it's just getting easier and easier."
While the children say they love not having homework, Ms. Eyre says that they actually do have it — they just don't realize it. "I don't think they think about it the rote way they're used to" she says.
One of the joys at Creekside, she says, is the fact that the students get large chunks of time to work on projects, rather than the traditional chopped-up school day.
Ms. Eyre says she hopes the experiment will not end with the school year, because she has a third-grader who wants to experience it.
Next year parents will either return their children to Corte Madera to finish middle school, or go on to a private school.
The Portola Valley School District did not lose any funding when the 14 children left, the founders say, because it is a basic aid district that gets a set amount of money not based on student count.
School website: CreeksideLearningLab.org
Marcy Barton website: ie21.org
Resouce list on 21st century learning: tinyurl.com/Learn-114
A pledge, in their own words
I pledge to our flag, representing Creekside School.
We are the pollywogs and the hawks,
Who respect their friends and teachers,
The environment and materials.
We may not be like everyone else,
But we are the best we can be.
We grow together and learn together
As one big family.
Written by the students and signed by each student.