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One teacher, one student: A new type of school coming to Philly area

The unorthodox approach of Fusion Academy - a fast-growing, for-profit, nationwide chain - is coming to the Philadelphia region, with new campuses slated for Ardmore, Malvern and Cherry Hill in the first half of 2018.

Fusion Academy art teacher Nicole Case, left, goes over a written exercise with student Paige Andreassi, 17, that asked the student to set goals for herself for 10, 20, and 30 years from now.
Fusion Academy art teacher Nicole Case, left, goes over a written exercise with student Paige Andreassi, 17, that asked the student to set goals for herself for 10, 20, and 30 years from now.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Paige Andreassi, 17, seemed to have it all when she was a student at the prestigious George School in Bucks County, capping her long day of classes and study hall with varsity tennis, school plays, and plans to apply to top universities.

In the end, Andreassi said, it all got to be too much for her.

"I wasn't taking care of myself," she said. "When I went through the college application process, it got to the point where the stress was unhealthy for me. I was getting two to four hours of sleep a night."

This fall, the teen decided to try a radically different approach for her senior year. She enrolled in Fusion Academy in Princeton, N.J. — a unique private school that emphasizes one-on-one instruction, with each class tailored to the student's needs or interests.

After one month, Andreassi said she especially loves working with her economics teacher, who designed a year-long project for her in which she will create a business plan for a gym. Already accepted to South Carolina's Furman University with plans to study neuroscience, Andreassi said the unconventional academy "is giving me a chance to focus inward rather than on those outward distractions" of a traditional school.

Building on a broader trend in education toward more personalized instruction, the unorthodox approach of Fusion Academy — a fast-growing, for-profit, nationwide chain — is coming to the Philadelphia region, with three new campuses slated for Ardmore, Malvern and Cherry Hill in the first half of 2018. But it's not for everyone and a prime reason is the cost — about $45,000 for a full year's tuition.

Fusion promotes its one-on-one learning approach as an alternative for a growing number of students and parents who say conventional classroom education, even at top-performing public and private schools, isn't meeting kids' unique needs. For many enrollees the school is an escape from social or academic anxiety in large, competitive schools – from uncomfortable situations like bullying to the pressures of trying to get into top colleges.

"We have lots of students coming from schools where they felt lost, not safe, not mattering that much," said Brendan Cartlidge, director of admissions at Fusion in Princeton, where some 43 kids in grades 6 to 12 are currently enrolled in a facility nestled in a shopping village along busy Route 1. "They step into this school and they feel important." There are three other New Jersey campuses in Montclair, Morristown and Englewood.

A smaller subset of students are those like the top horseback rider who works classes around her riding schedule, the kid with the cruise director mom who takes him out of school for occasional voyages, or young actors who need time off from school to work.

The Fusion approach builds on what education experts see as a trend toward highly personalized education, often aided by new technology, that is increasingly taking root in public schools or other traditional classrooms. Todd Rose, director of the Mind, Brain, & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, recently argued in his book, The End of Average, that teaching in a large classroom is "based on everyone and relevant to no one." Advocates like Rose envision more schools where kids will personalize their curriculum, to learn an offbeat foreign language or how to start a business.

Fusion takes that concept to the extreme. But the cost of such a bespoke education is comparable to a private university, and only a handful of students are placed through their public school districts. There are other potential drawbacks — Fusion doesn't offer team sports, although it does have clubs, music rooms for jam sessions, and even proms.

The high price of one-on-one instruction may explain why schools are clustered around upscale suburbs. In the Philadelphia region, Fusion is working to open new schools near the Suburban Square shopping complex in Ardmore, and close to the former Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, as early as this March, while its Malvern campus, near the Uptown Worthington Shopping Center, is currently slated to open in April. Officials said the typical campus for grades 6-12 attracts about 70 to 75 full-time students, with dozens more signed up for individual classes.

School anxiety is just one of the factors cited by students who enroll in Fusion or other personalized schools. Jailen McNeese, a 17-year-old senior from Ewing who attends the Princeton facility, said he struggled with ADHD when he tried to learn in a classroom with 30 other students, to the point where his nonstop pen-tapping distracted the other kids.

"One on one is easier," said McNeese, who laughs that his current 2.1 grade-point-average may not sound impressive but it's a lot better than the 0.0 average he achieved at a conventional school. "I can go through at my pace. I learn visually."

Students like McNeese receive instruction during 50-minute sessions with teachers in "classrooms" that are actually small offices with a desk, two chairs, and a computer, and cluttered with accessories like guitars, gadgets and rock-music wall posters brought in by each teacher.  Cartlidge, on a tour of the facility, pointed to history teacher Zach Boyce's guitar and said he's usually fiddling with the instrument when students show up for their session.

"Kids that are not thriving in regular school environments are creative types," insisted Cartlidge, noting that every month there's an "open mic" lunch session where kids and teachers might perform a song or give a speech on a hot topic like immigration. "We're trying to capture a vibe of welcome – this is a safe space and you matter," he said.

For each class, students spend equal time in the school's homework cafe, where they can get help with assignments. There are no classes on Fridays when students might go on a field trip or do community service. If a student can't make class for whatever reason, it is changed to accommodate their schedule.

Ruth Wilson is the founder of Fusion's largest rival, Brightmont Academy, launched in Seattle in 1999, which now has 11 fully accredited campuses. Wilson said Brightmont schools frequently customize learning for children on the autism spectrum or with learning disabilities, and are also seeing more kids with anxiety issues. She said the undivided attention of teachers and absence of peers in the classroom "help to remove some of the triggers."

Michelle Rose Gilman, founder of Fusion, said she developed the concept after working in the 1980s with students facing significant emotional issues and finding a large class size was completely inadequate for their needs. "I realized very clearly the best way to get in is to establish relationships with these kids," said Gilman, who started the first Fusion in her garage near San Diego in 1991. Today there are 46 accredited campuses in nine states.

Maria Fiordelisi, from East Windsor, a 17-year-old junior at the Princeton campus, said doctors treating her for chronic fatigue syndrome caused by head trauma, which she blamed on getting beat up at her old school, suggested she try the academy since there were days when she couldn't get out of bed to go to school.

"It's worked out good," said Fiordelisi, who works on projects from home when attending class is difficult. "It's a lot different from a typical school setting …but we still have student government, and clubs" such as Dungeons and Dragons.

Now, she said, she makes it to 90 percent of her classes, adding, "I like school a lot. I'm that crazy person that asks for extra homework."