SAN FRANCISCO - Every weekday morning, the 65 high school students enrolled in a new San Francisco charter school show up in a conference room of a Union Square hotel, flip on their computers and start class.
A handful of teachers are present, but they don't tell the teens what to do. And for the most part, the teachers don't teach -- at least in the old-fashioned way.
In this free alternative public school, students are entrusted to learn on their own, each at his or her own pace, and almost entirely online.
Online learning isn't new. Tens of thousands of children across the country attend virtual schools. But those students typically learn from home. San Francisco Flex Academy students must show up every day to a bricks-and-mortar building, where teachers monitor student work and walk the room to help anyone who needs it. School goes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The school, which opened Sept. 7, is the first of its kind in California.
Authorized by the state Board of Education, it is funded with taxpayer dollars and is open to any high school student who is interested in attending.
The school's education model is a hybrid, combining self-paced online learning with a structured schedule, significant oversight and face-to-face interaction with peers and teachers.
"It's the best of both worlds," said Mark Kushner, who helped found the school through the nonprofit Flex Public School and plans to open a chain of such schools across the nation, including California.
The new school currently is operating out of a lower-level conference room at the Hotel Monaco on Geary Street. At the end of the month, it will move a block away to permanent digs at the former San Francisco Press Club building, where class will be held in wood-paneled ballrooms under golden chandeliers.
Despite the unorthodox setting, SF Flex has many of the attributes of traditional high schools, with academic support, sports teams and social activities like dances and field trips.
Students can choose from 130 courses -- including 15 advanced placement classes, five languages, marketing, game design or oceanography.
Teachers help students when they have questions, and they also pull students out of classes for lectures, debates, science labs or other activities. Otherwise, the students are expected to learn on their own during the traditional four years of high school. But they can move quickly through subjects they excel at and pace themselves through more challenging topics.
The school is a model that will likely be replicated over the next decade in traditional public schools, said Michael Horn, executive director of the nonpartisan Innosight Institute, a think tank on education and health reform.
"I think the bulk of the growth will be in these hybrid settings," he said.
The new charter school is operated by the nonprofit Flex Public Schools, but has ties with a for-profit company, K12, a provider of online kindergarten through high school courses. SF Flex rents each student's computer and buys the online courses from K12, where Flex co-founder Kushner is a vice president. He said he has no official role at the school.
Eventually, SF Flex plans to accommodate 400 to 500 high school students. It has the authorization to add middle school grades.
A week into the school's existence, the swanky Monaco conference room-turned-classroom was quiet -- save for some whispered conversations and the clicking of keyboards.
Some students worked quickly and had enough time for a quick game of computer solitaire toward the end of class. Others studied through a 10-minute break -- some opting to play a Jeopardy-style game that challenged their Spanish vocabulary and grammar.
They came to the school with a wide array of personal stories.
One student is a Russian competitive ice skater. Another is a home-schooled teen who had never attended a school outside of home. Another switched high schools three years running, hated each one and fell academically behind each year.
The latter, Tikiya Hassan, commutes to the school from Vallejo with her mother, who works in San Francisco.
"I felt no school actually fit me," said the 17-year-old junior. "I knew I was going to find somewhere."
Now she is determined to catch up and graduate on time.
"You've got to be focused and determined to get there," Hassan said. "You can't get there on hope and a wish."
For more information about SF Flex Academy, go to www.k12.com/sfflex.