Solana Beach's Fusion Academy and Learning Center has been working to make education personal for 20 years. Students learn in a one-to-one ratio, in a fully customized education that includes flexible scheduling, counseling services and support for students who need it most.
Founder Michelle Rose Gilman loves that Fusion not only doesn't work like a traditional school, it doesn't look like a traditional school. It's a cozy, family-style environment tucked into a shopping center off Highway 101. Students are coming and going, working on homework in a relaxed Homework Cafe or taking class in one of 28 classrooms decorated in the teacher's personal style. A Boston terrier named R2D2 is often trotting down the hallways.
"When I first walked in here and looked around, I thought, 'What the heck is this?' It didn't look like any school I'd ever seen," parent Ann Aarons said. "But after I finished walking around, I had a smile on my face; I knew this was exactly the place for my son."
Aarons commutes from Beverly Hills every Sunday, living in a rental until Thursday, just to ensure that her 16-year-old son, David, attends Fusion.
She looked everywhere in Los Angeles for a school to fit her son, who has learning disabilities. Discouraged by the fact that she could not find a place in a city as large as Los Angeles, she said she even considered starting her own school before a colleague tipped her off to Fusion.
Right away, she noticed a difference with David, who used to call home daily from school because he was so miserable. Now, Aarons said, he is so excited to go to school he sings while he gets ready in the morning. His confidence has also grown. He used to struggle to meet friends at his old school; at Fusion, he started his own school club.
"This place has been a miracle to my family," Aarons said.
Serving grades six through 12, Fusion has a diverse population that includes students who have learning disabilities or emotional difficulties, to advanced students who are not challenged hard enough in traditional school. The school also offers tutoring and classes for credit.
With the one-on-one model, teachers are able to move at the child's own pace.
"We're able to fill educational holes because we can see them," Gilman said.
Students set their own schedules, coming and going from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The flexible scheduling helps students who are working actors, athletes, or students who work or have internships.
The Homework Cafe (where students must have their work signed off on before they leave for the day), group P.E. classes and school clubs and activities give the school a social component.
Gilman started teaching at age 21; her first job was in a Florida public school where she had 22 severely emotionally disturbed children in a trailer with no windows and no teacher's aid.
"I thought, 'I'm not changing the world this way' and I wanted to change the world," Gilman said.
A year later, she was working at a student day-treatment facility in California. The facility lost its funding and she showed up to work one day to find the doors locked. The children showed up to learn, so she took them and her fellow teachers back to her apartment for school.
"Since that day, I never looked back," Gilman said.
She said the experience was what drove her to try to find an alternative educational model that worked for the kids who struggled to learn in a traditional setting.
She started the school 20 years ago in her Cardiff home's garage, and it grew so large that they moved to their Solana Beach location in 2002. The Solana Beach location started out with just seven classrooms and has undergone several renovations. Gilman said they have outgrown this space as well and will move to a new Solana Beach location in May.
Additionally, Fusion will open two new campuses next year in Santa Monica and Orange County.
"I absolutely had no idea any of this would happen," Gilman said.
To learn more about Fusion, visit fusionsandiego.com.