by Chris Boyette, CNN
(CNN) Like many students his age this time of year, Luke Gulley, 16, sits at a desk in a small classroom waiting for his lessons to begin. What sets this young man’s experience apart from most other students is that while many public schools across the country are dealing with overcrowding, Luke is the only kid in his class.
Luke is a student at Fusion Academy, a chain of private for-profit schools with 12 locations in California that boasts a highly personalized curriculum and a 1:1 student-teacher ratio.
On Friday, the New York State Education Department approved Fusion Academy’s application to operate in New York. Classes will begin this week at campuses in Long Island and Manhattan, with a third scheduled to open in Westchester in January, according to school officials.
Fusion was founded by Michelle Rose Gilman in 1989 as a tutoring center. It grew into an alternative, hands-on approach to educating a special brand of students, grades 6-12.
“Our students are the kids who have not been successful in traditional education,” Gilman said, “They could be kids with learning disabilities like ADHD, maybe they have social issues, like having been bullied, or maybe they are gifted and aren’t challenged enough in other schools.”
The idea behind Fusion is a completely personalized education experience, from how the courses are taught to when.
“School is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.” said Steve Racelis, director of marketing for American Education Group, which owns the school. “Students can work out what schedule works best for them.”
Luke, who is in the 11th grade, runs his own lighting and entertainment services company, LG Productions. “Running a business and going to traditional school wasn’t working,” he said.
Racelis said some students at one of the California campuses were professional surfers. “They’d surf all morning and then start classes at noon,” he said.
This flexibility also attracts other athletes who may be off competing and actors who have to leave for shoots.
“It’s not like class is going to go on without you,” Gilman said. “When you have one student sitting in front of one teacher, you can totally customize the class for that student. The teacher knows the student, their strengths and weaknesses.”
“You get to really talk to your teachers,” Luke said. “You connect, which makes class less boring. Instead of writing a book report in English class, I could write up a cover letter for my business.”
Gilman estimates about 70% of the students at Fusion go on to four-year colleges and universities, but she is quick to point out that given the kinds of students that flock to the academy, some of them never intended to attend school to begin with.
Fusion Academy’s class schedule is a la carte, allowing students to take as few or as many classes as necessary. The average full-time student’s annual tuition comes to $40,000 to $45,000. There is no financial aid.
With that price tag, students also have access to a wide array of course offerings to cater to their unique educational needs, including yoga classes and a professional recording studio at each campus.
The school has a period built into the day for students of all ages to interact, do schoolwork and relax in a laid-back, comfortable atmosphere.
“The students talk, socialize and get homework done,” Gilman said.
Though numerous studies and teachers’ groups point to smaller class sizes as being an important factor in student success, the class size – or lack thereof – is what worries some education experts about Fusion.
“This is a very expensive, very specialized approach for a tiny number of students,” said Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, “Social skills are very important goals of learning — e.g., learning to work with others - and those will not be developed in a class of one.”
Leonie Haimson also knows a thing or two about class size. As executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters, she advocates for class size reduction in public schools.
“The vast majority of parents and students benefit from classroom debate and discussion. A big part of what education is all about is interacting, intellectually and socially.”
Haimson sees a trend in class sizes in private schools versus public schools. As private school class sizes go down, public school sizes go up.
“Poor kids need the same thing as rich kids but more,” she said, pointing to PS 114, an elementary school in Brooklyn where one teacher is leading 60 students.