The Bullis Charter School Difference

BCS Second Grades try game design using Scratch software
Written by lalahpolitico
BCS second graders in a Maker Space. Here the class is learning to design a simple game to about eating healthy

BCS second graders in a Maker Space set up at Egan. Here the class is learning to design a simple game about eating healthy as part of an integrated Project-Based Learning unit. The teaching space includes Lego Wedo kits. Other grades design, assemble and program simple robots using kits.

UPDATE May 20, 2019. This post was written 5 years ago. Since then, the competition from the charter has spurred our Los Altos School District to 1) add project-based learning into their regular program to some extent, 2) add some STEM elements to its program, and 3) implement a teacher coaching program to selectively improve teacher performance. Would any of this have happened without BCS gaining enrollment while LASD lost enrollment — aka without LASD’s loss of ‘market share? ‘ If you are an LASD parent, thank BCS for competing with LASD. Your child now enjoys an improved LASD program because BCS exists. If BCS suddenly disappeared, do you really think LASD would continue to innovate?

Original article:
People often ask, “What’s different about Bullis Charter School? Why have another public school system if the second system is about the same as the first?” Lalahpolico had a chance to visit both the Egan and Blach BCS campuses a couple of weeks ago and that visit helped to shed light on the answer.

The short answer is that the two systems are not the same. They differ in the curriculum, teaching methods, longer time at school and the teachers they attract. As an alternative public school, the charter follows all state content standards adopted by the California State Board of Education for English-Language Arts, Mathematics, History-Social Science and Science. California has now adopted the Common Core State Standards for ELA and Math and therefore, so has BCS. Furthermore, BCS students take the same standardized tests as LASD. Yet as a type of alternative school, BCS does have a different educational philosophy and more freedom from two bureaucracies: the California Department of Education and the teacher union’s hiring, assessment, retention and work rules.


TEACHERS: Hire the Whole Teacher

A key difference is the teachers. Bullis Charter School looks to hire broadly talented individuals who not only can teach the subject or grade level, but also bring life skills, hobbies and passions directly to the job. BCS hires the whole person, just as it teaches the whole child.  Teachers are encouraged to share their skills, hobbies and passions with the kids through co-curriculars (blocks of time on Fridays for multi-grade level classes and projects) and extra-curriculars (blocks of time before and after the instructional day). Created by the teachers, all the the co-corriculars are tied to academic standards and are taken by all students as part of the charter’s regular program.

Teacher bring their passions to BCS. A new teacher was formerly a band drummer in the Northwest. Now BCS has added steel drum to its music room and repetoire

Teachers bring their passions to BCS. A new teacher was formerly in a steel pans ensemble in the Northwest. Now BCS has added steel drum to its music room and repertoire at Egan.  Shown here are lots of xylophones. And a rug where kinders play singing games with their teacher.

There are 3 broad areas of co-curriculars:
Global Citizenship (e.g. Mythology and Modern Adventures, Pen-Pals, Public Speaking in Mandarin)
Math, Science, Technology (e.g. Edible Math, Pirate Treasure Mappings, Tech Challenge) Performing and Visual Arts (e.g. Fiddle Class, Paper Cutting, Tap Dance).

Extra-curriculars are also created/taught by the BCS teaching staff, and this is another way to share their passions and interests. Classes range from Beads and Things, Ultimate Frisbee, Yoga, Scrap Booking,Steel Drums,to choirs, bands, and dance teams to name a few.

Each teacher is encouraged and allowed to innovate all year, every year.  Teacher-led change happens quickly because each group of grade level teachers meets routinely to discuss what works and what doesn’t. They can learn from each other’s experience on a regular basis and are able to make improvements as they see fit. To make a change, faculty just run it by Principal Wanny Hershey and get a quick decision.  Teachers can be agile, trying out and learning new things themselves. This keeps the teachers fresh, engaged, and exciting for kids to be around. With teachers like that, kids can learn how to learn earlier than ever.  There are ample opportunities for “student-driven learning,” including independent reading, book clubs, and their writing portfolio.


At Egan, inside the Multipurpose Room. Here is where the 7th grade stages it's annual production of Midsummer Night's Dream. Performance arts are an important strand at BCS.

At Egan, inside the BCS Multipurpose Room. Every grade level performs grade-level plays here. Students practice character development skits for school-wide assemblies.  All the performing arts are an important activity at BCS.

All teachers get healthcare and participate in the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS). BCS offers extensive staff development, expecting that beyond being fully credentialed, teachers will become National Board Certified Teachers as well. All teachers receive training that is central to BCS philosophy of education. For example to understand different student learning styles, all staff complete a Schools Attuned training. Depending on the teachers area of expertise, they attend relevant regional or national education conferences for  – science, reading, technology,  or music, etc. – to keep up with the latest approaches.

A teacher does not become a BCS teacher unless he or she highly values the opportunity to express creativity “on the job” and is comfortable with a non-tenure system. [Lalahpolitico: California union teachers get tenure after only 2 1/2 years! ]

At BCS teachers drive decisions on what learning aids and supplies to buy, not administration. BCS teachers, not just administration, collaborate to develop student blended learning units that cross subjects and blocks of time in order to reinforce concepts across language arts and STEAM topics.


colored construction paper shapes

Kinders follow the state Mandarin curriculum, learning numbers, shapes and colors in both languages.


Teachers may spend time with other teachers co-teaching, especially for co-curriculars and extra-curriculars which usually blend many disciplines. In this way teachers may observe each other and learn a few new “smooth moves.” Teaching can be an isolating profession – in a typical public school an adult spends all day talking only to kids.  Adults need other adults. At Bullis Charter School teachers are always getting together to collaborate, discussing what works and what to retune. As a group, teachers design new learning units, plan how to best use the two-campus facilities, and of course they may co-teach.


a fourth grade classroom. A unit combine learning about green turtles and geography of the globe by contacting schools and people around the world who follow the turtles annual migration.

A first-grade classroom. A year long unit combines learning about the biology of leatherback turtles and the oceans as well as world geography by videoconferencing with other schools and emailing people around the world (pen-pals) who follow the turtles’ annual lifecycle and migrations.


Essential Buzz Words – individualized, blended & project-based

Lots of older residents of Los Altos and Mountain View are not acquainted with the buzz words for “new” trends in public education.

Research shows that some kids learn primarily by seeing, others primarily by hearing, and yet others by including movement.  Better programs teach and reinforce a concept multiple ways for visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners and may throw in some tasting and smelling too! Blended learning & project-based learning have been shown to measurably increase individual student’s engagement, learning, and retention.  And it improves soft skills like self-direction, co-operation, emotional self-regulation, etc.  [Lalahpolitico: And dare we say happiness?]

An example of blended learning…in kindergarten, the math concept of shapes is reinforced during the 20 minutes a day of Mandarin practice when the kids learn the shape names in Mandarin too.  In 5th grade when the students are learning human muscle groups, they learn to sculpt a wire frame model of the human body in art class, incorporating math concepts such as proportions. Later they work with clays to layer on the various muscle groups onto the frame. The PE units during this time will focus the student on working and strengthening his or her own muscle groups.

Our local school district, LASD,  is now trying to implement what it says is “individualized learning, blended learning & project-based learning.”   But Bullis Charter School is the real deal and has had all these features of the “Finland education model” since BCS’s inception in 2003. Each year when Principal Wanny Hershey recruits new teachers and new staff, all are trained in the Schools Attuned methodology. It provides teachers with the skills to determine a child’s focused learning goals and with strategies to address individual needs in the regular classroom setting. In this way, the entire BCS staff is steeped in the method.

[Lalahpolitico: LASD has had hired 5 or so coaches who teach no classes themselves, but instead are helping its tenured teachers adapt. Because District teachers have tenure and there is very low turnover, the only way to incorporate new teaching methods is through retraining exiting teachers. Lalahpolitico is sure LASD will ultimately succeed with enough Los Altos Education Foundation donations and the passage of time. This new direction at LASD – a “culture” which has long resisted alternatives to its very traditional neighborhood program – should be credited to the competition for students that BCS has unleashed. Research has shown that when 6% of district students have voted with their feet by transferring to a new charter school, the affected district finally takes notice and reacts. “School Choice” is promoting some change at LASD at last!  The authors of Prop. 39 and Milton Friedman really were geniuses about the positive effects on school districts of reducing their local monopoly.]


a wall of tools hung on pegboard

The tool wall at BCS at Blach. Middle schoolers will spend three weeks on a Tech Challenge. They identify an unmet need and then design and build a prototype solution – combining mechanical, structural, electronic and software elements.


Focused Learning Goals –
the role of tech, foreign language, soft skills

At Bullis Charter School individualized learning starts during kindergarten intake.  The parents are asked to reflect on their child, and share with their child’s kindergarten teacher what they perceive as their child’s strengths and weaknesses. Parents are asked to list some prioritized academic, behavior and personal goals for the year…in writing. After review by the teacher, this document becomes their child’s Focused Learning Goals (FLG). For example, a parent might report that a kinder is “too shy” compared to an elder sibling. The teacher will take steps to let the child gradually become more confident in public speaking and drama and ultimately become more outgoing.  In the 4th grade, the child begins to add a goal or two to their FLG.  By the 8th grade, kids design their own FLG — with parental and teacher review of course.

Here is a sample from a second grader’s mid-year FLG.   Reading: I will be able to summarize text, including all the characters, events and details in the appropriate order. Writing: I will be able to show rather than tell by including more descriptive details. Math: I will solve multi-step word problems with written explanations, diagrams and number sentences  Behavior: I will set a good example by working hard and staying focused on school tasks. Personal: I will learn to skateboard by taking lessons and practicing at home. The teacher givens written feedback on progress towards each goal after each trimester.

Other examples of an academic FLG goal:  a fourth grader – “I will learn my multiplication tables up to 10 times 10 by the end of the year.” Personal: ” I will learn basic guitar chords.”


A 3-d design workstation at BCI on Blach. Here the 3-d glases and a touch stylus to design a prosthetic hand for fabrication

A 3-d design workstation at Bullis Center for Innovation on Blach. Here are 3-d glases and a touch stylus to design a prosthetic hand for fabrication

Associate Teachers & Special Needs

In a public school classroom, on a daily basis, a teacher may group kids into small groups based on who needs what help at what level. This is most prevalent in younger grades and is also practiced at LASD to some extent. At BCS, Associate Teachers, certificated full-time teachers, are in every classroom and provide additional support for students who may need a differentiated program. For students requiring extra support, Associate Teachers are able to pull them into small groups or work 1:1 in order to re-teach or work on specific skills and concepts adapted to a child’s learning style or to challenge them to take their learning deeper.

These interventions can keep children with small gaps remain with their class at all times, rather than having to pull them from the classroom for 30 minutes or an hour every week, or every day. Associate Teachers are placed in classrooms based on their expertise and the needs of the class. For example, an Associate Teacher with a special education certification and experience can be assigned to a class in order to help support the classroom implementation of a student’s IEP goals; Associate Teachers with math and/or reading expertise can be placed in classrooms where there are students in need of intervention or extension in those areas.

If small interventions aren’t enough, it’s time for a formal Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to address the child’s  “special needs.”  The County’s Special Education Manager sits on the BCS IEP team and assists in developing IEPs for BCS’s special needs student. In addition, BCS contracts with the Santa Clara County Board of Education to send in special needs teachers to address any IEP.  [Lalahpolitico:  It is a fact of American educational economics that special needs spending accounts for over 70% of the growth of educational spending in the U.S. Research by state shows that identification of minor needs is on the rise, correlating positively with higher available funding. Does demand rise to meet the supply of funds? Or the reverse?]

Gifted and Talented

When students excel, more advanced programs can be quickly designed to keep them engaged and moving forward.  For example, a group of 6th-grade students who were ahead in math worked with the 7th-grade math credentialed teacher.  A 4th-grade student was given a condense 4&5 program so she could consider advancing to 6th.  Dance teams were challenged to compose and explore other styles. Advanced Mandarin students competed in speech and writing competitions.  And Associate Teachers help each student at every grade level reach for the challenges in his or her individual Focused Learning Goals.

BCS 4th graders enjoying the city gym at Blach during a recess

BCS 4th graders at Blach during a recess enjoying the hoops at the city gym – by this age, self-sorting as all boys

 Technology Difference

BCS offers technology integrated instruction. Technology skills are taught in the context of project-based units that integrate with the curricula. Third graders create movies based on their research of prominent Americans; 1st graders create podcasts to teach others about the plight of the Leatherback Turtles; 2nd graders develop Power Point presentations for their parents on Back To School Night about themselves and their goals for the year; 1st graders blog to keep the community aware of what they are working on in the classroom; 7th graders utilize online applications to track their reading progress; and 5th and 6th graders design web pages with information, pictures, and questions their research projects (states and medical respectively).

Bullis Charter School teaches kids how to use technology to create and build stuff in an age-appropriate way, but does not let technology and gamification drive the classroom instruction. For example, in second grade, BCS has an experimental unit to introduce simple game design using Scratch. The children are instructed in the difference between game playing and game designing. In the fourth grade, BCS students use kits to design, assemble and program simple robots with Lego robotics.

BCS is a beta test site for new technologies such as GoalBook, GoalPost and Kahn Academy. It has been one of the first schools to implement innovative programs such as Brainology, KidLead, and mentoring in the middle school. BCS is partnering with the Stanford Design School (dschool) to inspire creative confidence in utilizing design-thinking. BCS shares it best practices with educators from San Jose State, Notre Dame de Namur and the Silicon Valley New Teacher project.

BCS Fourth Grader teams demonstrated their lego robotics projects for the BCS Board members

BCS third grade teams demonstrated their hands-on Lego robotics projects for the BCS Board members

Field Trips

Fourth-grade students – as part of a habitat restoration project – start by partnering with the Hidden Villa to map out existing plants and animals on several hillsides surrounding an eroded area. A fourth grade unit on Gold Rush simulations culminates later in the year with a Gold Rush field trip as well as a student-hosted “gold rush day” complete with stations that teach visitors about they have learned and offer samples of food. Fifth-grade students attend a week-long outdoor science school where they learn about conservation and the sustainable ecosystem. They also attend an optional week-long trip to Washington, DC, and Williamsburg to support their learning of United States history. Sixth-grade students travel to Costa Rica, where they help with the conservation efforts for the diminishing leatherback turtle population by excavating nests…and releasing hatchlings.


 Foreign Language Difference – starting in K and staying with it…

The Bullis Charter School required curriculum for all K to 3rd graders is 20 minutes of Mandarin each day. In 4th grade, Mandarin is an elective. Starting in 5th grade Spanish is taken by all, even those who are continuing with their Mandarin.  Then in the 6th grade, every student must choose to take either Mandarin or Spanish (3 periods a week.)

class of elementary school students learning mandarin

Kindergarten students learning mandarin in a Canadian school



Bullis Charter School has about 10% more instructional minutes a year than LASD. Because of the extra-curriculars, it is common to start school at 8 staying till after 4.  Many of the countries that score higher on assessments than the U.S. have longer school days and longer school years.

K – 36,900 minutes, 900 more than state required, with 30-minute overlap between AM and PM classes to build community

Grades 1-3 – 61,200 minutes, exceeding the 50,400 required
Grade 4-6 – 61,200 minutes, exceeding the 54,000 required
Grades 7&8 – 72,360 minutes, exceeding the 54,000 required
This is why there is ample time for foreign language, art, music, and drama. 

The BCS and LASD systems have virtually the same calendar year. BCS dates at school are the same dates as LASD’s.  Wouldn’t year-round school for all students be nice to have?!

8th grade classroom

BCS 8th grade classroom at Egan – much longer periods for middle schoolers

BCS grades 7 and 8 have “blocks” which are 65 minutes (1:05) long. There are a handful of half-blocks during the week, and the lunch recess is a half block at 30 minutes. There is a 2 to 3-minute interval for changing rooms between blocks.  Every week there are two back to back blocks to create a couple of  2:15 hour long blocks.  One of these is for science.  The instructional day starts at 8:00 am and ends at 3:30 pm.  In contrast, the LASD junior high schools have 46-minute ‘periods’ of time, with back to back blocks that are about 1:35  long. The instructional day at the District’s Blach Junior High School starts at 8:30 and instruction ends at 3:03 pm. At BCS Fridays are a modified schedule where all students participate about half the day in the fun special topic or skill-building co-curriculars. At LASD, the middle schoolers stay with the usual Friday grind.


a school schedule

An 8th grade BCS schedule. Combined blocks are over 2 hours long. Schedules change on a trimester basis. In addition, there are three-week intersessions which are a total break from the core curriculum and focus on a group project.

BCS educators say that middle school students, with the onset of puberty, often experience lower engagement with school. Therefore, for 7th and 8th graders  BCS divides up their school year in order to create more learning excitement.  There are three 3-week intersessions each school year, each devoted to a single individual or group project, spaced evenly throughout the school year  Each grade works together collaboratively in small groups or as an entire class to research, plan, build, and deliver something they choose by the end of the intersession. These “deep dives” are a break in regular instruction, providing a hands-on opportunity to tackle a real-world problem.

These intersessions now take place at the Bullis Center for Innovation at Blach and have themes.

In the 20013-2014 school year, the 8th graders did
1)  green architectural design
2) software application design
3) a global service project – this year hosting Chinese students

The 7th grade did
1) woodworking, sewing, cooking
2) Tech Challenge – a small group plans, designs, and fabricates a product prototype (this year one team modeled a prosthetic hand and produced it in the 3-d printer)
3) a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream (set design, casting, directing, script writing…)  staged at the Bus Barn theater


a Home Economics classroom at Blach

BCS 7th graders used this Blach kitchen classroom to learn cooking basics during one of the 3 intersessions this past year. Too much to eat! The prepared foods were shared with appreciative District Blach students and teachers.



Bullis Charter School really is a significantly different choice in public schools. Recently LASD has been touting that it is “innovating” and has “Blueprints” that say so.  It’s talking the talk, but can it actually get its teachers to walk the walk? LASD says “me too.” BCS has the proven track record.


30 pages from BCS’s 2012 charter renewal. Excellent IN-DEPTH description of their 2012 curricula which is of course, is like it’s current 2013 curricula

Town Crier article from Sept. 2010 when 7th grade was added to BCS.



About the author


Norma Schroder is an economics & market researcher by trade and ardent independent journalist, photographer and videographer by avocation. Enthralled by the growth of the tech industry over the decades, she became fascinated with the business of local politics only in the past several years.

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