We built a school

Seven families came up with the plan: build a school that meets their needs and expectations. Renée Lawson talks through the school’s foundation, from inception to its current class of 250

It all started with a dinner party. A group of parents from the San Francisco area got together in May 2010, and the idea that came out of their dinner conversation was just a little audacious: They decided to start their own grade school.

Within a month, the group officially incorporated as a nonprofit; by July, they’d secured a space for classes; and in September, they opened their doors to their first group of eighteen students.

“It’s the classic San Francisco way,” says Renée Lawson, one of the founders of Alta Vista School. “We take an idea and go with it.”

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Renée Lawson describes
her time with Zynga.

Modern Counsel: What is “social gaming”?

Renée Lawson: Zynga is an entertainment company—more like the movie business in that it is hit-driven.

MC: Can you describe your switch from a law firm to a tech/entertainment company?

RL: It was a classic start-up. On my first day I worked at a shared table in an industrial space where people brought their dogs to work.

MC: And how have the first five years been?

RL:  That was pre-IPO, and
we didn’t know if the company would be a leader. But we had some big hits as well as a crash. I say I’m the legal equivalent of an ER doctor, gaining far more skills in five years than in fifteen years of private practice.

Lawson isn’t kidding, and she can speak to northern California’s business culture firsthand. She is the deputy general counsel of Zynga, the social gaming company behind Words With Friends, Chess With Friends, and the FarmVille series, among several others.

Lawson joined Zynga in fall 2010—the same autumn when Alta Vista taught its first class—after working in private practice for fifteen years. Between cofounding the school and joining a start-up in the young and growing video game industry, she rightfully claims it was an exciting time.

“There was a lot of adrenaline,” she says. “I don’t think I appreciated start-ups until we started the school. It’s the thing you are constantly thinking about. I thought I was a lifer at my old law firm and didn’t think I’d leave. Now I think I understand serial entrepreneurs.”

The impetus for Alta Vista School wasn’t just dinner and an idea; the cofounders spotted a need and sought to fill it. The seven families that cofounded the school wanted to build a neighborhood school that focused on STEAM—science, technology, engineering, arts, and math—education. The school’s current board of directors includes three lawyers and a judge, and Lawson is the board’s president.

Another driver behind the school was an opportunity. Lawson and others knew an educator, Ed Walters, who could help build a new type of system. “My own father was a teacher and an administrator,” says Lawson. “He says, ‘Ed is a true educator, that they don’t build many like him.’ He engages everyone with his natural sense of curiosity. It was his lifetime dream to create a school. We knew we had to do this.”

Walters serves as head of school, leading the faculty and staff who taught 250 children in the 2015-16 school year.

With class sizes of sixteen children and two teachers in each room, the school takes a progressive, hands-on approach grounded in the scientific method. “It starts with observation that forms a hypothesis, which links us to creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication,” explains Lawson.

For example, kindergarten students are given a potato chip and asked to figure out how to send it somewhere without breaking it, an exercise that requires creative critical thinking.

The school also has a teaching garden that teaches students about permaculture and sustainability, how rainwater is captured, and the value of sunshine, pollinators, and other urban wildlife, as well as nutrition and wellness.

The addition of the “A” to the more familiar STEM emphasis is not simply to appease arts lovers. Proponents of STEAM say the arts can spark students’ imagination and creative thinking. Lawson says this is easily seen at companies like Zynga and Apple. “Design is the connector,” she points out. “Creativity is what it means to innovate. For example, we have a strong improv program that helps form public speaking skills.”

STEAM advocates also say the arts components draw in students who aren’t inspired by math or science but who might see those disciplines as means to achieve a creative goal.

“I don’t think I appreciated start-ups until we started the school. […] I thought I was a lifer at my old law firm and didn’t think I’d leave. Now I think I understand serial entrepreneurs.”

The admissions policies at Alta Vista are expressly blind to an ability to pay the $23,000 annual tuition. Students, not parents, are interviewed and offered a seat if it is determined the school would be right for the child. Only upon acceptance do conversations with parents about finances come into play. “We have students whose parents pay the full amount, and some receive partial grants and some full grants,” Lawson says.

The school receives no state funding even as it manages the famously high costs of real estate in the city by the bay. Alta Vista partners with a nonprofit called S.M.A.R.T., which connects high-potential middle-school students from under-resourced communities who might benefit from a specialized education. Lawson says diversity that reflects San Francisco’s population is a fundamental objective of the school.

Lawson doesn’t simply check her work in a gaming company at the door when she advises the school. “Gamification does have a relationship to education,” she says. “In fact, Zynga’s independent nonprofit, Zynga.org, uses games to support nonprofits.”

But Words With Friends isn’t part of any class assignments. Students have access to technology but, by design, it’s treated as a support tool in the learning experience.

Maybe that’s surprising, given the location of the school and the culture in which many of the students’ parents work. But everything about the school—and Renée Lawson—is about doing the unexpected and getting it done in short order.