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An innovative new academy opens

A neighborhood school for “purpose-drive teens” welcomes its first classes of students.


“Teens are capable of impressive real world accomplishments,” says Michael Strong, founder of the Academy of Thought and Industry, a new private high school in the neighborhood geared to “purpose-driven teens.”

His aim is to set them free to make great accomplishments. With an impressive background of his own in innovative education and entrepreneurship, Strong has two other academies to his credit: one in Austin, Texas, and the other in New York City.

On August 27, the new school opened the doors of its stately building at the corner of Jackson and Scott Streets, which formerly housed the Sterne School. It has been totally renovated with such details as a maker’s space in a former garage, several rooms set up with large tables for Socratic discussion, a math room, several kitchens (since purpose-driven students fix their own meals and snacks) and a laboratory with gleaming new equipment that will have to compete for student attention with stunning views of San Francisco Bay and Alta Plaza Park.

Crowning it all on the top floor is what Strong describes as “our glorious library,” and he does not exaggerate. The library retains period details, plenty of shelf space and even more stunning views of the Bay, Alcatraz and points everywhere. Students have small outdoor spaces in which to contemplate the view, but their primary recreation area is Alta Plaza, just reopened across Jackson Street.

ATI’s initial student body consists of fewer than 20 teens, mostly juniors and seniors, but the school is designed to accommodate up to 60 students, and Strong anticipates adding to the enrollment as classes get underway. There is a core faculty of four, with eight additional teachers in a variety of curricula. Salaries and costs, Strong says, are comparable to other elite private schools in San Francisco.

Strong, born to an 18-year-old father and a 16-year-old mother who dropped out of high school, was accepted into Harvard University when he was 18, without his parents’ knowledge or support. He left Harvard to go to St. John’s University because he was already interested in Socratic discussion — engaging students in questions and answers to stimulate critical thinking — and St. John’s great books course. After finishing first in his class, pocketing the senior essay prize and a math prize, he headed to the University of Chicago for graduate school. Chicago public schools were then still heavily influenced by philosopher-author-educator Mortimer J. Adler and University of Chicago president and later chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins. Strong believed, along with Adler and Hutchins, that public schools needed to create more opportunities for students to think and reflect. So while working on his dissertation, he began training teachers in the Chicago public schools to lead Socratic seminars.

“Traditional teaching is so didactic,” he says. “When you introduce students to Socratic dialogue, it’s like liberating prisoners.”

The bureaucracy of public education, though, eventually prompted Strong to move to charter schools. In a career that has included creating innovative and successful middle and high schools, both public and private, from Alaska to New Mexico and Texas, training teachers and promoting Socratic dialogue along the way, Strong cites successes: statistics on graduates of his schools and individual achievements such as the Austin student who founded a music festival before graduation.

Strong spends several months of each year in Senegal, along with his wife, a Senegalese entrepreneur. “We live in a neighborhood in which I am the only white person; the children constantly want to touch my strange blond hair,” he says. The two are working to create a company that provides jobs for adults in Senegal and innovative education for young people there that is aligned with their culture.

In TEDx talks, private discussion and a blog titled “The Purpose of Education,” Strong pushes for education incorporating Socratic dialogue and enabling teens to pursue their dreams. And as to his own credentials for educating others, he says: “Most importantly, I have two grown children who are healthy, happy and well.”

As ATI welcomes its first student body, Strong says the school intends to provide a personalized education that empowers students to pursue their dreams, develop amazing projects and achieve excellence. “I want students to take the initiative to make the world a better place, while living full and joyful lives,” he says.