In a world where wealthy urbanites fill out comprehensive private school applications for kindergarteners, and academic pedigree is sold as the main pathway to a financially secure future, getting your kids into the same elementary school as Elon Musk’s children would be pretty exciting.
But getting them into a school actually founded by Musk, the billionaire genius behind SpaceX and Tesla Motors? That would be an absolute coup.
And, as you may have heard, such a school exists. It’s called Ad Astra, Latin for “to the stars,” and it’s in southern California. But with no known website or application process, the school is something of a mystery to parents who’d love to enroll their children.
“I heard about it through a friend of a friend, actually from several friends of mine, who would love for her kids to go to the school,” Christina Simon, the author of a book and a blog about the Los Angeles private school scene, tells Quartz. “And then another friend said she wanted her kids to go there; I got probably 20 or so reader e-mails, they want their kids to go—’How can I get an application?’—and I don’t have the answers.”
Simon tells Quartz that she first heard of the school back in September. News of the unconventional education set-up began to spread further in April, when Musk discussed it in an interview for Chinese television.
Musk describes a school without the traditional grade structure of American primary education, with the goal of catering to students’ aptitudes not by arbitrary schedules but in real time, and using problem-solving methods to teach critical thinking.
If you want to teach children how engines work, he says, you wouldn’t want to first teach them all about wrenches and all about screwdrivers. You would show them the engine, and ask how they would take it apart. “Then a very important thing happens, which is that the relevance of the tools becomes apparent,” he says in the interview.
Musk, a father of five, says he started the school for his own children; they have since been joined by a handful of other pupils. (Enrollment stands at 14 now and will increase to 20 in September.) The other students reportedly are the children of employees at SpaceX, Musk’s rocketry firm, but neither Musk nor the company will confirm this.
“I’ve never seen a school open and have so much secrecy surrounding it,” Simon tells Quartz. “To be fair, it’s very new; when you have something so new, maybe before you expand it, you need to give it some time.”
Musk pulled some of his children (and Ad Astra’s first teacher) from Los Angeles’ Mirman School, a private educational institution for gifted children that requires pupils to pass an IQ test and also does not have traditional grade levels. Its alumni include former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold. A school newsletter written by a parent boasted of Musk being a “Mirman parent” after a class toured SpaceX’s factory.
“Mirman’s proven 52 year track record as an exceptional school for highly gifted children should not be disregarded, yet we have absolutely no ill will towards Elon or his new educational venture,” Geoffrey Gardner, Mirman’s spokesperson, told Quartz in an e-mail. “As an institution, we would like to see many more schools founded across the country that serve our unique population of gifted learners, and we wish him (and his students) nothing but the best.”
Musk says he decided to start his own school because other schools “weren’t doing the things that I thought should be done.” Presumably these things don’t include much of what Musk himself encountered as a student. “I mean, I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture,” he told his interviewer on Chinese TV.
Per the new Musk biography from author Ashlee Vance, Musk’s childhood in South Africa was a hard slog—he was a victim of bullies, and his lack of interest in rote learning led him to get poor grades in some subjects even as he excelled in math, physics and computer science.
But hardship is part of what molded Musk into someone determined to create his own reality. Asked in 2011 how his family produced so many entrepreneurs—Musk’s brother and cousins have worked with him at startups—Musk said, “I had a terrible upbringing. I had a lot of adversity growing up. One thing I worry about with my kids is they don’t face enough adversity.”
That’s a common enough sentiment among the affluent. As for Musk’s children? Their father reports that they “really love going to school” so much that “they actually think vacations are too long; they want to go back to school.” And that’s a common enough sentiment for a Musk.