AltSchool Opens Up
A small private school is anxious to test its personalized learning model in the “real” world of education.
By Wayne D’Orio
Can a few hundred children in eight private schools change the future of public education?
That might sound crazy when you consider there were more than 50 million students spread throughout 100,000 schools in the country last year. But nevertheless, that’s the plan being rolled out by former Google executive Max Ventilla. His company, AltSchool, is a small group of microschools that exist in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. The guiding philosophy is to maximize student engagement by creating individual learning plans for each student.
This set of for-profit schools has already gotten an outsize share of publicity, from a lengthy piece in March’s New Yorker to stories in the New York Times, Education Week, and Fortune. The 150-employee company has gotten a large amount of funding, too, raising more than $130 million from such heavyweights as Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, the San Francisco-based venture capital firm Founders Fund, and John Doerr.
Yet what marks the schools, in contrast to Ventilla’s ultimate ambition to “bring the future faster,” is how incrementally they seem to be moving. “We have the luxury to be incredibly patient, making sure the gains compound,” says the 35-year-old founder.
Nonetheless, AltSchool is ready to take the next step toward achieving its overarching goal. The company will choose two or three partners this fall, allowing these outside operators to use the framework to run their own schools. As AltSchool continues to whittle requests from more than 200 potential partner applicants, Ventilla has announced the second part of the AltSchool Open program. Starting later this fall, the school will begin the process of picking another 10–12 partners who will be expected to start their own school models in the fall of 2018. (While the official sign-up won’t begin until later this year, Administrator readers are invited to visit this page to begin the application process now: http://open.alt.school/scholastic.) The first few new AltSchools are expected to look mostly like the current ones—i.e., small and private—but COO Coddy Johnson says the next set of partners is expected to open the school’s framework to include public, religious, and even international schools.
Changing the School Experience
To get the full measure of AltSchool, let’s go back to the model’s origin. Ventilla began the first school in 2013 after a thoroughly desultory experience trying to find a preschool for his oldest daughter. “It’s somewhat shocking that quality education comes from scarcity, not from scale,” he told the audience at SXSWedu this year. When he thought about the purpose of school—to prepare kids for the future—he realized schools needed to be overhauled.
AltSchool avoids the top-down method by eschewing principals and instead having teachers who are intricately networked. The company has an unusual distribution of workers; its 150 employees are split evenly among teachers, “operators,” and “engineers.” It’s important to know Ventilla’s background here. In his last position at Google, he was responsible for tying together various large products seamlessly—“cross-Google personalization” in tech-speak. What this means is that he understands networks and knows how to reap meaningful information from large amounts of data.
But right now, the AltSchool model is purposefully small. His first school started with 20 students and four teachers. Locations typically operate at about half capacity in their first year, allowing teachers, students, and parents to settle in. The schools, which cost about $26,000 per student, are mostly PreK to fourth or fifth grade; several middle schools feature grades six through eight. But all schools incorporate mixed-band classrooms where students may vary in age by two to three years.
Despite Ventilla’s tech background, AltSchool is not overly techy. “We haven’t invented a new way to learn; we’re improving the experience,” says Carolyn Wilson, one of the school’s founding teachers and now the company’s director of education.
She says Ventilla is “driven by a passion for understanding how kids learn.” Despite having no previous background in education, Wilson says the founder is well versed in educational philosophy, from Piaget to Papert. AltSchool’s best comparison may be to call it “Montessori 2.0,” a term Ventilla once used to describe the network.
“We are about learning how technology can support real people in a physical classroom doing non-digital work,” Ventilla says. “We want to go beyond self-pacing. One of the real bottlenecks to personalizing learning is documentation. We want to move to where educational assessment is done ambiently. That’s the central goal of meeting children where they are.”
Candidates, Bridges, and Baseball
Inside the schools, kids typically complete skill-based activities in the morning, while tackling project-based work in the afternoons. About 20 percent of students’ day at the Brooklyn school is computer-based, says head teacher Jamie Stewart. The students use Khan Academy, Lexia Learning, and Newsela, among other programs.
When I visited, just days before the Bernie Sanders–Hillary Clinton Brooklyn debate in April, students were busy creating posters for their candidate of choice. Other projects have included a report on the nearby Brooklyn Bridge and a trip to Citi Field that showed how math and statistics are liberally used in baseball.
The schools outsource gym, and in Brooklyn this past winter that meant heading to a local gym. “They’re really good at Zumba,” Stewart says, noting how well they mixed with the senior citizens they shared the class with. In better weather, students trudge uphill to the nearby pier. One day, the 3- and 4-year-olds learned the word steep as they walked to the pier.
Each student gets what is called a “playlist,” a combination to-do list, calendaring gizmo, and documentation tool to guide their daily work. The playlist guides their daily work, in and out of the classroom. Parent Rachel Luna raved about the software that connects both parent and student with the schoolwork. She says her daughter, 7-year-old Ava, completed her playlist while on vacation this year, and she is pleased that she can use it to easily inform the staff if she is running late or her daughter has a doctor’s appointment. (I viewed the software quickly on Luna’s phone, but wasn’t permitted to test it out on my own. When asked if he would ever spin off the software, separate from the school, Ventilla left open the possibility, but, he admits, “that’s really not our focus.”)
The big goal for AltSchool and its partners is to constantly adapt, making sure students are doing work that is interesting to them so they remain engaged. “We adapt both within lessons and between lessons,” Ventilla says. “We want educators who are willing to make major changes to how they teach on a daily and weekly basis, not on an annual basis.”
Luna and her daughter spoke of how much they liked the school, but it was a comment from Ava’s tutor that speaks most directly to AltSchool’s appeal. The tutor, who teaches second grade in public school, raved about how Ava’s motivation has increased this year. Referring to the school’s personalized approach, she says, simply, “Everybody should learn like this.”
How Quickly Can Change Happen?
As AltSchool enters the current phase of its plan, it faces two major questions. Can it scale its school to other models? This is a notoriously tricky step that has been difficult to navigate for other promising schools, such as Rocketship. However, some innovative models have succeeded: KIPP now has nearly 200 schools, and Big Picture Learning, another startup that focuses on student-centered learning, has 65 schools throughout the country, and more overseas.
Should Ventilla and company clear this hurdle, the next challenge is even bigger. If AltSchool becomes a national model, can its influence spill over into public schools and help bring about the revolution that started Ventilla on this path in the first place?
Regarding the enormity of the challenge, Ventilla leans on history: “We underestimate how dramatic change will be in the long term. But we overestimate how quickly things will catch hold. The curve is flat for a long time,” he says. “Amazon started out selling books. The leap was when they allowed other people to sell through their platform. We’ve always supported our schools in a way that would transfer.”
“The real trap in education is not to worry about what will happen in 10 years. You can go and offer a quick fix, and then you find you have five plans in 10 years and four different leaders and no progress,” he adds.
Ventilla thinks AltSchool, through its partners-to-be, is set up to take advantage of crowd-sharing in a big way. “The more people participate, the better the system. We believe it’s possible to get that kind of dynamic.”
Photos: Courtesy of AltSchool