Founded in 2013 in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, AltSchool has a roster of financial backers who would be the envy of any startup: Andreessen Horowitz, Mark Zuckerburg, Pierre Omidyar, and Peter Thiel's Founders Fund. The school was created by former Google engineer and Aardvark founder Max Ventilla, who sought to update the education system to prepare his children to graduate into the world of the 2030s. Ventilla argues that parents wouldn’t accept transportation and a health care system that are stuck in the 1900s, so he is seeking to treat education, which has changed relatively little since the Industrial Revolution, with the same reinvigorating spirit.
The school has garnered such attention from investors because of its focus on personalized learning and its dedication to developing new software that could be employed widely across the ed space. When a student enters an AltSchool, teachers create an individualized Learner Portrait, which details the student’s interests, strengths, and passions. This is then integrated with the school’s learning objectives, which are tailored to students’ individual needs. Once these elements are combined, students receive weekly “playlists,” which detail goals and activities they must complete. To complete the list, students spend about 30 percent of their day on their devices (laptops or tablets), working on game-based learning applications that help them develop academic skills. In addition to this time, students also work collaboratively on projects and take weekly field trips, whether these are in-class “trips” facilitated by outside experts who teach a new topic or outdoor adventures to new parts of the city.
The AltSchool network consists of microschools, each a single room of 20–25 students in grades pre-K through 8, plus two teachers. In this way, the network is a throwback to the one-room schoolhouse, with which schools were integrated among commercial storefronts. Four new AltSchools opened this fall, and the network now totals eight campuses distributed around San Francisco, Palo Alto, and New York City.
Monitoring students is an important part of the AltSchool model, and this is done in a variety of ways. Cameras are installed in classrooms so teachers can evaluate the effectiveness of activities, and there's even an app for parents to follow student progress. Parents, teachers, and students also meet to evaluate students’ portfolios of work and modify learning plans.
AltSchool is a private B-corporation, or Benefit Corporation, meaning that it in addition to turning a profit (AltSchools are private, for-profit schools), the organization aims to have a positive impact on society, which is part of a B-corporation’s legal documents. Its yearly tuition currently runs just under $21,000 — a price that, while high, is generally lower than that of top private schools in the areas in which AltSchools are located. It is also worth noting that 40 percent of AltSchool students are on some sort of financial aid (and teachers do not know which of their students are receiving financial help).
What are the outcomes of AltSchool’s innovation?
In the two years since its founding, long-term outcomes have not emerged yet — but with the starry profiles of the network’s investors (and immense backing budget), AltSchools are ones to watch in the coming years. While it is difficult to gauge how students will do once they finish at the schools, the reputation that AltSchools have built has made them attractive to investors — with $100 million raised in May — and prospective families alike. The new AltSchool that opened in Brooklyn this fall received 900 applications for the 60 available spots.
In testimonials about their experiences with the school, parents explain how kids are thrilled to go to class, and cite the gains they see in curiosity and intellectual engagement at home. One mother describes how her six-year-old went from being a timid public school student to a thriving AltSchool learner who was excited to receive her own books and bookshelf from her teacher.
AltSchool teachers seem to be especially enthusiastic about the network’s pedagogical methods. Whether in testimonials on the AltSchool site or in news articles published in external outlets, teachers often talk about how the AltSchool system really allows them to get to know their students, and how closely they work with engineers who are always at the school, trying to understand how they can improve the technology so that educators themselves can spend more time focusing on students.
How is AltSchool’s innovation relevant to the larger ed space?
The reason that so many investors are interested in collaborating with AltSchool is because the network is looking to do more than create a collection of microschools. The main goal of the organization is to create software that consolidates and facilitates the many facets of K–12 education — from admissions to enrollment to teaching to connecting with parents. The goal, in turn, is for this software to be widely implemented in schools across the country and possibly the world. The AltSchool team is composed in equal parts of educators, engineers, and operators, all working together to see how the product they create works in their own classrooms. The AltSchool network is certainly not the only group trying to solve these problems — there are many education technology companies trying to address school needs via streamlined platforms — but it is the only organization to have created schools around its product, with the ultimate objective of improving education and the world at large.
AltSchool is also innovating the way we think of school networks. As opposed to opening several large schools that need massive infrastructure efforts and expensive land acquisition, the AltSchool microschools, TechCrunch explains, offer low-cost, small-space solutions to the increased demand for schools in urban areas.
*This link will lead you to the Dogpatch AltSchool, the first school founded in the network. (Repost: https://www.noodle.com/articles/innovative-schools-2015#altschool)