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Inside AltSchool, a Network of "Micro" Schools Founded by a Former Googler

Google’s ex Head of Personalization is now head of a new kind of school system.

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    AltSchool is a network of small schools with a big idea - bring the innovation of Silicon Valley into the classroom. Jessica Aguirre reports. (Published Thursday, March 5, 2015)

    AltSchool is a network of small schools with a big idea - bring the innovation of Silicon Valley into the classroom.

    A “micro” school model of opening small campuses and centralizing administration makes AltSchool nimble, according to founder Max Ventilla.

    “It lets us iterate very quickly and improve very, very quickly and validate for others that this is actually an approach that can work,” he says.

    Ventilla is former Head of Personalization at Google and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He says too often schools resist change.

    “The point of education is to prepare our kids for the world that they’re going to actually experience as adults. Being behind the times as a school is a kind of fundamental failing,” Ventilla says. “We should actually have schools that are ahead of the times.”

    The idea at AltSchool is to combine custom technology built by an in-house team of engineers with the back-to-the basics approach of a one-room schoolhouse.

    There are no assigned grades, instead students of different ages share the same classroom. AltSchool eschews standardized tests. Two teachers oversee each class, and there is no principal.

    Each student has a personalized “playlist” - a tailored set of educational activities each week.

    Maria Ralph, an AltSchool parent, says, “Peter’s goals are Peter’s goals. He’s not competing against anyone else or their standards. It’s really about him challenging himself.”

    Cameras record the classroom and teachers use the video to study what works. And tuition? It’s around $20,000 in San Francisco (tuition varies at locations opening this fall in Palo Alto and Brooklyn, New York).

    “I was skeptical about AltSchool when I first showed up on campus,” says Mary Jo Madda, a former middle school teacher who now works for EdSurge, an independent information resource and community for education technology. “I think the fact that it’s tuition based immediately sent me on this mentality of, oh, they have a lot of money so clearly they’re doing good things.”

    Madda says she has visited other private schools with high tuition that lack the innovative culture she sees at AltSchool.

    “It’s interesting to me to see AltSchool taking the money and using it in the way that they are, going along with this micro school process, putting it in a central location and then spreading those resources out to these very small scenarios as opposed to having one large school system.”

    It’s those large school systems that could benefit one day if Ventilla’s vision comes true.

    “We’re ultimately trying to create Montessori 2.0,” he says.

    Both public schools and private schools offer Montessori education. And that’s a model Ventilla hopes to replicate with AltSchool.

    “That has the potential to at once be the most desirable thing we could want for our own kids but also something that can be intensely accessible for all kids,” he says.

    AltSchool has raised $33 million from venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. Just this week the company announced new executive hires from Uber and Google.

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