What $21,000 in Tuition Can Buy

 “We’ve literally built an operating system for a 21st century school system,” says AltSchool’s founder.

(Excerpted from Bloomberg Business,  Adam Satariano)
Former Google executive Max Ventilla with $133 million from venture capitalists and Mark Zuckerberg has started  a for-profit, $21,000-a-year elementary school system.  AltSchool started with 15 students in a single classroom in 2013, and this year will have about 400 students in eight schools in San Francisco and Palo Alto. Many AltSchool parents work in the tech industry, and say they like how AltSchool lets their kids learn independently and pursue their own interests. And if the company’s packed information sessions are any indication, plenty more parents are willing to spend big to get their kids into an AltSchool classroom.

Kindergarteners line up to leave the Alamo Square AltSchool. Photographer: Timothy Archibald/Bloomberg Business


The differences between AltSchool and a typical U.S. public school are stark. AltSchool’s classes are filled with … Macbooks for teachers, Chromebooks or iPads for students, top-of-the line projectors, flat-screen televisions, art supplies, and (yes) paper books. A trained engineer works fulltime for the company, traveling from school to school to conduct science experiments. An acoustic guitar is available to play in one classroom. In another, there’s a quiet room for students who want time alone. While there are no gymnasiums at any AltSchools, the company occasionally has instructors lead fitness activities at nearby parks. Cheese, crackers, and salami sit on trays for students to snack on.


Emily Dahm, one of the first teachers hired, came from a San Francisco public school with a class of 33 students and not a single computer. Now she works with another teacher in a class of 14 students, all of whom were vetted through AltSchool’s rigorous admissions system and then placed in a class with compatible peers. Dahm expenses supplies, and takes Ubers to meetings at the company headquarters. ….Teachers use data to determine what students are taught. Students who are advancing more quickly in math or reading are given assignments to match instead of waiting for classmates to catch up. If a child expresses an interest in a book, a teacher will craft a lesson around it. Same goes for the student who wants to be a DJ, build a drone, or master meditation. Parents offer input on what skills they want emphasized for their child, and teachers take all the information and build “playlists” for each student to complete each week.

Teachers can make more than $90,000 a year with benefits, and get an annual bonus and equity in the company.

The first location outside California will open in Brooklyn later this year. Clues of the system’s tech pedigree are everywhere. On classroom walls and in ceilings are custom-built cameras and microphones that record the school day. Assignments are called “playlists,” that students access from their laptops or iPads. Performance metrics—there are no grades or report cards—are sent to parents via the AltSchool smartphone app. A projector screen in one class has a video game-style leaderboard with points for finished work and good behavior. Students who can’t make it to school can teleconference in on a Beam robot that looks like an iPad on stilts. And, of course, there’s a 3D printer, which students recently used to design candy.

Critics such as Larry Cuban, an education professor emeritus at Stanford University, doubt that AltSchool can successfully expand beyond a small cluster of like-minded parents. “For a lot of people who are in policy the question is can this go to scale.” … And even if it does grow, Cuban adds that AltSchool doesn’t address the root problems with education in the U.S. “For a lot of suburban white, middle- and upper-class families, the public schools are working; their kids are in advanced placement classes, they are graduating and going on to four-year institutions,” he says.  Meanwhile, schools in poor, inner-city neighborhoods – hardly the AltSchool demographic — are languishing. A 2012 Stanford University study by Cuban’s colleague Sean Reardon found that the gap between the performance of affluent and low-income students grew by about 40 percent since the 1960s.  (However) Katie Davis, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who has studied the incorporation of technology in schools, says.. AltSchool may meet resistance as it attempts to sell other schools on its methods. “It’s easier in private schools and charter schools because they tend to have more resources, smaller classes, and more technology,” says Davis. “In a lot of public schools, teachers are really stretched thin and they are more in survival mode than thinking strategically about how to personalize learning for the many students they have.”

Ventilla won’t release test scores, but says early results are promising. Ventilla, whose own kids will attend AltSchool, says it will be years before a verdict can be reached. But he’s got no shortage of anecdotes to help him show off the system’s early success.

 In about five years, Ventilla expects to be selling AltSchool’s technology to entire public school systems. ..(This) prospect has investors excited. 


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