AltSchool, a new private K-8 school set to launch this fall in downtown Palo Alto, prides itself on actively operating on the opposite end of the spectrum from traditional modes of learning.
As explained by AltSchool founder and former Google executive Max Ventilla to a crowd of about 50 parents at an information session at Cubberley Community Center Monday evening, each AltSchool student learns via a "playlist," or a personalized-learning plan that can be adapted or altered whenever a student has the need. AltSchool classrooms are small, mixed-grade and flexible, so students move on to the higher grade whenever it makes sense for them, whether that's in December or March. An AltSchool day is based on around students following their personalized "playlist," which could involve small group work, reading, a field trip or working on a long-term project in the morning and afternoon. Bookending each day are extracurriculars like foreign language, yoga, coding, guitar or robotics.
Work is done in class, and homework is what's left over, or assignments specifically designed to be done at home. There's a strong emphasis on real-world learning, with content drawing on the Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards and state standards for social-emotional learning.
The overarching vision of AltSchool is to leverage the transformational power of technology to redefine children's educational experiences, explained Ventilla, who's armed with years of high-level technology and personalization work experience.
Ventilla worked at Google on and off for a decade, first in business operations and strategy and later as a founding member of the company' social network, Google+, and head of personalization. In between those positions, he co-founded Aardvark, a social search engine that Google eventually bought in 2010.
He left Google in 2013 to found the first AltSchool in San Francisco after being discouraged by the elementary school options for his two young children "disturbed" that they didn't offered the level of agency or innovation that he hoped 21st century schools would.
"We, technologists within the company, have spent our adult lives building things that get better and better the more people use them," he said. "And here you have this thing that is so essential, not just to our families but to society namely, elementary education and middle school education and we have this 19th-century dynamic where it's constrained. The more kids go, the worse the experience gets.
"We said, 'We need to operate with very different priorities,'" he said of the AltSchool founders. "It needs to be different, the central pillars that we build our school upon, than what we've seen dictate how schools operate."
One of those pillars is being small in the ways a school should be small and being big in the ways a school should be big, Ventilla said. AltSchool is small in that it adapts to each student on a by-need basis, and large in that each school is part of a growing network of "micro-schools" whose resources any student or family can and is encouraged to take advantage of. This might be a teacher whose specialty is in a particular extracurricular subject or the support staff AltSchool offers (20 engineers and counting, plus numerous administrative roles), Ventilla said. Thinking big also touches on a concept more familiar in the world of technology than education: The more people who use a service or product, the more it will improve.
"I would guess that the vast majority of people in this room would rather have a social network or search engine or smartphone that more people got to experience, rather than fewer."
The AltSchool network began with just 10 students and one location in San Francisco. It's expanded to four San Francisco micro-schools that serve more than 150 students. Ventilla said they'll soon double the number of schools in San Francisco, with at least one more on its way this fall. New schools in Brookyln and Palo Alto will also come online this fall.
The schools function as cohesive, interchangeable outposts that any AltSchool student can attend at any time. If a Palo Alto family wants or needs to spend time with relatives in New York, their child could enroll in the Brooklyn school without skipping a beat, in theory. (Ventilla admitted this is slightly self-serving and frees up parents and families from staying in one place for more than a decade as their children go through elementary and middle school.)
"For us, it's about balance," Ventilla said. "It's about creating that intimate, personalized, customizable environment that can actually change in major ways throughout the time that you spend at AltSchool. This idea that you should be choosing for your 4-year-olds what experience that they're going to have at age 12 and 13 doesn't make any sense to us. Even if you could predict it, it's not clear that a child is going to be best served as their age triples by the same school experience in terms of what type of peers they have or what type of academic focus or what type of schedule of the day they experience.
"This idea (is) that we're actually creating a network of all of the resources you want in a larger school" such as shared technology, specialized knowledge, established best practices "and more, without losing the things that draw you to small schools."
Alice Shikina, AltSchool's community manager, told the crowd of parents Monday night that AltSchool changed the path of her two children significantly, and in very different ways. The school's flexibility allowed one of her sons, an advanced reader, to move at a faster pace in his blended classroom. (AltSchool's three "programs" are lower elementary, which is transitional kindergarten/kindergarten and kindergarten/first grade; upper elementary, which is second/third and fourth/fifth grade; and middle school, which is sixth, seventh and eighth grade.)
Shikina's other son has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and had been getting in trouble often in school, leaving his academics and self-esteem damaged. She said AltSchool helped him grow in the much-needed area of social-emotional development, which he wouldn't have experienced at his traditional school.
One parent Monday evening asked, "What type of student wouldn't do well at AltSchool?" Ventilla said that there is no single type, but students and parents who benefit from more regularity, structure and predictability might not adjust as well.
The Palo Alto location will be at 930 Emerson St., which formerly housed a car repair shop and has room to accommodate 80 students, though Ventilla stressed Monday that the AltSchool admissions process is not designed to be exclusive or competitive. The 5,000 square-foot space will be divided into three or four flexible classrooms, with a small area outside for students to play.
"We are accepting the vast majority of the people that apply to AltSchool," he said.
Some students might not be placed at their ideal school location, or might be waitlisted until more room opens up which could be at any point during the year, as AltSchool has year-round rolling admissions. Ventilla said his team, which is also rapidly growing, plans to meet whatever demand comes down the pipeline and is already looking at opening more locations in the South Bay.
AltSchool is privately funded, raking in $33 million in venture capital this spring from big-name firms like Andresseen Horowitz and Founders Fund.
"That's something that's very, very different about AltSchool. We're not capacity-constrained and we're creating a network where things get better as more people participate," Ventilla said.
Applications for Palo Alto are due Jan. 15, though Ventilla, who described going through an intensely competitive admissions process to get his daughter into preschool, stressed that it is simply an information-gathering exercise that shouldn't take more than 30 minutes to an hour. (Parents can even send in applications they have already filled out for other schools, he said.) AltSchool's base tuition, which covers 10 months and not an opt-in summer session in Palo Alto, is $26,250 for elementary school and $27,000 for middle school. Need-based tuition assistance is available.
The most critical segments of the admissions process for AltSchool are parent interviews and school visits, explained AltSchool Director of Education Carolyn Wilson, who founded Chrysalis School in Menlo Park and worked on a school-reform project at Stanford University. The AltSchool team will begin to shape the Palo Alto classrooms based on these interviews and on the demographics and qualities of children who apply.
"We can stand on the shoulders of everyone that's come before us," Ventilla said. "Starting with first principles doesn't mean abandoning all the great things that other people have figured out and are doing. It means taking advantage of them."