Facing the sudden, impending closure of AltSchool Palo Alto, a group of families is working with the education startup to find a way to take ownership of the alternative school.
AltSchool, which former Google executive Max Ventilla founded in San Francisco in 2013 and expanded to campuses in Palo Alto and New York City, notified families via email last weekend that the 2-year-old Emerson Street campus in Palo Alto would close at the end of the school year. Parent Amy Kacher said Ventilla's email indicated that the decision was made because it was too difficult to have its teachers — who also serve as pseudo product developers for the company's software — far away from its engineers and designers in San Francisco. The company's campuses, called "lab schools," are used to test and refine the startup's software platform in real time with students and teachers.
AltSchool Chief Impact Officer Devon Vodicka also told the Weekly Thursday that the decision was driven by the Palo Alto's location as a "geographic outlier." Palo Alto was the first step in a grand expansion plan for the startup that never panned out.
"The original approach with AltSchool was to open a giant network of micro-schools. At a certain point the team realized that there was a more effective and efficient approach to achieving our ambition of enabling all children to reach their full potential," he said in an interview with the Weekly at AltSchool's Yerba Buena campus in San Francisco.
AltSchool is also consolidating a smaller New York City school and announced this summer that a campus in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood would close and another planned for Chicago would not open. The company now plans to focus its efforts on four "core" campuses, two each in San Francisco and New York City.
Vodicka said the closure was not primarily a financial decision, since by design, none of the lab schools are self-sustaining financially. Tuition is about $28,000 a year, but as a startup, AltSchool relies more on funding from venture capitalists to drive its work. (The company has raised millions from big names like Mark Zuckerberg and Andreessen Horowitz.) AltSchool has been spending about $40 million annually for what Vodicka described as a "research and development" phase for the schools.
There are 62 students enrolled in AltSchool Palo Alto, which serves kindergarten through eighth grade. The school emphasizes whole-child, personalized learning through individualized learning plans that can be adapted or altered according to students' needs.
For the Palo Alto school's earliest adopters — parents who were eager to embrace an innovative school for not only the benefit of their own children but potentially the education system as a whole — the closure was shocking and saddening. Parents immediately launched an online petition asking for options to keep the school open. (Fifty-two people had signed the petition as of Thursday afternoon.)
Parents said they were drawn to AltSchool's ability as a well-funded, up-and-coming company to execute on what is often hard to achieve in traditional school settings: personalization, real-world learning, strong connections between students and teachers and effective use of new technology. They chose AltSchool over local public schools and even private schools that they said didn't measure up.
Their children have blossomed within the AltSchool environment, which they said makes the closure all the more devastating.
"Kids are not a product line," said JingJing Xu, a Palo Alto resident whose daughter is in fourth grade. "For business, sometimes you shift your direction, change (your) product line. But this is ... kids you're talking about."
Xu is part of a group of parents talking with AltSchool about how they could assume operations of the school. They're conducting a feasibility study to determine what that might look like. Xu said AltSchool is very supportive of the proposal, and a majority of elementary school parents she surveyed said they would stay if given the option.
AltSchool has also hired two consultants to help Palo Alto families find new schools for next year and has researched about 20 schools in the area that offer a similar philosophy, said Communications Officer Maggie Quale.
Head of School Chris Bezsylko, whose own child attends AltSchool Palo Alto, said the closure was also a surprise for his staff. He said the parent effort to assume ownership is a testament to the fact that it's "not about the school failing" but rather "a broader decision of AltSchool as a network."
Despite the shock of the planned closure, parents said it was not out of the blue given the company's ultimate goal to proliferate its software beyond AltSchool walls.
Don MacAskill, a Mountain View resident and one of the founding families at AltSchool Palo Alto, is also the CEO of a technology company. He said AltSchool's reasoning makes good sense from a business perspective.
"(There have been) many times in my career and at my current company where new data comes along and shows you that the market opportunity lies in a slightly different direction ... than where you were headed, and you have to make changes to chase that opportunity for the good of your company and the good of your business," he said Thursday.
"Obviously I'm sad that the tiny little lab school we love so much is closing, but this action seems totally in line with what their stated purpose has been all along."
MacAskill said he made a "calculated risk" when he enrolled his three children at AltSchool — one that has paid off in dividends in the last two years. But the risk of staying to be part of a parent-run school is not one he's willing to make. (Even with AltSchool's financial backing and experience opening other schools, the first two years in Palo Alto were "bumpy," he said.)
AltSchool's next phase will focus on spreading its software to other schools, including public school districts. The software is currently used in three independent schools and one California school district, which the company declined to identify.
Vodicka described the platform as an operating system that brings all of a school's tools and resources under one roof. Teachers, for example, can use it for planning, assignments, assessments, goal-setting and monitoring both qualitative and quantitative information about students.
"What we hope to achieve through this next phase ... (is) having over time more and more schools take some of the things that seem to be best serving students and making that part of the norm instead of the exception," Vodicka said.
AltSchool parents are now looking ahead to where their children will go to school next fall. MacAskill is exploring private schools in the area. Kacher, whose daughter came to AltSchool this fall from Duveneck Elementary School in Palo Alto, said her daughter will return to the public school if the parents can't find a way to continue AltSchool.
Xu said although parents are "shocked and mad," she credits Ventilla with taking a risk that has paid off for many families in search of a new kind of education in Palo Alto.
"We've been teaching our kids to be risk takers. He took a risk and didn't succeed, but because of him, that's why we have this community," she said. "He made a decision he had to make for his business."