AltSchool is using its elementary school classroom as a testbed for education innovation.

A private company backed by $4 million from seed investors, AltSchool opened its first school location this September in San Francisco.

“With a very broad brush, our approach is to be the elementary education R&D player,” says founder Max Ventilla.

Technology is a heavy focus in the classroom. But AltSchool's technology is less about expensive iPads and fancy screens and more about software technologies that can't be seen.

The idea is that the engineering staff can work with teachers to build and deploy technologies that help a school program adapt to the needs and interests of each individual child.

AltSchool engineers, for example, have developed a specialized video and audio system that records the school day so teachers can bookmark moments to review analyze later.

The one-room school, located in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, functions by generating a weekly individual “playlist” of learning activities for each child that can be mixed, matched and adapted.

2013-12-10

Co.Exist

A Former Google Exec Reinvents Elementary Education By Putting An R&D Lab In School

Can this one-room school with a Silicon Valley approach scale up a more personalized model for educating kids?

Max Ventilla isn’t someone you’d expect to be at the helm of a new private school brand. With a history as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur dating to the 1990s, Ventilla founded a social search company that Google acquired in 2010. There, he helped build Google+ and later led a new “personalization” team that grew to 100 people as it undertook the task of adapting the search giant’s vast array of products to better understand users in real time.

Earlier this year, Ventilla left all of that. The new challenge he is tackling—reinventing the elementary school model—could either be viewed as typical of Silicon Valley’s sometimes misguided ideas that a tech mindset can fix difficult societal challenges, or a perfect fit for his background and the needs of the education world today.

AltSchool, a private company backed by $4 million from seed investors, opened its first school location this September in San Francisco. The motivation came from Ventilla’s own dismaying survey of the limited landscape of school options for his two young children. Many private and charter schools seemed mediocre, he says, and most seemed proud when they could tout exclusive, single-digit acceptance rates. “That seemed alien to me, as someone who works at experiencing things at scale. In my world, things get better the more people that are using them,” Ventilla says.

With a staff now comprised half of former Google engineers and the rest mostly educators, AltSchool’s mission has two focuses. The first is to grow a network of excellent elementary schools that harken back to the single-room schoolhouses of long ago, and the second, as any tech startup would do, is to use the schools as labs to learn, iterate and improve on the model.

“With a very broad brush, our approach is to be the elementary education R&D player,” Ventilla says in a phone interview. “R&D is essentially an investment in your future performance. ...If you’re not spending anything on R&D, you’re not going to be changing anything you do.” The health and IT sectors usually invest about 10% of revenues back into R&D, he notes, but in the education world, that figure averages less than 1%. (AltSchool aims to equal the 10% figure that is typical of high-tech industries).

As you’d expect, technology is a heavy focus in the classroom located at the first school, which has about 15 students up to age 10, as it will be in the next several schools planned in the Bay Area this year.

Like a personalized Google product, the idea is that the engineering staff can work with teachers to build and deploy technologies that help a school program adapt to the needs and interests of each individual child. This is not a revolutionary concept on its own—Ventilla learned from some of the most successful schools that use a “child-centric” approach. But the execution and ability to scale up this model, as the startup aims to do, might be. AltSchool's technology is less about expensive iPads and fancy screens and more about software technologies that can't be seen, Ventilla says.

AltSchool engineers, for example, have developed a specialized video and audio system that records the school day so teachers can bookmark moments to review and analyze later. They’re also thinking about using facial analysis software to provide analytics on the video feeds and designing a smart lighting system that dims automatically when the noise level in a classroom gets too loud.

The one-room school, located in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, functions by generating a weekly individual “playlist” of learning activities for each child that can be mixed, matched and adapted to their progress, much like a playlist on Pandora adapts to feedback and preferences from the listener. Two kids could be building a birdhouse, but one would be working on the designs and the other learning how to measure and make sure the walls lineup. A child who was fascinated by the moon might learn about the history of space exploration as well as the math of an orbit. There is not much of a notion of grade-level, just loose groupings by age, since most children have different strengths and weaknesses. Some might read at a fourth-grade level and do math at a sixth or vice versa.

Crucial to AltSchool's vision is growing a sustainable business model, otherwise the company might turn out a handful of great schools, but won’t come close to reinventing education writ large.

One key, says Ventilla, is that each school will be a small operation that stays contained to basic classrooms. Most elementary schools become costly because of the huge, expensive buildings they need to maintain and the ancillary services, such as gym and a nurse, that they provide—functions that AltSchool will outsource to community facilities. Right now, for the first school, the tuition is $19,100 per student with financial aid available, but he believes the costs can come down a bit while still paying teachers well (it plans to keep about an 8:1 student to classroom teacher ratio). Rather than keep AltSchool incredibly selective, he hopes to run as many schools as required to meet demand.

Ventilla knows that engineers won’t have all the answers and is working to attract top-notch teachers and mine the vast troves of existing education research and technology tools. He's been reading a book a week, and outsourcing other reading to assistants. The first thing the company did is open a school so it could begin learning itself and testing ideas.

“You want to avoid thinking that you know more than you do,” he says. “For us, being respectful of the art of education comes down to this community of smaller schools approach. Let them improve their art. But at the same time, there is a science to education. The ideal approach is not for every teacher to do just whatever comes naturally to them. There should be a rigorous analytical approach.”

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11 Comments

  • Sofia Osborne

    Many seem to compare this AltSchool model to Montessori and Waldorf, but I completely disagree. What makes AltSchool stand out from the rest, I believe, is the "customer service" oriented attitude that you never see in any other school, private or public, Montessori or traditional. Schools, even the ones that are considered good, are very corky and don't want to hear any criticisms from parents or children. Both the administration and the teachers are in most cases "our way or highway" toward parents. AltSchool emphasizes that their curriculum is children centered, and they want to get feedback from the kids as well as the parents. THAT is what gives me the hope that they might be the first one to change the whole dynamics of our education system. I love the fact that they are a for profit private company.

  • I'm a teacher who loves alternative stuff, but I'm also skeptical. I'm not skeptical of the structure or vision, which seems sound and Montessori-esque or Waldorf based, but of terms like "seed money" creeping in and the corporatization of schools that I imagined would start happening in Silicon Valley and NYC.

    I'm not sure I want everything in the world to have the same texture as a start up or Google. I resent tech reformers stealing the show because this isn't a social enterprise for people who have been trapped and slaving away to effect small change inside school for their whole careers. Have some respect, please!

  • brainwerx

    Great idea. But, not new, it is just bringing the Montessori methodology into the modern era. Maria Montessori created this model over 150 years ago, and it is still the best education model out there.

  • David Gregory

    Color me skeptical about the scaling of this. Wannabe education reformers are as common as bird droppings and the graveyard of well intentioned education reform projects is very large. And if a throwback to the one room classroom without gyms costs $19,100 per year, what are they spending the money on?

    Not everyone can teach and not everyone learns in the same way- likewise there are many excellent teachers who employ very different models and get spectacular results. Bottom line- teaching is an art and does not lend itself to the assembly line or anyone's rigid orthodoxy. Most failures in education reform seem to result from a failure to scale following some cookie cutter mandate.

    Quality education is desperately needed in our country and is going to be expensive if done right by whatever standard. Teaching done right is labor intensive for the student and the teacher- anyone who has mastered a musical instrument, a craft or a professional discipline knows this to be true. In music it is easy to see who has practiced vs. who has not and the same is true from basketball to acting to engineering. My fear is that we will never allocate the proper financial resources to do a quality job for most of our nation's kids.

  • Josiah Sprague

    I love this! I work at a school that is very similar to this. It's been around for ten years, but the larger it grows, the more old educational models seem to creep in. Focus tends to shift from education and learning to behavior management. Standardized testing and common core tend to drive the education, and it's very easy to lose sight of the ideal of kids taking the reigns of their own education and project-based education that contributes to the community. I wish I could get my school back to those ideals.

  • croixscout

    Lots of interesting ideas- so far not much unique practice, but interesting tech. Write this up in two years- my sense is that the wheel won't be reinvented. Many of these concepts were alive in alternative schools decades ago. Good Luck!

  • Lisa C. Clark

    I agree with this, as there are many ways of "measuring" children's learning and the expressions of their passions and talents still to be discovered and implemented. Finding out *who children are* seems to be part of a necessary prerequisite to knowing how to teach them/how they learn. As a STEM advocate, I believe that watching monitoring for those sparks then leads to introducing kids to how they already "practice STEM" successfully at very young ages -- but there's not been the vocabulary or knowledge base necessarily in surrounding families or communities to know what to do with it or to "normalize" its learning very young. The one-room schoolhouse accomplished its goal and, since learning boils down to 1:1, returning to more intimate environments makes sense. A "wired classroom" or "wired campus" can provide the measurements and monitoring to assess children differently with an ultimate goal of supporting teachers in their art.

  • Kathie Whelchel

    Bio-Link's Salt Lake Community College also has a CRO embedded in their biotechnology curriculum. Edgar Troudt has established a program for high school students at CUNY Kingston NY. Check them out on the Bio-Link website!