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A For-Profit School Startup Where Kids Are Beta Testers

AltSchool's schools are a proving ground for dozens of engineers seeking to build "an operating system for education." Courtesy of Altschool hide caption

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Courtesy of Altschool

AltSchool's schools are a proving ground for dozens of engineers seeking to build "an operating system for education."

Courtesy of Altschool

At first glance, the warehouse in San Francisco's SOMA neighborhood could be the headquarters of any well-funded startup: exposed concrete, natural light, lots of Macbooks. Then you spot the 12- and 13-year-olds doing yoga in a glass-walled conference room.

It's a tech company, but it's also a private, for-profit middle school: a unique, hybrid venture called AltSchool.

Founded in 2013, the AltSchool model is an odd blend of retro and futuristic — "Montessori 2.0," as its founder, Max Ventilla, says. Each of its schools is a single, small, mixed-age class of 25 to 30 kids, with two teachers. The company calls these microschools.

The classroom at headquarters looks more like a kindergarten than a middle school, with a lounge-y reading corner and an art area. There are weekly field trips around the city.

Younger children have tablets, and older children laptops, which they use to complete a personalized "playlist" of lessons, projects and activities, updated each day. These might include 20 minutes doing math lessons on Khan Academy's website, or teaming up to create a skit about the parts of a cell.

This classroom is also outfitted with fisheye-lens cameras, for a 360-degree view at all times, and a sound recorder. And the company is prototyping wearable devices for students with a radio frequency ID tag that can track their movements.

Why all the intensive surveillance? Safety and health are two applications, but right now, Ventilla says, it's mostly R&D. One day, all these data could be continuously analyzed to improve teaching techniques or assess student mastery.

In the past two years, AltSchool has quietly opened four of these schools around San Francisco. Four more are scheduled to open this fall, expanding to Palo Alto, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y.

But AltSchool seeks to be much more than just a chain of for-profit private schools. And a massive infusion of venture funding may help. The bulk of the round, announced Monday, is philanthropic, led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. (Last round the company raised $33 million; this second round is coming a bit early and will allow it to expand more quickly).

AltSchool is receiving the cash from Zuckerberg's fund and others under an increasingly common arrangement in which donors give money to for-profits that are aligned with their philanthropic goals, and then the returns on that donation, if any, go back into the endowment.

From Google To Education

Ventilla, AltSchool's founder/CEO, is a tall, broad-shouldered, 35-year-old Yale grad and Yale M.B.A. with no previous education experience, but boundless confidence. He went to work for Google; left to found a high-profile startup, Aardvark, that was reacquired by the company before fizzling out. After that he became a founding member of Google Plus, one of the company's less successful projects.

These experiences nonetheless left him certain that he was meant to dedicate himself to "something really meaningful and long term." At the 2013 TED conference, he saw Sugata Mitra, who has gained fame in certain circles by advocating the use of technology to enable children to teach themselves.

Max Ventilla, founder of AltSchool says, "I ultimately wasn't confident that that traditional education experience would prepare my daughter to be happy and successful as an adult in the 2030s, 2040s, 2050s." Tom Hood/Courtesy of AltSchool hide caption

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Tom Hood/Courtesy of AltSchool

Max Ventilla, founder of AltSchool says, "I ultimately wasn't confident that that traditional education experience would prepare my daughter to be happy and successful as an adult in the 2030s, 2040s, 2050s."

Tom Hood/Courtesy of AltSchool

A light bulb went off for Ventilla. He happened to be in the "miserable" process of applying to highly competitive, private preschools for his first daughter.

The process left him jaded, he says. "I ultimately wasn't confident that that traditional education experience would prepare my daughter to be happy and successful as an adult in the 2030s, 2040s, 2050s."

He and his wife were thinking about starting a group home school, aimed at fostering kids who are "introspective, conscientious and entrepreneurial." Why not apply his tech and business expertise to, as they say in Silicon Valley, bring that idea to scale?

Ventilla says AltSchool's schools are a proving ground for dozens of engineers seeking to build "an operating system for education." He walks me through a slide presentation meant for investors explaining what, exactly, that means.

Right now, the software seems to combine elements of a learning management system for students; admissions, enrollment, recruitment, procurement, finances, record keeping, and other administrative functions for schools; and a social network for both teachers and parents.

Founded in 2013, the AltSchool model is an odd blend of retro and futuristic — "Montessori 2.0," as its founder, Max Ventilla, says. Each of the four schools is a single, small, mixed-age class of 25 to 30 kids, with two teachers. That's what the company calls a microschool. Courtesy of AltSchool hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of AltSchool

Founded in 2013, the AltSchool model is an odd blend of retro and futuristic — "Montessori 2.0," as its founder, Max Ventilla, says. Each of the four schools is a single, small, mixed-age class of 25 to 30 kids, with two teachers. That's what the company calls a microschool.

Courtesy of AltSchool

As parts of it are tested at AltSchools, the engineers keep making improvements.

Few education technology companies right now work so closely with real teachers and students.

For Kate Moriarty, a teacher at an elementary-level AltSchool in San Francisco, partnering with engineers is a huge perk of her job. "I can give feedback to a product team and we can create our own tools," she says. "So it's really fun. I feel so creatively driven and I feel inspired every day that I go to work."

The ubiquitous videotaping doesn't raise any red flags for her; she finds it useful. "For every educator, there are times in the day you say, 'I wish I could have gone back and documented that.' "

She notes that the video is all for internal use and not shared back with students or parents. "It's an awesome resource."

The schools are undeniably popular — the Brooklyn location, opening this fall, has received 900 applications for 60 slots. At $27,500 a year, they're on par with other private schools in urban centers. Being for-profit makes them unusual, but not unique — a comparable example is Avenues: The World School, a planned chain with its first, flagship location in downtown Manhattan.

But the question remains: How will this company affect education for all students, beyond the tiny numbers served in AltSchool's classrooms?

"The model is expensive," says Bryan Alexander, an education technology expert and author. "That doesn't bode well for an America increasingly divided by income inequality. Will they use some of that $100 million investment to attract poor folks?"

That's not in the plan, beyond the usual complement of scholarship spots. Instead, Ventilla's pitch to investors is that one day, charter schools or even regular public schools could outsource many basic functions to this software platform, allowing educators to focus on serving students.

Alexander isn't so sure this will work.

"Many American K-12 schools could benefit from better technology platforms," he says. But issues of funding, technical support and confusing and sometimes conflicting state and federal policies make adopting new technology very difficult. "In short a new platform would have to be astonishing to be worth the battle."

Ventilla remains convinced that an "astonishing" new platform is exactly what schools of all kinds need, and says his engineers are just the people to create it.