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The One Room Schoolhouse Goes High Tech

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A grade-schooler's desk at AltSchool.
A grade-schooler's desk at AltSchool in San Francisco.

Silicon Valley startup model meets progressive education.

In the heart of the tech boom, where new innovations always hold the promise of the perfect solution, a new private school in San Francisco is prototyping its first class this year. Armed with a team of engineers ready to build the necessary tech tools, the school is an experiment of sorts, attempting to capture the personal nature of the homeschool experience within the community of a modified school setting.

AltSchool hasn’t officially opened yet -- it’s operating a pilot class of 20 students ranging in age from kindergarten to fifth grade in a storefront located in a formerly industrial part of town that's now lined with new lofts. Its founder and CEO Max Ventilla is a former Google executive and comes to education with a Silicon Valley solutionist mentality. Ventilla is attempting to build a model that caters to each child’s interests, while providing opportunities for group work and collaboration.

“We really believe you can teach anything through the interests of a child,” Ventilla said. “So if there’s a student whose passionate about dolphins or medieval knights or the moon, that’s the lens they can use to learn about salinity or ethics or politics or history or estimation. And that’s actually very similar to how we parent.”

Ventilla doesn’t believe that kind of teaching can effectively take place in a large school building with a lot of bureaucratic culpability. At AltSchool, each classroom will be its own unit, and as it grows to multiple locations, will be housed in spaces the size of commercial storefronts in different parts of town. Each classroom will be given the flexibility to change and shift as the teacher sees fit and in reaction to the needs of families attending the school.

And in the true spirit of a startup, the school's ethos is to "fail fast" and pivot -- change direction -- when necessary.


“We take as one of our primary objectives the constant innovation of the platform and what’s happening in the classroom,” Ventilla said. “If it’s taking us a year to change things that needs to be changed, we’ve failed.”


While the school is using Common Core as a guideline for its teaching standards, students aren't grouped by grade level. Rather, students move through activities based on their skill and are broadly grouped in age ranges that include transitional kindergarten, “youngers,” “olders,” and middle school.

“We don’t think there’s such a thing as a grade,” Ventilla said. “Kids are at different levels across their academic and non-academic trajectories and it's about creating an environment of peers, people that push them, people that are good influences, but also people that they can be friends with and have intellectual peers.”

This is not a new concept, of course. Champions of competency-based education have been advocating this model for years, and Brightworks, a school that opened a few years ago just a few miles away that's focused on project based learning  uses the same premise. In that way, it's less a brand new innovation and more of an amalgamation of different models borrowed from Montessori, Waldorf, homeschooling, and different education theorists, as evidenced by the books scattered around the school's office -- Finnish Lessons, The Smartest Kids in the World, 5 Minds for the Future, How Children Succeed.

Another borrowed idea applied to AltSchool is the School of One model in New York. Students at AltSchool work from an individual playlist the teacher puts together that's keyed to his or her interests. The teacher can keep track of student progress on a dashboard, ensure the tasks have been completed, and adjust activities depending on how students are progressing. For example, recently, AltSchool teacher Carolyn Wilson assigned a video about California's delta to one student, paired with questions about how water moves through the system.

"He moved it to the 'done' column, but it wasn't done, so I told him he was turning me into a screaming monster," Wilson said. When she checked his work and saw he hadn't finished, Wilson tagged that assignment with a screaming monster icon and a note to the student telling him to go back and answer the questions and complete a reflection.

In addition to the individualized playlist, students are engaged in group projects that require them to work together and collaborate. “We’re developing tools and processes that allow us to build on the individual passions of one child, but we still continue to frame the group experience and to find things that everyone will engage in,” said Wilson, who's a long time educator. She described a student project while learning about the broad theme of San Francisco's historical and cultural geography of San Francisco: They started by painting a mural of the city together, arguing and compromising over what should be included. After visiting a museum that describes the environmental factors that created San Francisco Bay, the students painted another mural based on their new understanding.

During a recent visit to the pilot classroom, a group of six students with mixed ages sat on the floor listening to a teacher lead a group discussion, then migrated over to an art project with watercolor paints a few feet away in the same room. In this one-room schoolhouse, bookshelves are lined with books for kids of different reading levels, tables are set up for groups of three or four kids with workbooks, computers, and headphones, and a comfortable daybed with a blanket sits against one of the wall.

There are times in the day when students are working on independent projects and skills tailored to their skill level, interests, and needs. “We expose them to a lot of different things and then sit back and observe, listen to what they say, watch what really excites them, and then build on that and ask questions that go deeper,” Wilson said.

The first AltSchool class is in a storefront space in a loft building.
The first AltSchool class is in a storefront space in a loft building.


AltSchool is fundamentally a for-profit technology start-up, recently announcing $33 million dollars in venture capital funding. Slightly less than half of its current staff -- a total of about 25 people, including teachers -- are computer engineers. Despite the techy underpinnings, technology isn’t all that visually present in AltSchool classrooms the way it is in many schools with one-to-one programs or at a charter network like Rocketship, according to AltSchool staff. But technology is a pervasive part of this model behind the scenes.

“If you look at how learning gets personalized in most schools out there, it’s by sticking a kid in front of a screen,” said AltSchool Chief Technology Officer Komal Sethi. “That’s because it's easy. That’s not how we think about it.” Tech tools help students track their assignments, document their work, and allow teachers to stay on top of each student’s individual lesson plan. “We want the real-world, project-based learning to happen, we just want to be able to see that it’s happening,” Sethi said. And to that end, AltSchool classrooms are being videotaped and recorded in an effort to capture classroom moments that the teacher might have missed. “We’re basically trying to say, what can we observe that’s going on to help the teacher do the things she already does,” Sethi said.

The engineering team is working to build technology that will allow teachers to bookmark moments when the class gets particularly loud, for example, so they can go back to that moment and see if something needs to be modified in the instructional practice, or if there is a particular incident to observe later.

“That’s a moment when something happened that the teacher wanted to keep so she could go back and see what happened that allowed this breakthrough,” Ventilla said. He also believes parents will be grateful for having a video recording of breakthrough academic moments in their children’s lives, like when they first learn to read. The school’s engineers are working to create sensors sophisticated enough to pick up on students' facial expressions and then send a signal to the teacher's dashboard. He said the sensors would potentially help teachers know when a child is struggling, even if she’s in another part of the room. It's meant to give the teacher another set of eyes.

This model flies in the face of many student data privacy concerns surfacing recently regarding collecting more data on students. The school and its developers keep the raw video and audio data for two years before trashing it, but can save particular moments to share with teachers or parents for much longer.

A student-created mural of San Francisco Bay.
A student-created mural of San Francisco Bay.


AltSchool plans to launch officially next fall with several modular classrooms around San Francisco and surrounding cities, as well as in Silicon Valley at $19,100 per year. “Our model is attractive to families who know what they want educationally and come to us to have some of the logistics taken care of without having to reinvent the school,” said Anna Cueni, the school’s director of operations.

In addition to running schools, the company will be designing software for teachers’ needs. “Every one of our engineers spends time directly in the classroom, collaborates directly with students, and many of them actually teach during part of their week,” Ventilla said. Teachers and developers work together to design tech tools that meet specific classroom needs.

So far, developers have created the software that makes student playlists, the audio and video replay system that allows teachers to bookmark important moments in the classroom, and have made a weekly parent summary tool that makes it easy for teachers to curate and share insights about students each week. This close collaboration could create products that other schools find useful and eventually might license.


“We’re not trying to make existing schools work better,” Ventilla said. “We are trying to actually advance a new model of a school.” That said, if a charter network wanted to begin a whole new set of schools based on the AltSchool model, Ventilla wouldn’t be opposed. But he said the model would not work in a traditional large school building with a centralized administration and little flexibility.