You may have seen the name “AltSchool” in the news recently as it raised $100 million in funding (led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan) to “reimagine education for US students and teachers.” That’s a lot of hype for a small system of “micro-schools” that currently has only 6 locations (in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Brooklyn Heights), less than 500 total students, and is planning on opening only a handful more schools at additional sites in San Francisco and Chicago in the coming 2 years. But this is the little school that is dreaming big.

Alt School was founded in 2013 by Max Ventilla (a 35-year old former Google exec) and his assembled team of renowned educators and technologists. Ventilla began AltSchool by asking the question, how would school look if we designed it from scratch today? He was inspired to create the school after shopping for a preschool that fostered “self-knowledge” and “entrepreneurialism” for his own child. To understand AltSchool’s philosophy, you need to understand the concept of personalized learning, which is the instructional approach the school is founded on.

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is seen as an alternative to the traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach to schooling, where all students in the classroom are given the same assignments and assessments. With personalized learning, students are much more involved in the process; they actively participate in the construction of their own curriculum. Personalized learning is intended to facilitate academic success by first determining the learning needs, competence, interests and aspirations of the individual and setting up a learning plan based on a particular student’s experiences and interests that moves at a pace appropriate for that child.

Recently a group of philanthropies, nonprofits, and technology advocacy organizations (including the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation) created a “working definition of personalized learning”. That definition rests on four pillars:

  1. Each learner should have a “learner profile” or a record of some kind that documents their academic strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and goals;
  2. Students should have personal learning paths that encourage them to set and manage their own learning goals;
  3. Students should follow a “competency-based” progression (meaning they must show true comprehension of a subject, not just memorization) before moving on;
  4. and finally, their learning environment and school should be flexible and structured in a way as to support the students’ individual goals.²

A New Classroom Model

AltSchool is following this personalized model. Every student gets a their own tablet or Chromebook and a “Playlist”, which is a personalized set of activities for a student to complete. Playlists include basic assignments, group assignments, and external learning resources where kids focus on whatever interests them, from writing music, to politics, to building a rocket.

AltSchool doesn’t use classifications like “grades”. Instead kids are divided into three broadly defined classrooms: pre-K, “lower elementary” for younger kids and “upper elementary” for older kids. Other terms AltSchool avoids are “teachers”, “schools”, and “classrooms”, rather there are “educators”, “learning labs” and “studios”.

Sound like a dream leaning environment? Many parents seem to agree and, despite annual tuition rates over $2,700 a month, more than 4,000 applications flooded in for 200 spots nationwide this year. The application process isn’t what you’d expect. Prospective students gather in groups and are evaluated based on how they interact, rather than being put through a traditional private school interview process.

And not everyone is completely sold on the personalized learning concept.  The idea of a self-directed curriculum raises red flags with some parents who worry what would happen to kids that aren’t naturally self-motivated, but would prefer to read comics or avoid difficult subjects, if given the chance.

Despite this concern, AltSchool Founder and CEO Max Ventilla remains enthusiastic; “We started AltSchool because we wanted to change kids’ lives, but it has become so much bigger. Our students are coming to love learning – they’re achieving milestones in a way that they and their parents didn’t imagine possible in traditional school. We’ve created a culture where teachers feel empowered and valued and where students and parents feel heard.”

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AltSchool plans to make its model available nationwide, so that more students can have access to an education that considers their individual interests, competency, and learning objectives. Personalized learning, supported by new technology (like iPads and apps) allows for a once-unimaginable array of options for creating individual lesson plans.

The effort is supported by the AltSchool “behind the scenes” guys, programmers and engineers who track student progress and work with teachers to revise lessons and technology for continuous improvement. The hope is that tech-supported personalized learning will be able to meet the needs of a diverse student population seeking the cognitive skills to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Will it be a success?  AltSchool and its investors are banking on it.

What are your thoughts on the AltSchool vision and the concept of personalized learning? Share them in our Education Community.