A new kind of school crafted by the minds and wallets of Silicon Valley influencers is going through a growth spurt.
AltSchool, an educational software developer and network of “micro-schools” with locations in California and New York, has raised $A50.21 million in a new round of funding, according to an SEC filing.
The startup previously raised over $A165 million from Silicon Valley giants including Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, and Andreessen Horowitz.
In May 2015, Business Insider spent the day at AltSchool’s Fort Mason location in San Francisco to see its revolutionary teaching style in action.
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AltSchool is a network of 'micro-schools,' each enrolling between 35 and 120 students, that aims to bring education into the 21st century.
Max Ventilla, former head of personalisation at Google, left the company to found AltSchool in 2013. Today there are seven locations across the Bay Area and New York.
The venture-backed school system is eyeing an expansion in Chicago in fall 2018. It also wants to bring its technology to new schools that operate outside its network.
In 2015, we spent the day at AltSchool's Fort Mason location in a ritzy San Francisco neighbourhood. At the time of our visit, tuition cost more than $A25,100 a year.
AltSchool divides students between the ages of 4 and 14 into three groups: lower elementary, upper elementary, and middle school. There are no traditional grade levels.
A typical day at AltSchool begins with attendance. As kids arrive, they sign in to the school's attendance app on a dedicated iPad.
The attendance app is one of many tools developed by an in-house product team, which includes former employees of Apple, Uber, Zynga, and Ventilla's alma mater, Google.
Those products live on My.AltSchool, a digital platform that tracks everything from students' attendance and grades to food allergies and Personalised Learning Plans, or PLPs.
The PLP is the foundation of the AltSchool experience. Teachers work with families and students to design a set of goals for the learner based on the student's interests, likes, strengths, and weaknesses.
Each child receives a weekly 'playlist' of individual and group activities that are aimed at achieving those goals. This student was writing an entry for his blog on coin collecting.
This 8-year-old demonstrated a game of Pac-Man using MaKey MaKey -- a simple circuit board that transforms everyday objects into touchable user interfaces.
He attached alligator clips to mounds of clay and taped one clip to himself. When he tapped the clay and completed the circuit, the computer interpreted the input as arrow key actions.
Teachers pick activities for their students by creating items in their playlists or searching the My.AltSchool library to find items that other teachers have made.
This streamlined instruction time frees up the teacher to walk around the classroom and interact face-to-face with students.
The lower elementary students spent the morning of my visit knocking a shared item off their playlists: 'writing the news.' These guys chronicled a recent trip to the park.
Technology isn't necessary to complete all activities, but it is used to document students' work. This student used an iPad to take a picture of her news clipping and uploaded the image to her playlist.
The classroom, like the tech, fosters AltSchool's individualized learning approach. Students sprawl across the room on carpets, beanbags, and even lofts of their own construction.
Classrooms are treated like stations, rather than designated areas for different grade levels. Students move from room to room throughout the day. It's especially important for micro-schools to maximise space so that a four-room schoolhouse doesn't feel cramped.
Craft and cleaning supplies are stored where the smaller kids can reach them, giving them a sense of agency.
Cameras are also mounted at eye level for kids, so teachers can review successful lessons and 'the steps leading up to those 'ah-ha' moments,' head of school Kathleen Gibbons said. Some children use them as confessionals, sharing their secrets with the camera.
After lunch and PE in the nearby park, students put aside their playlists and work on more integrated group projects.
The middle-school students were tasked with a classroom redesign. This 11-year-old designed a parkour course. He was writing a parent permission slip on his Google Chromebook.
His classmate learned from online tutorials how to use a 3D-modelling software, and she designed an urban-garden-inspired seating area for the second-floor deck. There was an obstacle course inside the benches for a class rabbit to tunnel through.
Another student, who wants to be a veterinarian, lawyer, writer, and manga comic-book writer, grew an indoor tea garden. She said she loves how the assignments 'bend to your ability.'
The new $A50 million in funding that AltSchool raised will enable the network to grow beyond a handful of schoolhouses in the Bay Area and New York.
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