A typical day at Altschool, the Bay Area-based school system that raised $US100 million in venture capitalin May, is anything but typical.
Kids take attendance on an iPad, complete a “playlist” of activities, and learn 3D modelling software to design a playhouse for the class pet.
Founder and CEO Max Ventilla previously helmed the personalisation team at Google, where he helped build Google+ and other products that make the internet feel more personal. His latest venture aims to transform the outdated, early-1900s model of elementary education for the Digital Age.
In May, we spent the day at AltSchool‘s Fort Mason location in San Francisco to see its revolutionary teaching style in action.
AltSchool is a network of 'micro-schools,' each enrolling between 80 and 150 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 four locations in the Bay Area.
In May, Mark Zuckerberg led a new $100 million round of venture funding, which also included existing investors Andreessen Horowitz and Peter Thiel's Founders Fund.
We spent the day at AltSchool's Fort Mason location, where tuition is more than $20,000 a year, to see its tech-savvy education in action.
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 a dozen or so tech tools developed by the school's 50-person 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 collaborate with families and students to design a set of goals for the learner based on the student's interests, passions, strengths, and weaknesses.
Each child receives a weekly 'playlist' of individual and group activities that are aimed at achieving those goals. This student is writing an entry for his blog on coin collecting.
This 8-year-old demonstrates a game of Pac-Man using MaKey MaKey, a simple circuit board that transforms everyday objects into touchable user interfaces ...
He attaches alligator clips to four mounds of clay and tapes one clip to himself. When he taps the clay and completes the circuit, the computer interprets 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 spend the morning knocking a shared item off their playlists: 'writing the news.' These guys are chronicling a recent trip to the park.
Technology isn't necessary to complete all activities, but it is used to document students' work. This student takes a picture of her news clipping using an iPad and uploads the image to her playlist.
The classroom, like the tech, fosters AltSchool's individualized learning approach. Students sprawl across the room on carpets, bean bags, and even lofts of their own construction.
Classrooms are treated like stations, rather than designated areas for particular grade levels, and 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 says. 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, who was wearing an Iron Man T-shirt, built a parkour course. He's writing a parent permission slip on his Google Chromebook now.
His classmate learned from online tutorials how to use the 3D-modelling software SketchUp, and she designed an urban-garden-inspired seating area for the unused deck on the second floor. There's 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 says she loves how the assignments 'bend to your ability.'
Next school year, the number of micro-schools in the AltSchool system will double, including a location in Brooklyn, New York.
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