Tuesday, October 22, 2013

DadintheFog: AltSchool

San Francisco is blessed to be a strong incubator of new ideas and new technology.  This crossing of education and technology is now moving away from just instruction design and education aids into the actual schools.  In 2010, Twitter’s Chief Scientist and Founder helped launch Alta Vista School.  This year, former Google engineers are bring their entrepreneurial spirit to the arena via AltSchool.  (You may have seen AltSchool pop up in your Facebook feed or on Google searches.)

Their vision stems from imagining what education needs to be for the 2030s (when the current class are graduating high school and entering college/the work force) and looking for ways to make children confident “problem seekers”.  Their method of getting there is through customization.

AltSchool is a definite departure from the standard school model.  Their key idea is to build small “micro schools” designed to facilitate learning specifically for their current students.  Think of the model as "schools through the lens of localization and customization".  Instead buying a building and taking in the right number of kids to fill the space, AltSchool wants to bring in as much space as is needed, in small increments designed for the students that attend.  For example, they propose being able to localize the facilities close to where the parents are or where educational opportunities are abound.  Each class can then be curated to the needs and interest of the kids.  If one school wants to focus on arts, open a location near museums.  If another on biotech, open near UCSF.  In this way, the educational experience can improve with scale – more micro schools equal more customization and individualization with the flexibility for students to move about as needed to maximize their learning potential.

The curriculum is a real-world project-based learning structure.  Students take on roles within each exercise to facilitate learning individually and collaboratively across the team.  AltSchool also develops personalized learning plans for each student with both reflection and iterative adjustments in the design.

The classes are blended rather than grade specific.  There is a clear philosophical decision to teach each child at his/her own level rather than an age based grade criteria.  Since every child comes to each subject at a different skill level, AltSchool plans to individualize the lesson plans.  For example, recently the 12 current students visited Smitten Ice Cream for a field trip.  Kids were able learn about the entrepreneurial nature of starting the business, the science behind making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, math games related to selling ice cream (teaching supply and demand) and delve into each area at their own level.

AltSchool also embraces the ability to “clean slate” a child and move them into different micro schools are appropriate.  As a child grows and changes, they believe the needs and resources available to the child should change and grow.  This may mean moving into a new micro school with a fresh set of students.  As AltSchool’s founder and CEO Max Ventilla said no one would want to stay in the same job for 9 years, why would we want to force a child into the same school for that long.

For next year, AltSchool will be expanding for their single DogPatch location today to three locations.  The two new locations will be near the Presidio and one in central San Francisco (maybe the Mission).  One location may end up being specific to middle school aged kids.  The current location consists of a single room divided up onto library, kitchen, classroom tables, whiteboard space, and a play area.  The space was nicely furnished, but sparse, and felt comfortable, but definitely not traditional.  There was some inspired student artwork on the walls.  I couldn’t help think that this was a mix of a retail space and a one room school house.

I didn’t see or hear of any outdoor play space at the current location, but they mentioned that LionHeart does come to provide some sport/physical education.  (Our kid attends LionHeart classes now through his preschool and we love them.) 

A parent of two of the current students was very positive in her view of the school.  She mentioned how her kids are thriving by being able to work at their own pace.  She also talked of how she feels actively a part of the teaching team.

The funding of the school was never discussed in the presentation.  Their website states, “AltSchool's tuition currently covers approximately half of the cost of providing an AltSchool education. We cover the gap between tuition and costs with private funding. AltSchool does not require parents to participate in fundraising activities.”  I do wonder about the long term funding and would want a commitment on a significant lead time if the school was to consider closing.  I would always fear the school being shuttered if the private funding disappeared.
My Take on AltSchool:
Many years ago, while taking a child development class for by bachelor’s degree, I was able to assist in teaching art in an alternative education school which utilized blended-aged learning.  This school was much larger than AltSchool and that fact definitely changed the overall dynamic – however it left me with a strong negative reaction to blended-age learning.  The younger kids often struggled to keep up, even with the kids a year or two older, and the older kids really didn’t want to be grouped with the younger.  All of this could change if AltSchool really is able to grow and become large enough to support more age specific classes.  I like the promise of customized education, but I have concerns how they are really going to get there.

I was also surprised that the overview never shared any technology for the school.  While they highlighted having 8 Google engineers on board, they didn’t provide any examples of how they added to the educational mix.  There was no discussion of instructional design, curriculum development, etc.  And to add to lack of tech expertise, their presentation crashed repeated forcing the speakers to work from memory.

I will not be pursuing AltSchool for our son.  But I will keep watching what they are doing. It would be fascinating to see if they are able to grow the school to truly fulfill the idea of increased customization and localization.  It’s a great idea, but great ideas don’t always succeed.  During the overview, the AltSchool team mentioned they define success if they are able to create a school that they would want to attend (not just that their children could attend).  I wish them luck – they peaked my attention with their passion, but now want to see if they can deliver.

If you interested, check out their website and sign up for a tour.  The website continues to add new content and provide additional info on their philosophy (and hopefully soon will replace the stock photos with actual students, parents and educators).

DadintheFog Stats (Here are a few stats I found important):
Student to Teacher Ratio:  8 to 1
Currently Enrollment:  12 students (K-5, will be K-8 next year)
Tuition: $19,100 (tuition assistance possible)
Their website states that tuition includes all activities, field trips, technology devices and classroom supplies.
Lunch available for additional fee.
Regular admissions and Fast-track (early admissions) available.
Website:  http://www.altschool.com

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