Image Courtesy of Alt School

Image Courtesy of Alt School

AltSchool is adding new middle and elementary schools in San Francisco.

June 2014

AltSchool Recreating Traditional Schoolhouses

Rebekah Moan

In a complicated world, Altschool’s philosophy is simple. “We wanted to create a school that embodies exactly what we would want if we were students,” said Anna Cueni, the school’s vice president of operations. 

Dogpatch-based AltSchool is a private micro-school network founded by technology entrepreneur and Google executive Max Ventilla in 2013. The kindergarten through eighth grade network emphasizes personalized learning and community-building. The school’s first location, on Third Street, has 20 students in one classroom. Future sites will have 20 to 80 students in one to four classrooms, with a low student-to-teacher ratio. Students are taught in cross-age clusters: kindergarten and first, second through fifth, and sixth through eighth. 

Altschool is creating a series of neighborhood micro-schools that emphasize personalization. “We create a personalized learning experience based on each child’s skill levels, interests, goals, and learning styles,” said Cueni.

As part of the admissions process students are interviewed, and a learner profile is created to reflect each child’s needs and learning styles, which forms the basis for a personalized learning plan. Dubbed a “playlist,” objectives and milestones for each student are identified in mathematics, language arts, science, technology and engineering, arts, foreign language, social and emotional learning, and fitness and physical education. The playlist is technology-based – it requires a computer or tablet screen to access – grounded in the real world, and often involves a hands-on project.

For instance, a student drawn to comic books may craft a project that creates a comic book hero in colonial America. Or a child interested in food might have a math problem that uses a restaurant as an example. The PLP is developed collaboratively with Altschool’s teachers, staff – who tend to have a technological background – family, and even fellow students. Learning experiences built into the curriculum are continually altered as students and teachers gain experience with them in the classroom. 

AltSchool students mix across traditional grade levels. Kindergartners mingle with fifth graders and grades in between. While on paper a student may be a third grader, they could be operating at a fifth grade math level, but have the organizational skills of a second grader. “Education is crafted by a specific child to meet his or her needs specifically,” Cueni said. In Dogpatch the students share the same 2,000-square-feet space, though they engage in different activities.

A typical day at AltSchool starts between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. The wide drop-off window enables families to arrive when it’s convenient for them. Students start their day by picking up their playlist and working on the assigned activities for the week. At 9:30 a.m. the whole school gets together and prepares for a field trip or engages in a general discussion about a topic. Afterwards, the students go back to their playlist, and then may break into small groups. One student may be making a movie, another practicing spelling words, while a third works on math concepts with a teacher. 

After lunch the students walk to My Gym Fitness Center for exercise, both a nod to the school’s small “campus” and part of AltSchool’s commitment to using community resources. Then, the students might have special class programming, such as learning Spanish or playing music. Or they might go on a field trip in Dogpatch, the Mission, Mission Bay, or Potrero Hill.

According to Cueni, students go on field trips twice weekly, to provide them with real-world experience. For instance, the students met a glassblower recently. And they’ve been to the Mission Science Workshop – a hands-on, nonprofit space that educates 3,000 children year-round from 20 San Francisco schools where science is sparse or nonexistent – a couple of times. “We encourage parents to come in and kids go out into the community and meet people,” she said.

“I cannot overstate how thrilled we are; all three of us,” said Diamond Heights resident and AltSchool mom Renee Zavislak. “Ruby [my daughter] has come home every day this week bursting with excitement: ‘Mommy, today we read a book about Helen Keller, and did you know that she couldn't talk OR see OR hear, but then her teacher, Annie, taught her to read?' 'Mommy, I LOVE the Mission Science Center; and can I get a pet snake?’ ‘Mommy, today I made a video with other kids about The Three Bears and then we got to watch it on THE BIG SCREEN!' ‘Mommy, today we read a book called Many Moons and then we drew pictures of what we thought the characters look like.’”

The children can be picked up at around 3 p.m., or remain in aftercare until 6 p.m. “It’s very popular,” Cueni said, of the aftercare program. “At first just a few kids stayed for aftercare and now most stay at least one day a week depending on what activity they might like to do.” The aftercare program mostly serves as an optional extension of the school day, with the students working from their playlist, though the focus is on art and nature programs. 

AltSchool’s tuition is $18,400, increasing to $19,100 this fall. Tuition assistance is offered based on financial need. The school practices blind admissions, because it wants a mix of students, according to Cueni. “We want a wide range of children, not to pride ourselves on how many students we reject and to have a low acceptance rate,” she said. The school wants to create a balance in terms of its students’ qualities, what types of learners are in the classroom, how enthusiastic or focused they are, how well they’ll be able to learn from each other, what the social dynamics will be, and how manageable a classroom will be for a teacher. 

“I love school so much,” said one five-year-old student. “I never want to leave. It’s just like being home, except you learn.” 

Next year, AltSchool will add two middle schools, one South-of-Market, the other in the Marina that will also feature an elementary school, as well as another elementary campus in Hayes Valley. The company is scouting locations in Palo Alto, Mountain View, and the East Bay, and plans to expand throughout the Bay Area and other U.S. locations, including New York City, in the next few years. 

AltSchool is privately funded by venture and philanthropic sources. It raised a $33 million Series A round of financing last March from Founders Fund, Andreessen Horowitz, First Round Capital, Harrison Metal, John Doerr, Jonathan Sackler, Learn Capital, Omidyar Network, and other investors. Following that funding round, AltSchool initiated the process of becoming a certified B Corporation.

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