Blended Learning

Facebook founder and others invest $100 million in a private school model they hope can take root in the public system

A small private school network in California has developed new education technology that could reshape the nation’s classrooms

Max Ventilla, a founder and CEO of AltSchool.

Max Ventilla, a founder and CEO of AltSchool.

When Max Ventilla ventured into a career in education in the spring of 2013, he left his job as the head of personalization at Google – a company known for its custom-fit technology.

He joined a Silicon Valley company that hired researchers, engineers and educators to work alongside each other to build a school from scratch. The result: AltSchool, a network of private schools built around personalization that has earned the support of powerful allies with deep pockets.

“Personalization is key, not just to make the most use of the time that kids have in school, but also to actually prepare them for the kind of world that they’re going to live in in the future,” said Ventilla, a founder and CEO of AltSchool.

On Monday, AltSchool’s leaders announced that the enterprise had secured $100 million in funding from several investor groups and private philanthropists, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a big leap from the $30-some million raised for AltSchool last year.

AltSchools currently has four private schools in the Bay Area. In a few months, school leaders plan to open new schools in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Brooklyn.

AltSchool is described by its founders as a radical departure from the traditional school model. Students are free to move faster or slower through lessons that match the child’s interests and needs. Teachers, students and parents use technology built and tested by the school’s own engineers. Some of it manages and streamlines administrative tasks, like scheduling. If all goes as planned, the leaders hope that what they’ve created in private schools could take root in the nation’s public school system. In an interview Monday with The Hechinger Report, Ventilla explained that vision.

Question: Expanding any program is notoriously tricky. How are you planning for that growth?

Answer: First off, we have a team that’s focused on it day in and day out, so it’s somewhat of a contained problem. We’re trying to do a lot of things on a lot of different fronts, so having great people, and giving them as much independence as possible, is really key. What we’re already starting to do — which is really a big transition for us – is, by virtue of the scale of the financing, starting to look, not only on the coming school year’s opening, but at 2016-2017 school openings, with even more locations. This is essential, for us to create something that enables others to start a school. In public schools, having a longer time frame for opening is essential. It has been hard, but essential, for us to ensure that we’re building an operating system that is relevant to the realities of a classroom.

Q: You’ve expressed willingness to partner with charter schools and traditional public schools. Do you have any existing schools in mind, or are you thinking more in terms of helping someone create a new public school entirely from scratch?

A: We’re talking to a lot of people. One of the things that excites us the most is working with amazing educators who start public schools where there isn’t a local administrator. They are very independent, but they’re still supported and part of a broader network of schools that we would help enable. We believe the kind of operating system we’re building can be a platform for many different flavors of education, so to speak. You take something like Summit Schools, which we very deeply admire, and it’s certainly a model that others could use. Already they’re working with Facebook in a limited way around something called Basecamp. That is something we would love to help them distribute, so to speak.

Related: A Silicon Valley-based Teach For America program dives into blended learning

Q: Do you think you could have founded AltSchool as a public school? Was it necessary to start as a private school?

A: I can tell you this: We started the company in May of 2013. We had a school up and running that fall. We have four schools as of last fall, and we’ll have eight schools this current fall. If we aimed to start a public school, I think we’d probably be starting our first school in 2016. There’s just no question that you can open schools, you can iterate and innovate far faster with private schools. But ultimately we believe what happens in private can really benefit and impact what’s happening in the charter school realm, in the district public school realm, and in the long term, the home-school realm as well. The original promise of charter schools was that we would have a “million flowers blooming,” and then the innovation in one charter school would spread to the other charters and back to the district public schools, where the majority of students go to school. That hasn’t really happened. It hasn’t happened because it’s so hard to start a school. The only people starting charter schools are the ones, for the most part, who have launched dozens of schools. And KIPP’s 50th school has less innovation than their first did.

Q: Why do you believe in personalized learning?

A: First off, I’ll be candid, I was running the Google personalization team prior to joining AltSchool, and most of the original group of people starting AltSchool, on the technical side, are from that team. We believe that personalization and customization is the way to go in any environment, whether you’re talking about medicine or automotive — even food. It is the best of scale and the best of individualization. We believe that humans are very similarly made, but also absolutely unique in other ways; personalization is the way to strike that balance. Within the school context, personalization is incredibly important because it actually meets each child where they are and motivates them and makes the best use of the precious time that they have in school. The environment that they’re going to live in for their entire adult lives is one where they’re not told what to do. They have to understand themselves and what they need to be happy and successful. We let them chart their own path in a way that leaves the people around them better off. That’s a personalized experience.

Q: Only a third of your staffers are educators. Why is that breakdown different than a traditional school?

A: We are unique in the education realm. We combine equal parts new-model educators, operators and technologists. A third of the company are teachers. A third of the company are engineers. And a third of the company are operators and designers and folks that enable the enterprise to work. The kind of cross-functional collaboration we have is really remarkable in these early stages.

Q: Do you see a future where we need fewer teachers?

A: Our student-teacher ratio is far lower than comparable private schools. We feel technology essentially will be able to spend more of every dollar in the classroom, and be able to hire more educators and compensate them better. You think about the role of an educator, especially in terms what it should look like in the 21st century, and all the tools that we build are to be able to let educators play that role of coach and of detective. They understand where each student is, and the experiences that are going to engage and enable students to achieve their full potential. Compared to a typical high-tech company, we sure have a lot of educators.

Q: Is what you’ve developed affordable for schools in low-income communities?

A: We absolutely believe that this model, in the long run, could deliver an incredibly satisfying experience for students and teachers and parents. In the long run, we are below what schools would otherwise have to spend to do it. That’s a basic R&D [research and development] approach that says, “Let’s spend a lot of money up front, and if we lose a lot of money on each student we will still develop a foundation of improvement that accelerates at a rate where we can continue to make gains over the long-term.” Those gains are across the board. They’re on the quality side. They’re on the flexibility side, and they’re on the cost side. Already today, it’s a very big deal that by not having local administrators — by really using community resources that can complement what can happen within the school — we spend about seventy-five cents of every dollar to fifty cents of every dollar on the classroom.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter to get a weekly update on blended learning.

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Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government,… See Archive