Future of Learning

A private school with more than $100 million will share its technology with three other schools

AltSchool to expand its technology system, hoping to grow the model

A tiny private-school network founded by the former head of personalization at Google is extending its reach to three new schools.

AltSchool – a California-based chain that promises to use technology to help teachers provide personal-fit lessons for its students – will share its proprietary technology in 2017 with three independent schools in Virginia and Florida, it announced Tuesday. The schools were selected from more than 200 applicants spanning private, charter and traditional public schools that had sought access to AltSchool’s technology.

As partners, the three schools gain access to a digital platform, one that AltSchool says helps teachers provide a bespoke school experience tailored to the level, interests and pacing of each child. The platform builds a portfolio of student work that complements the strategies for allowing the student to master concepts and skills before moving on. Teachers can track students as individuals and offer short assessments to gauge the students’ progress.

One of the partner schools, Berthold Academy in northern Virginia, is a Montessori school – notable because these schools typically shun excessive use of technology in the classroom.

“We are pushing the boundaries of what they allow,” said Garrett Wilhelm, a co-founder of Berthold Academy.

The other two schools are The Greene School in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Temple Beth Sholom Day School in Miami Beach. The Greene School, supported by philanthropist Jeff Greene, is a progressive school that provides tuition assistance to more than three-quarters of its student body. Temple Beth Sholom is a new Jewish school that will use an approach that emphasizes critical thinking and creativity.

The schools use a platform on digital devices to help teachers personalize learning. For example, a student can work independently on a project, upload a picture of it to the device and it will appear on the teacher’s device for evaluation. Although only in small, private schools now, Alt School wants to grow beyond its self-cultivated laboratory schools, with a long-term goal of finding strategies and solutions that will be useful nationally to bigger schools, including those in the traditional public school system.

“Our goal in the first three years is not how many schools can we reach … it’s about quality,” said Coddy Johnson, the chief operating officer.

AltSchool, a three-year-old program founded by Max Ventilla, generated a flurry of publicity after it raised more than $100 million last year – including funding from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It was a huge investment, especially considering the size and scope of the operation: At the time, the enterprise operated only four schools in California and planned to open four in more locations, including one in New York City. (Those schools opened as planned.)

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

AltSchool is a technology company and a school operator. Educators and developers work side-by-side to create and test the program.  This approach could provide a more seamless transition between those two worlds. This isn’t the case in most schools, where technology arrives via purchases from vendors who operate outside the school system.

At Berthold Academy, which opened in 2015, they believe the AltSchool platform dovetails with the nearly 110-year-old method developed by the Italian educator Maria Montessori. It’s an interesting idea. The Montessori method contains many hallmarks seen in schools that are testing blended and personalized learning – including small group instruction and teaching students at their level rather than rigidly adhering to a grade-level approach.

“It’s so similar to what Montessori had thought of, but super-powered,” said Wilhelm.

There are 50 students in the school, which also offers farm-to-table meals for students, and plans to eventually enroll no more than 100. It’s an ideal environment to test a new program because it will be easier to launch and control. But it might prove difficult to get educators in larger, public schools to see how it’s relevant to their work.

That could come next year. AltSchool plans to again accept applications for those who want to use its technology, and they expect to accept a larger number of partners. They are accepting applications now.

“We picture, over time, going to hundreds of schools,” Johnson said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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