How AltSchool Blends Old-Fashioned Learning with New Technology

column | PK-12 School Models

How AltSchool Blends Old-Fashioned Learning with New Technology

By Mary Jo Madda (Columnist)     Feb 26, 2015

How AltSchool Blends Old-Fashioned Learning with New Technology

Everyone wants to see what AltSchool is doing with its $20,000 yearly tuition fee for students—on top of $33 million in venture funding from legendary Silicon Valley investors like Andreessen Horowitz and John Doerr.

Indeed, there are a lot of things that money can buy. But there’s more to running a school than just purchasing expensive laptops and software. Having seen one of AltSchool’s four school sites and talked to its teachers, I discovered that there are lessons in running a school that any district can soak up.

A visit to one of AltSchool’s “micro-schools” reveals that school innovation isn’t simply about fancy equipment, but rather how successful students can be when they learn in small, personalized communities that champion project-based learning, guided by educators who get a say in the technology they use.

Let’s take a peek into one of these “micro-schools.”

MISSION: Champion smaller, diverse communities

From its inception, AltSchool focused on creating small learning communities. In 2013, Max Ventilla, a former Google product manager, started the school with a small group of five families and around 20 students between the ages of five and 10. He eschewed grade levels and standardized tests in favor of what he called a “micro-school” model with “learner-centered curriculum,” which focused on student “playlists” that tap into individual learning needs.

Each class has no more than 25 students, and each of AltSchool’s four campuses in San Francisco today include no more than four classes each. Students get a fair amount of attention, especially since each class has two teachers. In all, AltSchool currently has 150 pre-K to 8th grade students from around the Bay Area. Not all of them are being charged the full $20K tuition; Director of Education Carolyn Wilson says that 40% are “able to acquire full or partial financial aid.”

In class, students don’t just hang out with their peers of the same age. And that’s key to AltSchool’s approach to helping students teach and communicate with one another. Students become part of a community of students grouped in pre-K to 1st grade, 2nd to 5th grade, or 6th to 8th grade--becoming both mentees and mentors of their fellow students with each passing year.

This type of grouping also ensures that students bond with educators, as students get three to four coveted years with their classroom teachers instead of one, shares Wilson.

CURRICULUM: Project-based, real-world lessons and pedagogy pushes learning

Not only is AltSchool attempting to dissolve grade levels—it’s also trying to breaking the physical confines of a school. And it’s all part of a philosophy rooted in project-based learning and real-world lessons.

Field trips are a weekly occurrence—and key to how AltSchool attempts to connect what kids learn in school to the real world. Each week, students pay a visit to the likes of the Walt Disney Family Museum and Mission Science Workshop.

Take a common bridge project in most math and science classrooms, for example. While visiting AltSchool’s Fort Mason campus, I saw a classroom of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students crafting presentations around different types of bridges. But here’s the twist: the only eighth grader in the class, Zen, shared with me that he and his classmates had used their own stride as “a unit of measurement for the entire Golden Gate Bridge” while walking across it the day before.

Classroom instruction and assignments are overwhelmingly rooted in project-based learning; activities include making irrigation systems while learning about water, building a drone, modeling the characterization in Puccini’s “La Boheme” and even doing yoga. Many of the activities get kids out of their chairs and into conversations and action, according to Wilson.

“We encourage them to not just be a problem solver, but a problem seeker,” she says.

Students also learn more beyond traditional subject matters; every day they take part in social-emotional learning (SEL) activities, during which teachers cover topics like friendship and sharing. Teacher Katie Gibbons says that her colleagues, “integrate the teachings of psychologist Marshall Rosenberg and speech language pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner.”

Wilson agrees with Gibbons, adding, “Winner’s theory of ‘Social Thinking’ really focuses on giving students the tools to listen to others, but also reflect on their own things. We model for them a vocabulary to recognize their own feelings and communicate to others. We want them to build empathy and develop grit.”

TECH STACK AND PD: Personalization for both students and teachers goes hand-in-hand

Most classrooms consist of teachers and students. In AltSchool, you may find a third party—engineers.

Indeed, software developers and researchers work alongside teachers everyday. “All the engineers have ‘buddy teachers’ and study what’s going on in the classroom so they can learn about what’s most effective,” Wilson says. In that sense, AltSchool is personalizing as much for its educators as it is for its kids.

“Teachers will say things like, ‘I really want to be able to systematize this practice,’” Gibbons explains. “Studying teachers, what they need, how it relates to the personalization--that’s the main focus of our engineers and user researchers. We study the hacks and workarounds that teachers use on paper and on a whiteboard, and work that into the platform.”

One of the tools that these developers are constantly tweaking is the Personalized Learning Plan, which shows students their assignments for each day and helps teachers keep track of and assess student’s learning.

Here’s how it supports instruction: On, students log in via their iPads or Chromebooks to see what teachers have assigned them for the day. Teachers will select a “Focus” project or activity-based assignment for the day and send it to students’ playlists, and once it’s completed and submitted by the students, teachers can label it as approved or ask the student to go back and make edits.

A student's view of his or her "playlist" of assignments.

According to teachers, the platform provides a versatile ability to give out varying assignments when teaching kids of different ages. “I can send my second graders one thing, and fourth graders another at the same time,” explains middle school teacher Paul France. “The software really allows us to give our kids directly what they need.”

To assess project-based learning, submissions typically require some sort of documentation, usually in the form of photos of projects taken by students. Teachers can also add comments about the work and share them with students and parents. Most recently, AltSchool engineers developed a new tool, “Alt Video,” that allows teachers to film and later observe student performance. “You can capture these little moments and not miss them,” France says.

The platform has other capabilities as well, including a space for teachers to send notes to parents about individual students, a “classroom composition” tool where teachers can observe their student’s performances as a whole, and a full collection of “learning targets” aligned to Common Core, Next Generation Science, and California state standards.

And that’s not all—AltSchool will open its platform to other districts and schools as a resource. “We know there’s a lot of interest in personalizing education, and we actually want to share this platform with other schools, as well,” Wilson says.

The Future

AltSchool has no plans to slow down. While waiting to see how students have will perform on end-of-the-year MAP tests, the AltSchool central office team is already designing two new campuses for launch in 2015-2016—one location in Palo Alto, CA, and one in Brooklyn, NY.

Given AltSchool’s application numbers--677 students applicants for 150-200 spots in the 2014-2015 school year, and a whopping 2,000 teacher applicants for 25 positions—we’d say there’s a strong chance that AltSchool’s approach is here to stay. But where will that $33M take AltSchool next? The sky’s the limit—as long as students are front and center.

“Our intent was to create an education that really respected children and their capacity to drive their own learning,” Wilson smiles. “If we’re doing that, we’re doing our job.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Curious to learn more? Check out the following NBC Bay Area news TV spot on AltSchool, including an interview with EdSurge writer Mary Jo Madda.

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