AltSchool, a San Francisco-based startup, raised $100 million on the backs of “microschools.” Now, it’s focusing less on building campuses and more on sharing and selling its technology.
During 2016’s SXSWedu, AltSchool CEO and co-founder Max Ventilla launched “ AltSchool Open,” a partner program where anyone interested in developing or transforming a school could apply to use the technology that runs AltSchool’s seven campuses. Today, the company has selected three partners for the first cohort of AltSchool Open.
“The past three years, we’ve been working mainly behind closed doors,” says Coddy Johnson, AltSchool’s current COO and a former video game publisher. “The promise has always been to make an education that the most children can access. So, let’s get started.”
Combing through more than 200 applications, the team chose schools that best articulated a need for personalized learning support, and help aligning their pedagogy and curriculum with state and Common Core standards. Here’s what Johnson has to say about the three chosen schools:
- Berthold Academy, outside of Washington, D.C.: “Rodney Berthold is one of the premiere leaders nationally in thinking about Montessori education, but what he’s found is that he needs to give his teachers and students the space to talk more about the students’ journey.”
- The Greene School in West Palm Beach, Florida: “It’s a progressive school, but it also takes a constructivist approach.”
- Temple Beth Sholom Day School in Miami Beach, Florida: “It’s based in the Reggio Emilia philosophy, but it’s also religious. As you move Reggio into the upper grades, it can be hard to tie them back to standards, and we want to help them with that.”
Many applications came from charter and large public schools, Johnson adds. But in the end, his team chose to “roll out with schools that look a lot like our own schools—independent [and] private.” This preference aligns with the company’s early plans for AltSchool Open. “We’re trying to avoid going head first into the broadest swath of schools,” Johnson says.
He adds that partnering with charter schools and traditional district public schools will eventually happen, but it’ll be further down the line. AltSchool plans to bring in district public school partners hopefully within the next 3-5 years. And charters? Partnering with charter schools will likely involve more discussions around better preparing students for college. “We had a lot of conversations with large, no-excuses charter networks, and the big problem is college persistence,” Johnson says. “That’s really where they need and want to focus on: student agency.”
Over the next year, AltSchool will provide the three partner schools with support and access to its tools, including gradebooks, curriculum and assignments, all built by in-house engineers. “Many of our partners have likened it to a learning management system,” Johnson claims.
Garrett A. Wilhelm, co-founder and Head of School at Berthold Academy, is excited to integrate the platform into his school, which operates on the Montessori instructional approach. Typically, a Montessori approach to education means a lot of student freedom, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and little technology—and the success of this approach can sometimes be challenging to quantify. “[We want to] bring technology to Montessori education in a meaningful and thoughtful way without losing the human experience,” he says. The Montessori approach, he believes, “has had very little tangible data to prove its amazing benefits.”
For all its lofty intentions, the AltSchool technology doesn’t come free. AltSchool Open will be a key revenue source for the company. Each school partner is currently paying AltSchool an undisclosed sum of money, and in the future, every school that uses AltSchool’s platform will pay some sort of recurring fee. “Right now, we ask schools, ‘Financially, what works for you in your environment?’” Johnson says. “And then, in a 3 to 5 year window, there will be a more standard fee and business model.”
AltSchool is hardly alone in franchising its educational technology and model. Lindsay Unified announced in May its plans to share strategies and resources rooted in its competency-based model. Summit Public Schools, a charter network based in California, has been expanding its Basecamp network, which trains educators on its digital “Personalized Learning Platform.” There’s one notable difference, however: Basecamp is free.
Johnson argues that the difference is bigger than cost. “With Summit, you can talk to the partners and they’ll say there’s a very specific recipe [in Basecamp],” he says, referencing the specific instructional model that Summit employs. “But we’re trying to create a kitchen where a number of disciplines (Reggio, Montessori, etc.) could use this platform.”
Johnson also adds that he doesn’t see Summit as a competitor, or any of the other school systems looking to franchise their model out.
“We see them as advancing everything we all want,” he says. “We’re big admirers. We watch what they’re doing, and it’s fantastic.”