AltSchool burst onto the education scene last year, promising to solve problems that have been frustrating school leaders for years. Personalized learning, parent-teacher collaboration, scaleable cost structures–no challenge seemed to daunt founder and CEO Max Ventilla, a serial entrepreneur and former rising star at Google.
Educators may have been skeptical, but Silicon Valley parents and technology leaders embraced Ventilla’s vision. Now, after a year of experimentation, AltSchool is looking to grow: This fall the company plans to enroll 500 students in eight micro-schools, including a new location in Brooklyn.
“In New York there’s way more demand for quality schools than the traditional market can supply,” Ventilla tells Fast Company, making the Big Apple a logical first choice for geographic expansion. The remaining seven school sites will be in and around San Francisco.
“We have done everything we can to make the AltSchool model something that benefits from scale,” he says. “The more locations you have in a city the more options you can provide to families,” from decreased commuting time to increased curricular offerings.
Brooklyn founding teacher Mara Pauker trained onsite at AltSchool headquarters for months; now she’s managing the admissions process and beginning to hire staff for the startup’s new location on Montague Street.
“Brooklyn admissions is bit more serious than other places,” she says. So far, AltSchool Brooklyn has received 650 applications for 60 spots.
AltSchool teaching placements are even more competitive; for this current school year, the company says that 2,200 educators applied for just 20 openings. In addition, Ventilla has recruited senior executives from Google, Uber, Rocket Fuel, and Zynga to lead his growing team of 80.
Other schools are exploring similar “micro” models, which limit school size to around Dunbar’s number and emphasize child-centered, self-directed learning. Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, is a favorite of education insiders, and NOLA Micro Schools plans to open this fall, offering New Orleans parents an alternative to the city’s dozens of new KIPP-style charter schools. Before AltSchool, Pauker taught at the Blue School, a progressive private school that helped pioneer the idea that children who master self-awareness and self-control make for better learners. AltSchool is so far the only one to have raised venture capital.
The question facing AltSchool–with its aspirations “to empower all children to achieve their full potential,” emphasis on “all”–is whether all parents will warm to the company’s radical approach. Ventilla says he’s interested in partnering with city governments, envisioning a world in which micro-schools have become so pervasive that school zoning laws become obsolete. But parents outside of Silicon Valley may balk at the idea of a classroom where students don wearables for safety purposes, in order to track their location, and follow a weekly, adaptive playlist, rather than a set curriculum.
Ventilla, a parent himself, continues to set a high standard for AltSchool’s progress and quality. “It’s so complex what you have to do to deliver a school environment that is suited to the demands of the 21st century,” he says. And on that point, at least, other school leaders are bound to agree.