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Max Ventilla

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My Daughter's First Day at AltSchool

Posted by Max Ventilla

Aug 30, 2016 4:53:34 PM

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When we started AltSchool, we had the lofty goal to create a place where parents would be more than happy to send their children; they might even be a little jealous of their children for getting to go. Three and a half years later, my daughter Sabine started at AltSchool this week. I feel that littlest bit of jealousy alongside enormous excitement.

My daughter is so different from me, and the world she is growing up in is so different from that of my childhood. But, I am reassured knowing that Sabine goes to school with exceptional educators who have the freedom and support to prioritize her development. I am thrilled that, as my daughter grows and her passions and strengths evolve, my wife and I can expect her school experience to meet her needs academically and socially. I’m grateful that as a family, we can deeply engage in our daughter’s education while preserving flexibility for our family life.

It is wonderful to get to be part of a school that is changing as fast as my child and the world around us. Every year, the AltSchool team looks back on the past twelve months and, in partnership with our school communities, we focus on the most meaningful changes we can make. We incorporate relevant research from the education space and explore what is possible as an organization with deep technical capabilities. To begin this school year better than the last, our engineers worked on tools that could enable the creation of a rich portrait of each student that could build in depth and breadth each year. As a parent, I am eager to be involved in the creation of that Portrait and to be able to follow my daughter’s journey.

At AltSchool, Sabine will be with adults all day who model a growth mindset. As a parent, I am proud to be part of this 21st century approach to education that will empower not only my child but, with time, many many more children. I look forward to sharing the journey with all of the new and returning families at AltSchool both here in the Bay Area and in New York City.

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Topics: School, Thoughts from Our Founder

Next Stop, Brooklyn

Posted by Max Ventilla

Nov 6, 2014 11:49:54 AM

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View of New York City from the Greenway, Brooklyn Heights.

It’s official -- AltSchool is expanding beyond the Bay Area, and I am thrilled to announce that our next location will be in Brooklyn, NY.

A few questions have come up regarding this important step in AltSchool’s growth:

Why expand beyond the Bay Area?

With 4 locations around San Francisco, we are still new to the Bay Area, and we are excited to have built a community that will help us expand here. We continue to take advantage of all that the area has to offer us and our students, from incredible expert resources to local environments that foster AltSchool’s brand of interest driven, real-world learning.

Growing around San Francisco has demonstrated the value that an expanded network affords our community, which is why its time to go beyond the Bay area. I’ve spoken and written about the importance of scale at AltSchool and how growth will help us improve the education for all of our students. For many reasons, New York -- and more specifically, Brooklyn Heights (where we also keep our east coast AltSchool office), has become the logical next step.

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Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights. AltSchool's newest location.

Why Brooklyn?

Anyone who lives around or who has spent time in Brooklyn knows about the active community there. In fact, there are many parallels that have been drawn between the communities in Brooklyn and San Francisco. Brooklyn families are interested in progressive education, in diversity, and in experiential learning.  Brooklyn itself is an incredibly rich environment; full of the types of local experts, resources and cultural experiences that have enabled AltSchool success in the Bay Area.

It should also be known that, when we asked our extended community where we should consider expanding outside of the Bay Area, Brooklyn raised their hand the highest. AltSchool is always looking for interested founding families to help us build new micro-schools and we will continue to strongly consider initial interest as we expand to more geographies.

What will AltSchool bring to Brooklyn?

The families we’ve spoken to in Brooklyn tell us they are ready for the kind of personalized, rigorous learning plans we are now known for in San Francisco.  We’ve already seen their interest in our whole child education, which incorporates aspects of social and emotional learning into every student activity and experience. They also tell us that demand far outweighs supply when it comes to quality K-8 schools in the area.

More broadly, AltSchool is excited to bring -- to Brooklyn and to all future locations -- the promise of the micro-school network experience. From a growing group of outstanding teachers that can tap each other for expertise, to centralized internal functions that do not need to be “dealt with” on an individual school level, there are so many benefits that a growing AltSchool network affords.  Beginning next fall, we can't wait to have Brooklyn part of that extended community of students, parents, and educators.

I invite you to take a look at our admissions calendar and submit an application to join us.

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Mara Pauker, Head of AltSchool Brooklyn Heights.

 
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Topics: Learning in the Community, Locations

The Steep Climb to a Better Education Model

Posted by Max Ventilla

Oct 20, 2014 3:36:00 PM

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Ask a thousand education experts and you’ll get a thousand answers for why we still have such an outdated, underperforming model for education in this country. For us, the answer is somewhat simple - given our past and current constraints, the current model “makes sense”.

Take your average classroom with 25 kids in it. Assume that you don’t have extraordinary resources and the children don’t necessarily all want to be there. How would you handle this? If I didn’t have any guidance, I’d probably split up the week into small chunks, perhaps 30 minutes in length, and make a plan for each window of time. I’d single out disruptive children and somehow pressure them into behaving. I’d most likely ignore the children who are disengaged but not causing problems. I’d change the scene often, every hour or so, and essentially run out the clock on the week.

Over time, I’d get to know the children better. They’d trust me more and I’d learn what works better with those kids in my class. What started as chaos would become more ordered. In other words, I’d get to the point where my classroom was the best version of that model that it could be. In mathematical terms, I’d work my way up to the “local maximum” or the highest level of effectiveness, relatively speaking -- given my specific model of teaching.

The problem with hitting your local maximum is that it’s hard to even picture what else is out there -- you know you are at your “relative best” but you don’t know where you sit in the grand scheme. Imagine ascending a mountain in thick fog.  You work your way uphill and reach a peak – without visibility to where the next peak may be. You understand theoretically that there is a “global maximum” somewhere (a highest peak relative to all other peaks - the ultimate best way to teach, not simply the best within a single teaching model), but you have no idea which direction – or in this case, what education model -- to pursue. The only way to make it to the next peak is to break out of your current way of thinking and attempt something truly different -- an intimidating undertaking, given the 25 children that are tethered to you at the moment.

Taking a completely different path in education is not possible for most educators. Many worry that they may “throw out the good with the bad” and disrupt elements of the school day that are actually working. They consider that perhaps the school year should be longer, for example, but that means they must figure out a way to pay teachers more, or find teachers with a different setup at home; not to mention parents with different expectations for vacation.

At AltSchool, we are on a continuous quest for the global maximum.  But we are carefully navigating the education frontier and checking in constantly with students, parents, and teachers to ensure we aren’t off base. We are doing our research as we go, continuously testing and measuring, and living our discoveries. While we certainly can’t say we’ve hit the peak, we are finding new local maximums regularly along the way.

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Topics: Thoughts from Our Founder

School as a "Long Now" Project

Posted by Max Ventilla

Jun 23, 2014 4:15:00 PM

ExploreCloseUpLately, I’ve been fascinated by Long Now projects -- innovations that are designed with a 10,000 year timeframe in mind. As someone who came from tech, founding and exiting my last two startups in less than five years, I am now tackling a system that has been around for centuries. In other words, my innovation timeline has shifted.

The truth is, my career has been building up to this big “long now” swing for more than a decade – as have the careers of those who have joined me on this path. We approach AltSchool as what will be our life’s work, and we have the vision and resources to build toward that plan. We are starting with hundreds of students, but we are building the broader school system that we aspire to become, impacting students on a scale that is orders of magnitude beyond where we are today.

For this team, there is no quick exit strategy. In contrast to most other valley startups, all executives at AltSchool have signed up to an unusually long 6 year vesting period; I myself have a 10 year vest on my equity. More importantly, I plan to send my own children to AltSchool - from kindergarten all the way to middle school. Even our structures tell a long-term story, as we primarily lease school buildings that will accommodate the lifecycle of students and families who can start in kindergarten and stay in one place for a decade or more.

Our plan for a long future at AltSchool should not be confused with the rate at which we innovate and adapt to that future. All of us here – from our designers and engineers to our educators – are fixated on shortening the traditional cycles of improvement for students and families. For example, every time a playlist activity is completed, the student and teacher are asked to reflect on that activity. Their thoughts impact the playlist a student has the very next week. Our organization is measuring, analyzing and improving continuously so that we can adapt the learning experience on a day-to-day and even hour-to-hour timeframe.

This is most clear to me when I realize that AltSchool didn’t even exist a year ago. It is humbling to all of us here when we remember how recently we started, and how quickly we found families willing to take a chance on us. That’s why we hold ourselves to the same standards as our students; working on constant improvement amidst expanding horizons -- driving toward the Long Now of education.
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Topics: AltSchool Innovation, Thoughts from Our Founder

Education as a 21st Century Good

Posted by Max Ventilla

May 22, 2014 4:57:00 PM

21stCenturyEdFor centuries, the best schools have been defined by scarcity. Stanford made headlines last month for its lowest acceptance rate in history, five percent. At the K-12 level, the country’s top private schools are also known for their incredibly low acceptance rates.

This is not a concept limited to education. In decades past, those who strove for the best would work hard to avoid what the ‘masses’ were doing. Every aspect of their lives -- food, clothing, entertainment, transportation -- featured possessions and services that could only be enjoyed by the elite few.  

Industries’ ability to scale has changed all this. Today, scarcity increasingly fails to define what is “best.” The same Oscar-winning movies are downloaded into palatial estates and cramped apartments. The same iPhones are used by middle school children and billionaires. The privileged few may get to experience things sooner (e.g. attend a movie premiere at a festival or get the latest $499 iPhone instead of the $99 past generation model), but they are not getting something fundamentally different. Creating an exceptional experience at scale enables organizations to develop world-class products that suit the needs of all.

As production becomes increasingly scientific and digital, products actually get better with scale through network effects. As markets become massive, producers invest in quality at scale and consumers benefit from a larger variety of options. By using a phone that hundreds of millions of other people use, a user gets access to a platform of applications that simply wouldn’t be built for a phone that only served a thousand uber-rich customers. The same goes for other innovative, modern products, either online like Gmail and Facebook or offline like Priuses and best selling novels.

Large and open markets foster a kind of natural selection that drives iterative improvements: the better a product or service is, the more people use it. The more people use it, the better it becomes. As the network grows, we learn more about what works (and what doesn’t). Information from the network pressures the system to evolve to meet the changing needs of the people using it. Furthermore, as demand increases for each successive product, the producer can invest more in improvement.

In contrast to those leading 19th century goods characterized by scarcity, our leading 21st century goods increasingly win out through scale. Consumers flock to versions of an item used by 200,000 people, rather than 200, because everything about it improves with wider distribution.

The education that we have in this country is still regrettably a 19th century good.

AltSchool is advancing an alternative model for education as a 21st century good.

We built AltSchool to get better with scale. As our micro-school network grows from hundreds to thousands to millions of enrolled students in the years and decades to come, AltSchool will transform to provide a continuously higher quality learning experience for all. This works for the same reasons as with other goods:

1) Every class improves as additional classes are added to the network: We test new ideas in our classrooms and share what we find with other classrooms in our network. We know that classrooms are unique and what works for one might not work for another, but with a big enough set, we can detect patterns. If the same projects are working well for a classroom in San Francisco and another in New York, those teachers, once individual workers, find benefits to collaborating on projects or teaching strategies in the future.

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2) Mass customization gains efficiencies with a growing population: As more teachers create playlists and more students use them, AltSchool will better understand which playlists work best for which students. With more student trajectories, we’ll let students who exhibit similar interests, learning styles, or goals benefit from playlists that are increasingly similar.

3) Micro-schools have the ability and pressure to evolve: Schools today have a hard time improving because educators can’t tell what’s working until long after particular practices have been put into place. Even when causal relationships are established, school systems have a built-in bureaucracy and a year-long cycle that inhibits change at a reasonable rate. This is why, for the most part, schools have not evolved much in the past hundred years.

AltSchool course-corrects on at least a weekly basis so we can address what is suboptimal and double down on what shows positive results. We do not have an entrenched layer of administration staff at each micro-school, either. Instead, each classroom is independently led by a team of educators. They exchange information daily with each other and with our in-house team of designers, engineers, and researchers to improve the school experience.

Natural selection is at work at AltSchool, and it is shifting our view of education in fundamental ways. While nobody can see the future, Altschool is preparing our students for the world of tomorrow by keeping up with their ever changing goals and opportunities today. By changing ourselves, we not only best serve our students; we also model for students what it means to be flexible, to take risks, and to constantly reflect.  

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Topics: AltSchool Innovation, Thoughts from Our Founder

Unbundling Schools

Posted by Max Ventilla

Mar 31, 2014 1:20:00 PM

Most weeks, I spend my time talking to parents and kids, working with technologists and teachers, and looking to new research for ways to continuously improve AltSchool. But lately, thanks to our hard work and good fortune, I’ve been speaking more to the press.

It has been eye opening to re-enter the world in which a reimagined education isn’t the norm. I’m reminded that, to the rest of the world, education represents a long term choice among fixed options; the implicit question posed to people applying to traditional kindergartens is, “What unpersonalized school experience do you want for the next decade of your child’s life?”  

At its heart, AltSchool is the opposite of this.

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At AltSchool, because we offer a totally personalized education for every student, we can remove traditional education constraints - such as grouping children based on age or starting all children in a classroom on the same first day of school. We aren’t offering a single way of teaching or a limited package of extra-curricular activities. We aren’t even offering a single view of the school calendar or when the school day starts. Instead, we offer flexibility so that we may create the ideal experience for any family.  

Each of our students spends the bulk of his or her classroom time working through a personalized playlist of projects and activities, curated by our teachers.  Each weekly playlist consists of fifteen to twenty cards that, together, represent the individual experiences that educate each child in the way he or she learns best in a diverse classroom setting.

The plasticity and natural self-pacing allowed by the playlist approach lets us accommodate training schedules for elite athletes/artists or travel schedules for families who wish to be away outside of fixed vacation days.  We can similarly adapt to situations where the classroom teaching resources change; when one of the pair of classroom teachers is sick or when an unexpected learning opportunity (like an expert visiting the classroom) arises.   

Unbundling is not new -- especially for those of us coming from technology. In a classic example that shaped my career, I watched Microsoft ship software every two years while Google constantly updated its online products “under the hood.” Generally, Google’s small innovations went unnoticed, but over time products adapted by leaps and bounds -- far out-pacing Microsoft innovations.  In similar fashion -- through flexibility, performance data, and user-feedback (like the student reflections baked into each playlist card’s completion) -- AltSchool evolves and innovates on timescales that make traditional schools appear glacial in comparison.

Unbundling is not going away. We have no doubt that in the future, for example, instead of owning one car long term, we will choose which vehicle we need for any given situation. We’ll invest in the opportunity to have the right vehicle for commuting, heading out on a road trip, carpooling, enjoying a sunny drive, or hauling big items. We’ll compromise less and use what we need more in all the ways that most influence our standard of living (transportation, health, education, etc.).

Education should be a flexible service rather than a fixed good in the way that software is today and that automobiles, in an era of car-sharing, are starting to be. The overall trend in the US economy is for more and more companies to offer services that change over time and that respond to the changing needs of individual consumers.  AltSchool represents that very different approach to learning that embraces change and personalization day to day and week to week, not only year to year.  Education as a service should be the norm in an Internet age and it’s our ambition at AltSchool to accelerate this transition at massive scale -- and sooner than you’d think.

 
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Topics: AltSchool Innovation, Thoughts from Our Founder

A Big Day for the AltSchool Team

Posted by Max Ventilla

Mar 18, 2014 6:32:00 AM

Max_Ventilla_for_AltSchoolA year ago, what started as a preschool search for my daughter became a hard look at today's education options. The next thing I knew, the question of whether we'd be admitted to the right school for us became a quest to create ideal options for more parents. In starting a new school system that can scale and improve with scale, we have stood on the shoulders of giants; from both the education space and from the broader technology space around us. I am incredibly grateful for what’s been possible in twelve short months.

Not long after I had the idea of AltSchool, I was joined by more than a dozen world-class team-members -- child-centered educators, engineers, designers, and operations experts -- many of whom I’d had the pleasure of working with in the past. Together we opened a pilot school (in two months) that fully personalized education in a classroom setting. Since then, we’ve kept learning by doing, building technologies to better serve students, parents, and teachers. The thirty-three million dollars in Series A funding that we’re announcing today allows us to keep building AltSchool’s R&D engine, offering continuously improving, customized, whole-child learning across a growing number of AltSchools throughout the Bay Area.

We are thrilled to have Founders Fund and Andreessen Horowitz lead this investment round. Their experience with transformational businesses is unmatched and, together, we are committed to bringing that passion and innovation into the world of primary education. The involvement of education heavyweights John Doerr, Jonathan Sackler, Learn Capital, and Omidyar Network underscores the contributions we can make to the school ecosystem in the U.S. and beyond. Finally, we are extremely pleased to receive substantial follow-on funding from First Round Capital and Harrison Metal, who backed us before there was much to back besides an idea and a team.

At AltSchool, we are mission-driven at our core. To that end, I am proud to announce that in conjunction with this fundraise, AltSchool is starting the process to become a certified B Corp. -- a new type of company that uses the power of business to solve social problems. We plan to offer the best education possible for countless students over the coming decades and today marks a massive inflection in our ability to reach that goal. My sincerest thanks to the parents, students, teachers, team-members, and investors who have put their trust in AltSchool to date. We will continue to work incredibly hard to justify that trust.  

Onwards and Altwards...

Funding Press Release

 
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Topics: AltSchool in the Press, Thoughts from Our Founder

Bespoke Education

Posted by Max Ventilla

Mar 12, 2014 12:41:00 PM

KidsDrawingIn recent conversations with friends and AltSchool families, I’ve noticed a shift in comfort regarding “personalized education.” A term that seemed foreign just a few years ago has taken hold and is used regularly by parents, tech companies, and educational institutions.

While I love the new focus on personalization (I built a career at Google around it), I believe the term shouldn’t mean what many people think it means in education. Too often, people equate personalized learning with self-paced learning - offering students information and tests based on their current skill level and at an individualized pace, rather than at a prescribed class pace.

While this is a great first step, personalized learning embodies much more.  Moreover, the mechanism of self-pacing tends to require kids to learn off of a screen. We think iPads and browsers can be a valuable enabler of learning, but we reject the idea that learning should take place primarily on a screen. Instead, we believe that off-screen learning can also be paced according to the needs of each child.

Personalizing the Learning Cycle

At AltSchool, we personalize every key aspect of education for children and their families. From macro-level customization around the classroom environment to micro-level customization around the learning activities for individual students, AltSchool is pushing the envelope on rigorous personalization within a classroomWhile this is impossible to do cost-effectively without extensive research and development, pervasive personalization transforms the learning experience. It maximizes student satisfaction and minimizes frustration throughout the pursuit of a particular learning objective.

To give you an example of how personalized learning differs from traditional learning, consider our approach when a new child enters one of our schools:

Brazil-1Our teachers begin the personalization process from the first moment we meet a child in student interviews. During this time, we begin to understand the child’s strengths, learning styles, goals, and interests. Our teachers use this information to fashion a Learner Profile, which becomes the evolving foundation for a tailored educational experience.

The next step in the AltSchool learning cycle involves creating a Personalized Learning Plan (PLP). The PLP is developed collaboratively with insights from teachers, family, and students. It prioritizes a set of learning objectives and milestones that are informed by a standards-based curriculum. It also includes goals for academic, social, and emotional development. The PLP maps from AltSchool’s global notion of what children should learn and how students generally learn best, as represented by their Learner Profile.   

To meet PLP goals and milestones, each student has a tailored curriculum, or Playlist, of learning activities throughout the week. Playlists include individualized, small group, and whole class learning experiences. Teachers design weekly activities based on the student’s interests and passions to build basic skills, cultivate higher order competencies, and integrate real-world experiences.

As our students progress along their educational journey, we update the Learner Profile, PLP, and Playlists to take into consideration ongoing reflections and observations from teachers, parents, and the students themselves. This is a key component of our approach - to continuously refine as we go.

Personalization allows us to make the learning experience more pleasurable and more effective for students. Equally important, personalization cultivates the agency of each student and allows them to increasingly know themselves as learners and human beings.  




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Topics: Thoughts from Our Founder