Friday is graduation day at an unusual K-8 school in California — and there is only one graduate. He’s part of an experiment in San Francisco called AltSchool that could re-define how your kids get an education, reports Ben Tracy.
Curiel-Friedman is 13 years old. He’s the only 8th grader and about to become the first graduate of AltSchool.
“Here, we don’t do textbooks. We do computers and I really like that,” student Zev Curiel-Friedman said.
When the kids arrive at the school, the first thing they do is swipe in on a tablet on the wall and then grab their own tablet for class.
There are no bells and no principal. There are two teachers in every classroom and the kids are a mix of ages and grade levels. Curiel-Friedman says there are not even 30 kids in a classroom.
Launched just two years ago, AltSchool is part school, part start-up — an education incubator where kids are the beta-testers.
“We really see ourselves as building an operating system to enable a 21st century education,” AltSchool’s founder and CEO Max Ventilla said.
Ventilla made his mark in the tech world at Google, where his job was to make the Internet a more personal experience for users. Becoming a parent made him want to do the same for education.
“You used to have one-room schoolhouses and then we went to this kind of factory model in the late 1800s,” Ventilla said. “And we’ve had that now for a 100 years and we feel like education models expire after a certain point and we’re past the expiration date for this model and the only way to change that is to have schools that themselves are constantly changing.”
At AltSchool they’re doing just that. Teachers customize lesson plans for each child based on how fast they’re learning. They load what they call “playlists” with subject cards onto the kid’s laptops and tablets.
“My friend, she gets a little harder math cards because she’s on a different level, but I get a little easier cards than her,” student Lia Caracciolo said.
This is all made possible by something the kids never see: an army of programmers and engineers in another room who are tracking the student’s progress and helping the teachers with technology. These cameras record their teaching sessions so they can review it later.
“I’ll go back and I’ll think like ‘Why was that session such a successful lesson? What might I share with other teachers that would help them to understand, you know, something that I feel I just did really well?'” teacher Christie Seyfert said.
AltSchool is still in the process of becoming accredited but has already been dubbed “the school Silicon Valley thinks will save education.”
More than $100 million in funding has come from several technology titans, including the face of Facebook, Mark Zuckerburg. That could explain the hoodies on the kids who are also allowed to listen to music while they work. The school says it is in line with national common core standards, but the kids generally choose what to work on and at what pace. There are periodic tests but no report cards.
“They have responsibilities in terms of what they accomplish each week. They’re assessed in a standards-based way in terms of how they’re progressing,” Ventilla said.
Just two years in, it’s still too soon to know if the AltSchool approach works, but Ventilla plans to take what they learn at the first four AltSchools and build a network of tiny schools across the country. He hopes that will bring the $21,000 per year tuition down and make AltSchool more than just an alternative for the rich. He wants a place all kids can get the education, he says, their future demands.
“They are going to have to shape the world that they live in for their own benefit and for the benefit of those around them and this is where that preparation starts,” Ventilla said.