At 930 Emerson St. in Palo Alto sits an old car shop with peeling green and white paint on its paneled walls. Soon, this worn building will be turned into a private, tech-based school that represents the possible future of education.
AltSchool, a fledgling private education group, is taking steps toward the future by changing the definition of school itself. Instead of being one location where all students go to learn, AltSchool is connecting all of their locations across the Bay Area through an online platform which combines personalized learning with a “micro-school model.”
This small-school model allows for more intimacy and personalized learning between student and teacher without sacrificing classroom capacity. AltSchool will offer 80 spots for students from kindergarten through eighth grade, where they will learn technology usage and be exposed to new teaching and learning styles.
“In addition to the micro-school model, part of our focus is on personalized, whole child learning,” says AltSchool head of marketing Deborah Kelson. “We are developing a technology platform that teachers can use for personalized learning for each student.”
Part of AltSchool’s personalized learning style allows teachers to create assignments and lessons for individual children based on their interests in various topics. Students can also move up a grade level whenever they are ready, rather than at a given point in time.
According to Palo Alto High School climate teacher on special assignment Eric Bloom, it would be difficult to create a learning style focused around individuals at Paly.
“Private schools get to choose their students, and those students pay a lot of money to have the kind of open and flexible kind of curriculum that AltSchool offers,” Bloom says. “And an eight- or 10-to-one student ratio is simply impossible in a public school setting.”
To make sure that they are prepared for high school and college, AltSchool aims to develop “T-shaped” students, according to Kelson.
The idea of a “T-shaped” student is the basis of AltSchool’s teaching platform. The horizontal part of the T represents the variety of topics taught, whereas the vertical part represents the depth of knowledge that students at AltSchool acquire.
“Most high schools and colleges, they are looking for students that have a really broad base of knowledge but also can go deep in a particularly passionate topic,” Kelson says.
By combining the elements of the Common Core and other state requirements, AltSchool creates a system that gives students the autonomy and flexibility they need to grow as learners.
In what AltSchool calls “playlists,” teachers are able to assign basic tasks to the students such as activities in algebra or time management as well as assignments on a specialized topic that a student chooses. If the child wants to change his or her focus topic, they can do so by taking advantage of AltSchool’s innovative online feedback system, which offers a continuous feedback cycle between the teacher, parent and student.
“Online is fantastic,” says Laura Pacchini, an AltSchool parent. “It is stable, intuitive and has a clean and attractive user interface.”
Furthermore, the online platform allows for the student to easily switch between teachers and still have the same personalized experience throughout their time at AltSchool.
“When students move on to a new teacher, all of the knowledge of the student’s work over the year is traditionally lost,” Kelson says. “Whereas through all of the documentation, the next teacher has the benefit of [having] all the information about the child and can continue to provide personalized education.”
As the student progresses through AltSchool, a “learner portrait” is created which combines all of their work and development.
“When [the student] graduates to go to high school, there is a lot of great knowledge captured about the child,” Kelson says.
With this new method of schooling, parents must make a huge decision regarding the style of education they want to pursue for their children. Since the curriculum constantly changes due to the feedback that AltSchool implements on a regular basis, parents will often have to proceed not knowing exactly what their child will be doing each year.
“It is a leap of faith in some ways for a family to go to a new school,” Kelson says. “For families to want a more traditional school, at this point in our growth, this may not be the perfect fit for them.”
However, AltSchool may be the right fit for parents who want a rigorous, standards-based education that is personalized with a focus on experimental and project-based learning.
“Our choice of AltSchool specifically had the most to do with a concierge approach to education,” Pacchini says. “Our child is very strong in certain areas and needs encouragement in others, which is nicely handled at AltSchool.”
Along with students, teachers have also viewed this as an opportunity to be a part of a change in education.
“What attracts a wide range of teachers to AltSchool is the autonomy that they get within their classroom,” Kelson says. “They are given the tools they need to succeed and the ability to tailor learning based on their students’ interests and needs.”
Jamie Stewart, a member of AltSchool’s Education Team, emphasizes the values which AltSchool stands by as more than academics, but as an all-encompassing learning experience that will ready the child for their long life ahead of them.
“We are setting students up to be successful with not only the academic challenges that they may be faced with after they leave AltSchool, but also [with] the challenges of navigating an ever-evolving world,” Stewart says. “Our goal is for AltSchool students to leave with both an exceptional base of academic skills and also a deep understanding of their own passions, strengths and challenges.”
For students like Pacchini’s child, AltSchool has inspired him to be excited about learning, school and the challenges that lie ahead of him.
“Our child has been at AltSchool since the beginning of this year,” Pacchini says. “Prior to this year, he [my child] dreaded going to school. After the initial adjustment to a new envrionment, he is confident, happy and a very well-adjusted social being.”