Business Insider recently reported that numerous families have grown frustrated with the education their children are receiving at AltSchool, an ambitious San Francisco-based edtech company that four years ago began opening physical grade schools and promising a personalized learning approach that would far surpass the standardized education most kids receive.
It’s not just parents who have growing concerns about AltSchool, however. Educators also question whether AltSchool is the next best thing in education, or whether instead the for-profit company could hamper the prospects of the children with whom it works, and those it might impact down the road.
Seemingly, exasperation with AltSchool has been building over the last year. It was then that the company — which had originally touted plans to expand its network of schools and classrooms — publicly switched gears, announcing it would instead license its nascent program to other schools that want to embrace more individualized techniques.
Frustration has more recently reached a boiling point, with one mother comparing her children to “guinea pigs” in conversation with BI.
The term echoes conversations that we’ve also had with a handful of AltSchool families in recent months. At a September birthday party attended by numerous parents, one mother told us she’d pulled two children out of the program and placed them in a neighborhood public school; the rest of the parents in attendance said they were actively working to place their children elsewhere next fall. The biggest reason they cited was that their kids are falling behind academically. One mother, who asked not to be named, told us that in addition to paying yearly tuition of roughly $30,000, “We’re all spending a fortune on tutoring to supplement what our kids aren’t learning.”
Another mother of two at AltSchool told us she spoke recently to the head master of one of San Francisco’s toniest private schools, and he suggested to her that she transfer her children elsewhere if she hopes to see them admitted to the institution he oversees.
Compounding their anger these days is AltSchool’s more recent revelation that its existing network of schools, which had grown to seven locations, is now being pared back to just four — two in California and two in New York. The move has left parents to wonder: did AltSchool entice families into its program merely to extract data from their children, then toss them aside?
Asked about such unhappiness, Max Ventilla, the former Google executive who founded and runs the company, tells us the decision to shrink AltSchool’s physical footprint can be traced to “greater demand than we were expecting” for AltSchool’s software — which it has already licensed to half a dozen private and public school systems, and for which it’s charging between $150 and $500 per student per year, depending on the size of the school.
“Our motivation for reducing the number of schools is so we can deliver the highest-quality experiences at schools that remain and with our limited resources, grow [the software side of AltSchool’s business] faster than originally planned,” says Ventilla.
He adds that the decision to close locations in Palo Alto, San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood and New York City’s East Village has nothing to do with the company’s finances, as recently reported in Bloomberg. On the contrary he says, AltSchool is about to close its Series C round. It also has “$60 million in the bank and additional debt and funding we can draw on.”
Still, it’s probably valid to ask whether AltSchool should be productizing and selling its software to other schools already. Right now, both insiders and outsiders suggest it’s too soon.
Jennifer Carolan is a co-founder and general partner at Reach Capital, a venture fund focused on early-stage education technology start-ups. She notes that from the outset, AltSchool marketed the kind of personalized approach to education that parents are hungry for and that builds on a decades-long trend away from one-size-fits-all schooling to schooling that’s more tailored to the needs of individual children.
Nevertheless, she says, personalized learning is “extremely challenging to implement well.” Indeed, while Carolan spent time at AltSchool when it was getting off the ground and concluded it had many innovative ideas, she worried that the availability of too much capital to the company while it was still iterating on its model may have led it to “scale prematurely.”
Reach chose not to invest. Other investors have dived in. AltSchool has so far raised $175 million, including from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and prominent venture firms, including Founders Fund and Andreessen Horowitz.
Paul France, an enthusiastic young educator who spent four years as a public school teacher before spending the next three years at AltSchool, understands well the school’s appeal. He also has concerns, however, particularly about the brand of personalized learning that AltSchool, and other newer schools, are promoting.
“When I first arrived at AltSchool, we were opening new schools. There were lots of cool people to talk with and very cool ideals floating around.” He thought the “whole premise of personalized learning was very intriguing.”
Three years later, France says, he came to feel drastically different about the approach. “We live in this individualistic society that values personalized learning right now, almost to a fault. It’s ‘me, me, me.’ But it’s not a solution to any real problem in education.”
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