The Rise of AltSchool

As of yet, there is no common definition that covers all these schools, which vary not only by size and cost but also in their education philosophies and operating models. Think one-room schoolhouse meets blended learning and home schooling meets private schooling.

As Matt Candler, founder of 4.0 Schools, writes, “What makes a modern micro-school different from a 19th century, one-room schoolhouse is that old school schools only had a few ways to teach — certainly no software, no tutors, and probably less structure around student to student learning. In a modern micro-school, there are ways to get good data from each of these venues. And the great micro-school of the future will lean on well-designed software to help adults evaluate where each kid is learning.”

Several factors are driving their emergence. Micro-schools are gaining traction among families who are dissatisfied with the quality of public schooling options and cannot afford or do not want to pay for a traditional private-school education. These families want an option other than home schooling that will personalize instruction for their child’s needs. A school in which students attend a couple days a week or a small school with like-minded parents can fit the bill.

Acton Academy

At roughly the same time as QuantumCamp’s founding, in Austin, Texas, Jeff Sandefer, founder of the nationally acclaimed Acton School of Business, and his wife Laura, who has a master’s degree in education, launched Acton Academy. In creating the five-day-a-week, all-day school, the couple sought to ensure that their own children wouldn’t be “talked at all day long” in a traditional classroom. The Acton Academy’s mission is “to inspire each child and parent who enters [its] doors to find a calling that will change the world.” The school promises that students will embark on a “hero’s journey” to discover the unique contributions that they can make toward living a life of meaning and purpose.

Acton compresses students’ core learning into a two-and-a-half-hour personalized-learning period each day during which students learn mostly online. This affords time for three two-hour project-based learning blocks each week, a Socratic seminar each day, game play on Fridays, ample art and physical education offerings, and many social experiences. The Socratic discussions teach students to talk, listen, and challenge ideas in a face-to-face circle of peers and guides.

Early results appear impressive, as the first group of students gained 2.5 grade levels of learning in their first 10 months. Now the school is spreading. There are currently eight Acton Academies operating—seven of them in the United States. Twenty-five are slated to be open by 2015. The Sandefers are not operating them, however; they provide communities that want to open an Acton clone a do-it-yourself kit plus limited consulting and access to wiki discussion groups. They are developing a game-based learning tool to help prepare Acton Academy owners and the learning guides in the schools. Tuition at the academies ranges from $4,000 per year to $9,900.

Key to the development of the AltSchool model is a proprietary, integrated software backbone that will handle everything from student learning in its schools to the operations of a network of private micro-schools. As at Acton Academy, students are grouped only loosely by age. Students spend about half their time on core subjects and work through personalized playlists built around third-party curricular materials. The rest of the day is spent on longer-term projects that can span as many as six weeks, according to a profile of the school in Fast Company.

Four AltSchools are open in San Francisco, with a combined 150 students enrolled, and more locations are coming, including schools in Palo Alto and Brooklyn Heights, New York, in the fall of 2015. Tuition ranges from $20,875 for elementary school in San Francisco to $28,250 for the Brooklyn middle school. For additional fees, each individual AltSchool will bring in specialists outside of the core school day to teach extracurricular classes based on the interests of the school’s families. AltSchool plans to drop its price tag significantly in the years ahead as the software improves, the school network scales, and it can bring down the internal cost each year.

Will it work? We’ll see, but notably, Ventilla told Fast Company that the traditional randomized-control trial approach to research is meaningless in a “personalization first” context. “You’re not thinking about the global population as one unit that gets this experience or that experience,” he told the magazine. “Something that’s better for 70% of the kids and worse for 30% of the kids—that’s an unacceptable outcome for us. AltSchool isn’t a particular approach.”