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Silicon Valley’s “Alt School” Is Under Fire For Prioritizing Software-Development, Not Schooling

Several parents have expressed frustration with the program, saying that it felt like their kids were being treated like "guinea pigs."

Back in 2013, former Google executive Max Ventilla raised more than $175 million to launch AltSchool, an innovative, forward-thinking program designed to create schools that would combine traditional education and cutting-edge technology to help bring academics into the 21st century. Now, only four years later, AltSchool looks like it is failing to live up to Ventilla’s vision, as parents are looking to send their kids elsewhere, and several branches of the school have already been forced to close.

As we’ve discussed previously, the Alt School is a privately funded series of learning institutions that utilizes constantly evolving proprietary software to personalize education for each student and to license that software to district and charter schools across the country. AltSchool locations have no administrators, principals, or traditional “grade” allocations. Instead, a pair of teachers handles each class and children are grouped by age range (pre-K to 1st graders, 2nd to 5th, and 6th to 8th). Students begin their day by selecting a daily “playlist” of customized lessons; sessions are recorded and then reviewed by teachers. There’s also a group of developers who watch the lessons and tweak their software.

“For us, it’s about three things,” Ventilla told us last March.“It’s about the education being competency-based; it’s about the student having agency and responsibility in their own education, and it’s about the learning ultimately being able to transcend what happens within the 4 walls of the classroom to connect to the broader world.”

Parents were wooed by the school’s modernist approach to education and demand was high. But the school seems to have reached an impasse. Two of the AltSchool’s satellite branches (called lab schools in AltSchool vernacular)  have been shut down over the past year and three more are expected to close at the end of this school year. That leaves only four schools functioning, which has many wondering about the effectiveness of the program.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Ventilla said his company was scaling back on “lab schools” to focus more on profitable business ventures, primarily software development. AltSchool licensed its technology to four private schools in August and is hoping reach schools all across the country in the next few years.

Several parents of AltSchool students have expressed their frustration with the program, saying that it felt like their kids were being treated like “guinea pigs.” Instead of thoughtfully integrating technology into the classroom to find new methods of teaching, students are left unsupervised and given unlimited access to screen time.

“We kind of came to the conclusion that, really, AltSchool as a school was kind of a front for what Max really wants to do, which is develop software that he’s selling,” a parent of a former AltSchool student told Business Insider.

It’s shocking to see this start-up, which was backed by Mark Zuckerberg and several other big names in Silicon Valley, struggle this quickly. But, given the fact that AltSchool tuition currently sits at $27,000 per year, it is understandable that many parents would want to send their kid elsewhere if they feel their education is not the priority.