Begun by wealthy high-tech entrepreneur (and ex-Google executive) Max Ventilla in 2013, AltSchool made a splash with its string of private “micro-schools” in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area (tuition was $26,000)–see here, here, and here. Ventilla saw AltSchool as a string of lab schools where progressive ideas could be put into practice and the individualized software that staff designed and used in the “micro-schools” could be bought and used in public schools.
AltSchool “micro-schools’ were ungraded, used project-based learning complete with individually designed “playlists,” small classes, and experienced young teachers. Were John and Evelyn Dewey alive, they would have enrolled their six children in AltSchool.
But, there is always a “but,” running these “micro-schools” was expensive. The business plan (Ventilla raised venture capital of $176 million) was anchored in a dream drawn from the film Field of Dreams: “build it and [they] will come.” The plan depended upon tuition and licensed software bought by public schools. Didn’t work out as Ventilla had dreamed. Spending $40 million a year and taking in $7 million in revenue is a recipe for financial disaster. Ventilla closed some of the “micro-schools in 2017.
And on June 28, 2019, in a press release, came the news:
AltSchool to become Altitude Learning, an educator-run startup powering the growing learner-centered movement
Expanding support for districts nationwide with new approaches to professional development and the products schools need to shift to learner-centered models
- Altitude Learning to formally launch later this fall
- As R&D focus ends, tech co-founders pass torch to education industry veterans: Ben Kornell and Devin Vodicka
- Fast growing partner network representing 300K students: 50% of new contracts for 19-20 school year are public districts, from Alaska to Texas
- Lab schools to continue, operated by Higher Ground Education, using the Altitude Learning platform
In a blog post six months earlier, Ventilla signaled readers that AltSchool would be changing.
In 2017 we were fortunate to attract a number of world-class career educators and administrators to our team, to guide everything we do. Moving forward, I am pleased to announce Ben Kornell will become President of AltSchool. Ben joined our team back in 2017 as VP of Growth. He’s dedicated his life to reducing educational inequity; he started as a Teach for America middle school teacher and later went to Stanford Business School to learn how to cultivate educational change broadly. As COO of Envision, he helped lead a network of charter schools and scaled a performance assessment system to public schools across the country. Since joining AltSchool, Ben’s led our company’s transition to partnering with public and private schools nationwide. As we continue to integrate the platform into existing school systems, it is essential to have education leaders like Ben at the helm.
I interviewed Ventilla and AltSchool classrooms in November 2016. The creation story of AltSchool, according to Ventilla goes like this:
He and his wife searched for a private school that would meet their five year-old’s needs and potential and then, coming up empty in their search. “We weren’t seeing,” he said, “the kind of experiences that we thought would really prepare her for a lifetime of change.” He decided to build a school that would be customized for individual students, like their daughter, where children could further their intellectual passions while nourishing all that makes a kid, a kid.
In listening to Ventilla, that story was repeated but far more important I got a clearer sense of what he has in mind for Altschool in the upcoming years. Some venture capitalists have invested in the for-profit AltSchool not for a couple of years but for a decade. He saw beyond that horizon, however, for his networks to scale up, becoming more efficient, less costly, and attractive to more and more parents as a progressive brand that will, at some future point, reshape how private and public schools operate. And turn a profit for investors. Ventilla wanted to do well by doing good.
In 2019, that dream has foundered. New leadership has been appointed. Another organization takes over the remaining “micro-schools.”
Now this is a familiar story about start-ups in Silicon Valley. Plenty of hype, promises, and dreams at the beginning and then the initial slog to turn a profit. More often than not, the pain of hemorrhaging dollars leads to death. Employees update resumes and seek other jobs. But start-up schools are much harder to create and sustain than start-up companies. And when they go belly-up or shift to other managers, both students and their parents plus teachers bear the consequences.
And what did Ventilla learn as he stepped aside as leader. Here is the lesson he learned after six years running AltSchool:
People often ask what I wish I’d known before starting AltSchool and I say: However difficult you think working in education is…multiply that by 10. Life at a startup is hard, but education is exponentially harder.