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AltSchool opens in Palo Alto

Written by Ryeri Lim

AltSchool, a private primary education school founded by entrepreneur Max Ventilla, is establishing its fifth campus in Palo Alto at 930 Emerson Street.

The Palo Alto site will have space for nearly 90 students, although a cap of approximately 75 is expected. “With our new locations including Palo Alto and Brooklyn, partially we chose them and partially they chose us,” Head of Marketing Deborah Kelson said. According to Kelson, the small learning environment was expected to attract educationally progressive Palo Altans. In addition, much of the current staff have studied or resided in Palo Alto, making the town a natural candidate. Applications for the 2015-2016 school year closed on Jan. 15.

“Our number one goal is a personalized approach to education,” Head of Parent Satisfaction Peter Cole said. For this reason, core classes are divided not into grades kindergarten through eight, but into lower and upper elementary programs and a middle school program. “There’s no such thing as a third grader,” Cole said. “Two nine-year-olds may be at different ability levels or places in their socio-emotional development.”

AltSchool implements small student-to-teacher ratios through “teacher teams” of two or three instructors per classroom. Head of Educator Recruitment Alison Lee seeks not only past personal achievement in teacher applicants, but also a work ethic that is required in an atmosphere like that of AltSchool. “It’s really important that they want to work in a startup environment,” Lee said. “The most difficult thing [about my job] is to figure out who would be most at home at AltSchool and really help us move the model forward.”

According to Cole, AltSchool itself is highly progressive, heavily utilizing unique teaching tools and technology. One tool is the “learner portrait,” a profile of the student: basic traits, learning attributes, interests, abilities and progress to date, including standardized test results. “Every student is different not only in the way they learn but also in their interests and their affinities,” Cole said. Such differences may ask students to learn alongside peers slightly older or younger than they are, for some or all of their classes. “Everyone might be working on math, but on different levels and types math instruction based on their abilities and interests,” Kelson said.

Once a learner portrait is established, educators throughout the four San Francisco campuses, and soon the newest sites in Palo Alto and Brooklyn, may share and develop potential teaching methods through the school’s teacher communication network. Instructors can collaborate on unique learning approaches for students who share characteristics in their learner portraits.

Parent involvement in education is also prioritized through tools like a weekly to-do list unique to each child, called a “student’s playlist.” Complementary to this is the “learning update,” a summary of student accomplishments and teacher commentary that is sent home several times a month and includes samples of completed student work.

“We aspire to be different by providing a highly personalized and flexible education experience for AltSchool families,” Lee said of AltSchool’s technological innovations, such as the mobile application that communicates a student’s after-school activities with their teacher. With visibility into a student’s daily schedule, teachers can release students for pick-up at the convenience of parents.

“[Despite its innovations,] we’re not marketing the school in any special way,” Cole said. “We just want to make sure we’re answering all the questions specific to this area.” After completion of its multi-step application process, AltSchool will hold summer events for families of soon-to-be classmates to make connections. “The Palo Alto site will develop its own community and personality,” Cole said.

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