Ed-Tech Provider AltSchool Announces Sweeping Transformation

Senior Editor

AltSchool, a software provider and school operator that burst onto the scene with big ambitions for tech transformation and a torrent of venture capital, has announced major changes, extending from its name to its leadership and its core strategy.

The San Francisco-based company will become Altitude Learning, and it will cede its work managing its lab schools to focus on providing schools with software aimed at delivering personalized learning, and with professional services.

AltSchool co-founders Max Ventilla and Bharat Mediratta will move to the company’s board, with Ventilla shifting from CEO to board chair.

Ben Kornell, a former teacher and Stanford business school graduate with experience in the education and business communities, will take over as CEO. Devin Vodicka, a former K-12 schools superintendent, will continue in a leadership role, as chief impact officer and chief academic officer.

AltSchool officials framed the leadership changes as a transition from the company’s initial research and development era to one focused on improving the experiences of teachers and students.

“We’re moving into the next phase of our efforts,” Vodicka said. “It’s more of a shift toward an educator-run startup.”

The changes reflect “a lot of our learning over the past six years,” he added, and the desire to dive into “how to help schools make the shift to learner-centered experiences.”

As part of the transformation, AltSchool’s network of lab schools will be managed by Higher Ground Education, a California organization that has worked extensively with Montessori schools. AltSchool officials say their faculty will continue to lead the schools and use the company’s tech platform.

Diverse Needs, Different Services

The decision to partner with a new operator, AltSchool officials said, was made in collaboration with the organization’s parent and educator steering committees, in a process that took months.

Founded in 2013, AltSchool attracted $175 million in venture capital from prominent Silicon Valley investors such as Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, and Laurene Powell Jobs. The company initially made a mark by creating a multi-city network of high-end private “microschools,” envisioned as laboratories to develop software, with ambitions to move into the public school space. In 2018, it made the jump to the public school arena.

Along the way, the organization also weathered criticism on a variety of fronts.

Initially, AltSchool’s collection of data on students through ceiling cameras, audio recordings and other means raised concerns among privacy advocates. Others questioned whether the company’s approach to personalized learning was realistic, a level of skepticism that has been directed at many personalization strategies, overall.)

AltSchool officials said in an e-mail that their lab schools were designed to pilot and study potential breakthrough ed-tech innovations. The video and other recording features were part of that testing and discontinued years ago, they said. The company said it meets or exceeds state and federal data privacy laws, doesn’t sell student information to third parties, and that its partner schools own their own data.

In 2017, the company’s announcement that it was closing one of its private schools and consolidating others angered parents and others who questioned whether the company was putting its business goals above families’ educational needs.

AltSchool’s platform works as a hub where students can access assignments, take pictures, or make recordings to show what they’ve learned, as well as keep track of their progress. Teachers collaboratively build lessons and curate them from different sources. Unlike some personalized-learning strategies, it was designed to work across different kinds of curriculum, rather than being tied to any one strategy.

Vodicka said in an interview that in the past, AltSchool has packaged its services focused on school change-management with the implementation of the company’s tech platform. The company recently started to unbundle those services, across public and private schools, and that will be Altitude Learning’s approach going forward, he said.

“We’ve found that schools and districts have varying needs,” he said. “So we’re trying to be more adaptive in how we organize support for the changes they’d like to make.”

Some of the newer schools the company is working with, in fact, are not using its software at all, he added. They’re interested in making a broader, non-tech-based transformation, said Vodicka.

Altitude Learning will officially launch this fall with its first new products and PD services. Today, the organization says it works with 40 districts and schools, representing more than 300,000 students. Half of the new partners who have signed up for the coming academic year are public districts, according to the organization.

“It’s the beginning of a new chapter,” Vodicka said. “I’m excited by the success we’ve seen by [our] community of educators, and excited to see how this continues to expand and grow over time.”

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