The Rise of AltSchool and Other Micro-schools

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Combinations of private, blended, and at-home schooling meet needs of individual students



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SUMMER 2015 / VOL. 15, NO. 3

From San Francisco to Austin, Texas, to New York, new forms of schooling termed micro-schools are popping up.

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.

Some trace the micro-school’s origins to the United Kingdom, where people began small independent and privately funded schools that met at most two days a week.

Some trace the micro-school’s origins to the United Kingdom, where people began small independent and privately funded schools that met at most two days a week.

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.

Some trace the micro-school’s origins to the United Kingdom, where over the past decade people began applying the term micro-schools to small independent and privately funded schools that met at most two days a week. As in the United States, the impetus for their formation was dissatisfaction with local schooling options. Although home-schooling families have for some time created cooperatives to gain some flexibility for the adults and socialization for the children, the micro-schooling phenomenon is more formal.

QuantumCamp

One of the early U.S. micro-schools, QuantumCamp was founded in the winter of 2009 in Berkeley, California, out of a dare that one couldn’t teach quantum physics in a simple way. The result was the development of a course that would be accessible to children as young as 12. The school now offers a complete hands-on math and science curriculum for students in 1st through 8th grade, and serves about 150 home schoolers during the school year; double that number attend the summer program. Tuition ranges from $600 to $2,400 depending on the program and enrollment period. In 2013 QuantumCamp introduced language arts courses. Each academic class meets once a week for an activity-based exploration of big ideas and then offers out-of-class content that includes videos, readings, problem sets, podcasts, and other activities to enable students to continue exploring concepts at their own pace.

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.

With tuition of $9,515 per year, Acton Academy initially enrolled 12 students and has since 2009 grown to serve 75 students in grades 1 to 9. The school has learning guides—they aren’t called teachers—whose role is to push students to own their learning. The model enables the academy to have far fewer on-site adults per student than a traditional independent school and to operate at a cost of roughly $4,000 per student per year.

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. The projects require the students to work in teams to apply the knowledge they have learned. They also foster a ‘‘need to know’’ mind-set to motivate the online learning and provide a public, portfolio-based means for students to demonstrate achievement.

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.

AltSchool

Another micro-school network in the Bay Area turned heads this past March, and placed the micro-school trend firmly on the map, when it raised a whopping $33 million in venture capital financing from prominent venture capital firms Andreesen Horowitz and Founders Fund. AltSchool, a five-day-a-week, all-day school founded by serial entrepreneur Max Ventilla, promises to prepare children for the world of 2030 by offering personalized learning, access to teachers at a very low ratio—currently 8-to-1—and a micro-school network “that offers the warmth of a tight community while benefiting from the extensive, continuous research and analysis of in-house education architects.”

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.”

Echoing the sentiment, Azra Mehdi, a parent at AltSchool, said, “One of the reasons we looked to AltSchool was because of the personalized aspect of the learning.… [We] didn’t want him to be one of 35 kids with one teacher, to get lost in the cracks. Parochial schools were too rigid, and would dampen his spirit and personality.”

That sums up much of the ethos of the micro-schools: a fidelity to personalization and success for all in small communities. And the trend looks likely to grow.

Inspired in part by the micro-schools like Acton Academy that use his software, the prince of online and personalized learning himself, Sal Khan, launched his own micro-school in the fall of 2014 in Mountain View, California. The Khan Lab School, which charges $22,000, opened with roughly 35 students and intends “to research blended learning and education innovation by creating a working model of Khan Academy’s philosophy of learning in a physical school environment and sharing the learnings garnered with schools and networks around the world.” As Isabella, an 11-year-old student who previously attended a nearby public school, said, “Here it’s different from my old school because you’re doing your own playlist and you have more projects.”

Mandeep Dhillon, a parent with two children enrolled at Khan Lab School, amplified the differences. “After a while we realized, public, private school didn’t matter. Kids were being programmed in chunks,” he said. “I hate the term home schooling because it’s based on location. It’s not really about having them at home. What we’re trying to do is build an independent path. It’s not about the schooling, it’s about experiences.”

As these small schools proliferate, their impact on the wider world of schooling—public and private—is potentially large, but still anything but certain.

Michael B. Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and serves as executive director of its education program.




Comment on this article
  • Celeste Robichaux says:

    I find it amusing that you mentioned one of the earliest micro-schools started in 2009. I have been a part of a micro-school in Thibodaux, Louisiana since 2000. Our little town keeps us off the natioanl radar, yet eLearningK12 has grown from 30 students our first year, to 1,000 students all over the globe. Our graduates have attended both public and private universities (one with a full ride NCAA scholarship), joined the military, started their own businesses, you name it! We have a 5 to 1 ratio, and many options for parents, ranging from full virtual homeschooling, to on site learning at one of 6 learning centers, 2 affiliates, or a local virtual charter school. Every student works on an independent curriculum, with education consultants (we don’t call them teachers either) assisting students throughout their four hour learning sessions. Most students attend two sessions per week, but some attend six hours a day, five days a week, much like a traditional school. I invite you to visit eLearningK12 in Thibodaux to see a true early micro-school!

  • Michael B. Horn says:

    Celeste — Thanks for letting me know about this! I was unaware, which, as you said, is perhaps by design. Love to learn more and profile what you’re doing at blendedlearning.org. Please get in touch!

  • Stuart Grauer says:

    Thank you, Michael.
    You and your readers, please feel free to use the free resources at the Small Schools Coalition, the largest library of small schools literature you can find.

    Anyone can join or follow. Try: smallschoolscoalition.com

    Small schools aren’t only safer, they are higher performance, more connected, and provide greater access to leadership for all. They produce more graduates and their teachers stay in the job. Enjoy!

  • Wayne Gersen says:

    You write: “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.” In the coming years that “niche” is likely to explode given the emphasis on standardized tests in today’s public schools, an emphasis that is unlikely to go away. The emphasis on standardized testing narrows the curriculum and reinforces age-based cohort groupings, both of which contradict the notion of personalization. It would be helpful if writers like you, who advocate the use of technology to individualize instruction, spoke out against the way tests are currently being used to judge schools, students, and teachers.

  • D. Raskin says:

    It’s no wonder that these schools are catching on, because parents are rebelling against the radical curriculum that is being force fed to children in public schools.

    I would definitely like to know more.

  • Eric Premack says:

    For nearly 20 years, quite a few charter schools in California have offered the equivalent of “alt schools.” While the specifics vary widely from one such school to the next, many California charter schools provide something of an “instructional cafeteria” wherein parents may select from a broad range of options. Structured parents, for example, might opt for Saxon math while others may opt for a more applications-based approach. Many schools establish “spending accounts” setting-aside some portion of the per-pupil revenue (often in the range of $1,000/student) and allow the parent to select from a broad array of curriculum and other resources, provided they align to the student’s needs and are nonsectarian. Many offer a mix of onsite courses, other learning opportunities, virtual courses, and “old school” home study–often at the parent’s option.

  • Anne says:

    Highlands Micro School is a modern one room schoolhouse opening in Denver, Colorado in 2016.

  • Kevin Moore says:

    Thank you for sparking greater awareness of the micro-school phenomena, Michael. These schools are proving valuable resources to families across the U.S. who want more than traditional school programs are able to offer.

    Another micro-school in Austin, Texas is The Number Lab. It is an integrated mathematics micro-school that serves elementary and middle school students. The founders of this micro-school, a trio of experienced classroom educators and administrators, offer a mathematics learning experience that immerses learners in a unique experience, one that truly honors mathematics as a discipline. That is: an experience premised on prompting real and deep understanding of mathematical concepts.

    At the Number Lab, children learn in a design thinking space enhanced by a curriculum and instructional approach that encourages critical mathematical discussions. The space lends itself to the public presentation of children’s thinking, which also encourages close analysis and debate.

    The school is moving ever closer to online learning experiences, as it is offering distance learning short courses during the summer months.

  • Laura says:

    I love seeing the list grow! Thank you for the awareness!
    Another micro-school is The Young School in the heart of Napa Valley! It is an Independent Montessori serves elementary and soon middle school students. We’ve been here since 1991. We are the small school that does big things!
    http://www.theyoungschool.org.

  • Simon Jeynes says:

    I love the concept although am not sure how the tuitions being quoted suggest this is a disruptive innovation. A more interesting (from that point of view) disruption is one that is available in many second/third world countries where private schools are run by entrepreneurs in the slums. They don’t necessarily have the fancy pedagogies but they certainly have disruptive tuition! cf. The Beautiful Tree by James Tooley.

  • Regina says:

    We have Nola Micro Schools in New Orleans, LA… 2015 Inaugural Class! :-) My child is so enthusiastic about school and his academic level has already increased in two weeks with personalized learning. He understands the responsibility of being a good citizen by displaying empathy and challenges himself with doing his personal best.

  • Manisha Snoyer says:

    Dear Michael, Thanks so much for giving us the lay of the land! Celeste is correct that there are many thousands of microschools across the United states ranging from preschools to cottage schools to homeschool coops and one-room schoolhouses. At the moment I write, 945,000 prek students are “at school” in their provider’s home. Altschool and Acton are effectively taking a system that has organically emerged teachers and parents, and using their resources to franchise this model -and help it benefit more people. Some other important players are Agile Learning Center, Mschool and Aero’s school starters program. Did you know that there were 190,000 one-room schoolhouses in the United States at the turn of the century? But as things became more centralized, they disappeared, now they are re-emerging as families seek quality, choice and affordability for their children. I’ll be excited to see where this takes us. Manisha, Cottageclass.com

  • Genevieve says:

    I, too, dislike the term “homeschooling” because home is not where my kids learn, but neither are they in all-day school. Recently, the micro-school Elon Musk created with his five sons in mind has been in the news. Mr. Horn, I was disturbed to read that Acton Academy is able to provide education at a COST of $4,000 per child but charges $9,500 for tuition. I am very uncomfortable with the “for-profit” model of education. What are your thoughts on that? And what do others think about nearly $10,000 per child per year for tuition? In an America where the economy has tanked, that’s excessive. We spend about $4-5,000 per child per year as it is, in our household. $22,000 per year for elementary-level education? That’s equivalent to state school college tuition. I am concerned that the tone of your article is to encourage education entrepreneurship, which is not the same as education excellence.

  • Nicole says:

    This is what we need for our son! We are in the San Diego area. Does anyone know of a micro school around us?

  • Tasha says:

    Meridian Learning is a resource and advocacy organization for grassroots micro-schools. We host an online discussion group and welcome all who identify with the micro-school movement. Join us!

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