Max Ventilla of AltSchool is Taking Tech—and More—to the Classroom

by Lela Nargi

What makes a career tech guy chomp at the bit to open his own elementary school? The “disheartening” experience of applying for preschool on behalf of his own daughter. “It’s insane,” says Max Ventilla, founder of AltSchool, a four-location network of independent micro-schools in San Francisco, the first of which he opened in September of 2013. “There’s this notion that the preschool you apply to is a feeder for the elementary school, which is a feeder for the high school, which is a feeder for college, and that if you don’t choose right from the beginning, your kid is going to be a drop-out and have no job prospects.”

Insanity notwithstanding, that mindset was strong enough to set Ventilla to thinking strongly about the future of his daughter, Sabine’s, education, and how he might alter its course. And that included diving headlong into the fractious and fraught arena that is American education in the 21st century—in which the efforts of like-minded predecessors to corral it (Bill Gates, for notable example) have been handily defeated.

Ventilla is himself the beneficiary of elite schooling. The son of Hungarian immigrants, he received a scholarship to attend Manhattan’s Buckley School—all boys, blazers and ties, lacrosse—then Phillips Academy boarding school (known simply as Andover for the town in Massachusetts where it’s situated), then Yale. In 2012, contemplating would-be elementary options for Sabine, Ventilla says that it was actually “disturbing” for him to find schools that resembled so strongly the ones he attended, “because the world has changed enormously since then. And the most selective schools have changed the least.” What he wanted for Sabine was an environment that would get her ready to function and thrive in the future—a future that’s being greatly impacted by globalization and the internet. Says Ventilla, “The fundamental purpose of school is to prepare children for the world they’ll experience”—in Sabine’s case, when she eventually goes off to college around 2030. For it to be out of date “is a fundamental flaw.”

You might suppose that for a man who helped launch Google+ and now-defunct, then-revolutionary search engine Aardvark, inserting technology into the school day might be Ventilla’s primary focus. But the truth is a little more nuanced. Ventilla says that AltSchool is based on the notion of a one-room schoolhouse. Unlike that arguably outmoded model, though, which clustered together all children of all ages and abilities, at AltSchool students are grouped in small classes largely according to their interests and personalities. Tech in their midst opens up possibilities, rather than functioning as the sole learning tool. “The thing about technology is that it lowers the marginal cost of anything,” Ventilla says—watching a movie, having a car made, and eating a meal, as much as facilitating the running of a school (AltSchool has no central administrator). “The idea is not for everything to become digital, but to have a digital layer that allows experiences to happen more satisfyingly and easily. That gives you more choice, more intimacy, more personalization; every classroom can be more nuanced but still exist as part of an overarching network.”

Ventilla and his team—comprised of professional educators as well as technologists—have been working to hone those nuances one school at a time (four more are set to open in 2015, in two other SF locations, plus Palo Alto and Brooklyn, NY). “It’s not intelligent to design schools that are totally perfect,” Ventilla says breezily, as if such a thing were actually plausible. “They must always evolve and change.” The latest outpost, opening just this past year in South of Market, is a combined-use space that also houses AltSchool's offices. “It’s literally a tech company in the back of the school, and it’s amazing for us and the kids to be part of a shared space,” he says. “It’s an incredibly different experience from when I went to school, where we were so disembodied from the adult world, especially the entrepreneurial world. Here, kids have mentors who are employees of the company.”

The idea is not for everything to become digital, but to have a digital layer that allows experiences to happen more satisfyingly and easily.

They also have a generous amount of flexibility in terms of how their school day unfolds. Ventilla explains that there’s a 60-minute window when children arrive in the morning. By 9:00 a.m., most of them are settled in to a two-hour open “playlist” block that can include what Ventilla calls a “curated” experience of whole-class experiences, or individual or small group activities, tailored to meet the needs of each child. Lunch is followed by athletics, then another playlist time, then extended day activities that can include everything from foreign languages to tutoring in the art of DJing. “We don’t really get behind any one model of education,” says Ventilla of AltSchool’s curriculum. “We’re creating something that can change in many different ways, but have building tools that are stable.”

Early embracers of the AltSchool philosophy include Ventilla’s 8-year-old niece and 6-year-old nephew, who attend the Fort Mason location. “My sister actually moved back to San Francisco in large part because our school was the right fit for her family,” says Ventilla. They began as transfer students, which allowed Ventilla’s team to be thoughtful about which classroom experience would be most beneficial to them, “right down to who in the class might be a friend or a good influence,” says Ventilla. His own daughter—with wife, Jenny, who works at the Stanford Design School—will probably start kindergarten in 2016; son Leo, who’s not yet two, has a few years to wait before he can matriculate.

Which is not to say that all Ventilla’s goals for AltSchool are personal. “We want to impact as many kids as we can in a positive way, even indirectly, by adding things to the educational ecosystem that other people can draw from and react to,” he says. He sees AltSchool as acting as a platform to benefit a wide array of educators, not unlike Amazon Marketplace, which has a strict infrastructure set in place by Amazon, that nevertheless allows a diverse group of (non-Amazon) functionaries to use it. “That’s the model for us for 10 years down the line,” says Ventilla. “In the long term, many students will be impacted by being sent to a school that uses pieces of the technology and content we’re creating for a broader network.” 

Photographs by Bonnie Rae Mills