November 3 2013
Teach—Not Tech—Startup Comes to San Francisco
Vicki E. Alger
Profit is a dirty word in public schooling circles, and many folks inside those circles seem to think they’re the real experts when it comes to education.
So what if a schooling outsider decided to design and sell schools on a grand scale? Well that’s exactly what entrepreneur Max Ventilla is doing. A founder of Aardvark and a lead developer of Google+, his plan, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, is:
…a for-profit company with hundreds of computer engineers "building a platform to allow more child-centric education across decentralized schools."
In less wonky language, he wants to build a global network of one-room, tuition-based schools infused with technology. That could mean bar codes on homework assignments, iPads programmed to project a child's artwork on a wall, or a phone app to track students while they're on field trips.
But isn’t schooling a losing prospect? After all, schools are underfunded and students, well, a lot of them are just really hard to teach. Vetilla has a different view:
His company, AltSchool in San Francisco, is a true tech startup - it has millions in venture capital funding, a crew of computer wunderkinds, and office space in a funky old warehouse with hip seating arrangements and catered lunches.
He founded the company on market-driven demand from parents who want something like a homeschooling experience: a quality, technology-fueled education based on each child's abilities and interests, but one not actually at home.
It's a business, and Ventilla has a clear conscience when it comes to making money off it.
"What you don't want is profiteering," he said of his business philosophy. "You can do good in the world and create significant wealth for its employees and shareholders."
AltSchool spends around $30,000 per student. Sounds high, until you consider that the country’s worst-performing government schooling system, D.C. Public Schools, spends that much, but not even two out of 10 students are functionally literate when they graduate.
Parents are charged just over $19,000 to enroll their child at AltSchool, but with financial aid the cost is about half that amount, which by the way is still less than the national average per-pupil expenditure of more than $12,000 in government schools.
Ventilla admits that as with any successful venture, it could take years before AltSchool makes a profit. Yet with parent-demand, top-performing employees, and the ability to raise money, Ventilla is confident he can succeed.
Here’s hoping he—as well as other such startups—do succeed. Ventilla has certainly proven himself in the competitive marketplace. The real winners would be students prepared to succeed in school and beyond.