Ex-Google Executive Creates School System

SCHEmma Eisner, a 12-year-old with short hair dyed green in parts, has roped off an area around an art project she?s building from cardboard. ?Go away, child,? reads a handwritten sign to ward off classmates. At about 10-feet long and 3-feet tall, the white structure looks like it could be a spaceship or maybe an elaborate tunnel. Actually, she says, “It’s about how the human quest for knowledge has turned the world inside out.?

There are no desks in the classroom, just some tables pushed together on one side of the room. Above Eisner’s art installation three boys wearing blue Beats headphones are crammed on a bunk bed working on laptops. Two other boys are outside on the rooftop patio, measuring to build a meditation garden that will overlook the neighborhood. Downstairs, in another classroom with younger children, some students are listening to audio books on their iPads, while another group binds their own journals. The school is located in a converted fitness center in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood. It’s loud and rambunctious, as schools can be, and amid the organized chaos teachers roam around helping students with their work. ??

This is AltSchool, a for-profit, $21,000-a-year elementary school system founded by former Google executive Max Ventilla and backed by $133 million from venture capitalists and Mark Zuckerberg. AltSchool started with 15 students in a single classroom in 2013, and this year will have about 400 students in eight schools in San Francisco and Palo Alto. Its first location outside California will open in Brooklyn later this year. Clues of the system?s tech pedigree are everywhere. On classroom walls and in ceilings are custom-built cameras and microphones that record the school day. Assignments are called ?playlists,? that students access from their laptops or iPads. Performance metrics?there are no grades or report cards?are sent to parents via the AltSchool smartphone app. A projector screen in one class has a video game-style leaderboard with points for finished work and good behavior. Students who can?t make it to school can teleconference in on a Beam robot that looks like an iPad on stilts. And, of course, there?s a 3D printer, which students recently used to design candy.

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