AltSchool Gets an Alt-Name and New Leadership
AltSchool, a developer of personalized learning software that once operated a chain of “microschools,” is getting a major makeover.
This morning, the San Francisco-based company announced a series of “sweeping changes” that includes a new name—Altitude Learning—and new leadership. Co-founders Max Ventilla and Bharat Mediratta, who had served respectively as CEO and chief technology officer, are stepping back from their day-to-day roles but will be on the company’s board. Ventilla will be Chairman of the board.
Assuming the leadership roles will be Ben Kornell and Devin Vodicka, both of whom joined AltSchool in 2017 as part of a spree of executive hires. Their current titles, respectively, are president and chief impact officer.
The leadership shuffle is significant symbolically and strategically. Ventilla was formerly a Google executive (after selling his social-search startup to the internet giant) who left in 2013 to learn about the education landscape. Now, AltSchool will now be steered by former education leaders. Vodicka had served as Superintendent of Vista Unified School District in California, and won the state’s top superintendent award in 2015. Kornell was formerly the chief operating officer of Envision Charter Schools.
Founded in 2013, AltSchool launched with a network of small, private “lab” schools that also doubled as testing grounds for its online educational tools and instructional pedagogy. The initial goal was to enable a personalized learning experience rooted in small class sizes, a project-based curriculum and a “playlist” of instructional software that customize online exercises and assessments for each student.
That vision also attracted plenty of investors who cut the company big checks. To date, AltSchool has publicly disclosed more than $176 million in venture capital, according to Crunchbase. (We reached out to several investors for comment but they declined.)
Despite the money and spotlight, the company has faced challenges that raised questions about its business. In 2017, it started closing schools. Bloomberg estimated that AltSchool was spending about $40 million a year. Last year, Forbes reported it earned $7 million in revenue, mostly from selling its tools to school districts.
The company has said that operating schools was never part of its long-term vision; rather, it was part of a research-and-development phase where it could test and refine its platform and instructional model. Over the past few years, AltSchool’s focus has shifted from starting schools to selling its software to existing schools.
Today, the company claims that its software platform is used in 40 districts and schools that serve more than 300,000 students all together. Public school districts make up half of the new partners that will be using it for the 2019-2020 school year.
Price has been one of the sticking points to wider adoption. In the past, the company has charged districts around $2,500 to $5,000 per teacher and $150 to $500 per student per year for access its software, curriculum and professional development. Ventilla previously told Forbes he expects those prices to drop. A company spokesperson said that it no longer charges on a per-student basis, and will unveil new pricing information this fall.
“I’ll be curious to see if they can offer their services at a price point that allows districts to get a lot of value out of the relationship and Altitude to create a thriving business,” says Michael Horn, a senior partner at Entangled Group, which recently authored a report examining AltSchool’s work with Arcadia Unified School District in California, an early user of the platform.
AltSchool will formally assume the Altitude Learning brand this fall, and plans to unveil “new products and professional development services.” (We’ve reached out to the company for more details, and will update if we hear back.)
The company has also tapped Higher Ground Education to run AltSchool’s four remaining lab schools. The Lake Forest, Calif.-based company operates a network of Montessori schools around the world, and last year acquired a startup that builds apps aligned to Montessori-style instruction.
“I’m excited that as they’ve made these changes, the decision was made to put well-seasoned, savvy educators in charge of the renamed company,” Horn adds.
The ups-and-downs of AltSchool’s journey to become Altitude Learning has not been lost on Ventilla. In a January post on the company blog, in which he first hinted at a possible leadership change, he wrote: “People often ask what I wish I’d known before starting AltSchool and I say: ‘However difficult you think working in education is...multiply that by 10.’”