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What makes these Four Alternative Schools really Alternative

Suppose you borrowed DeLorean for a day from Dr. Brown. You dial 21.06.2020 in the timemachine, hit 88 miles per hour and arrive in South of Market in San Francisco. As you drive by, a gray low building with a storefront and contrasting blue signage holds your gaze. The signage says “AltSchool”, and something strikes you as odd and you hit the breaks.

You’re thinking: whatever happened to old schools with imposing buildings and sprawling campuses? You step out of the time machine and step inside the school to see children swiping and tapping on their iPads. Wait a minute … iPads? Something’s wrong. iPads being the dominant technology in 2020 is as incongruous as schools with storefronts. It’s not 2020 afterall, you realize.

It’s 2015 and since you’re already in front of the school that looks futuristic, so why not take a peek inside.

Inside AltSchool

When the former Head of Personalization at Google decides to open a school, you can expect the school to make learning as personalized as possible. Failing to find halfway decent preschools for his children, Max Ventilla decided to take matters in his own hands and founded AltSchool with a mission to fix education. And he has a point: you don’t drive a car or wear clothes from the last century, so why lug around an outdated educational system.

AltSchool boasts of very impressive investor list – Mark Zuckerberg, Peter Thiel, Andreessen Horowitz to name a few. But what about AltSchool makes Silicon Valley think that it will save education?

First off, AltSchool is the antithesis of the traditional education model. The students don’t read from textbooks — instead they have personalized playlists on their iPads. Unlike traditional schools where children are segregated into grades age-wise, AltSchool classrooms are filled with children of different ages. The teacher to student ratio is remarkable 1:8. And teachers, they are more guides on the side than sages on the stage.

Secondly, technology is at the heart of everything at AltSchool – from marking attendance to delivering personalized learning plans to helping teachers with learning tools, AltSchool’s use of technology puts even the most progressive schools to shame.

Last but not least, AltSchool really walks the talk it when it says that it is a part of the community in which it operates. Field trips are an important feature at AltSchool. ‘Teachers fantasize over making learning truly real world, but they tend to leave out the most important component of the real world, and that is, well, the real world.  In fact, the word “real world” has become so much of a buzzword that it’s become all too easy to forget what the term actually means’ says AltSchool teacher Paul France in a blogpost.

Oh AltSchool, if I had the money (about $20,875 a year) a kid, I’d send her to you.

Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH)

Let’s fix DeLorean and take her back to the New York City of year 2010. You arrive outside Flushing Meadows in Queens to find that U.S. Open has been delayed due to rain. You get inside, make your way to the VIP box and see IBM’s former CEO Sam Palmisano talking into the ear of Joel Klein, then-Chancellor of New York Schools.

You take a seat behind them to eavesdrop. “We’re not graduating kids with the qualifications to fill those jobs,” you hear Palmisano say. Thusly you witness the birth of an idea called P-TECH. It goes like this: IBM will launch a school which will take students that no other school will take and prepare them for the corporate world in a six-year program.

Is this just chit-chat or serious stuff? To find out, you head back to dear DeLorean and dial 24.08.2015 and hit the accelerator and voila! You’re suddenly driving through Albany Avenue in Brooklyn. You stop before an imposing, beige structure whose entryway says “Paul Robeson High School for Business and Technology”.

Inside this beige colored building is housed the P-TECH – a home to 434 students that no other institution would dare enroll. More than 80% of fourth-year kids have completed paid internships at IBM. All six graduating students of P-TECH have IBM offers in hand with starting salaries of $50,000. Not at all bad for 18-year-olds. And the fact that these boys and girls were written off as hopeless cases by the traditional educational system makes it all the more reason to replicate successes of P-TECH.


Let’s take DeLorean for a spin — not in time but in space. Let’s go 6.6 miles north to 16, Clarkson St. This is one of the locations of an alternative school that considers entire city as its campus. Founded in 1972 with 15 students, today the City-As-School has north of 600 students enrolled.

The philosophy is radically simple: want to earn a credit in culinary science? Intern with a baker or a restaurant. There are no formal assessments or grades. Instead, students have to build a portfolio in order to graduate. The classrooms wear a deserted look half of the time as students are out in the field, earning credits across 300 school-affiliated internship sites.

Most students here have faced rough times — from bullying to under-age pregnancy to trouble with the gangs. “There are students who come here, having received messages [their whole lives] that they don’t know how to learn,” says Veronica Savage, a social worker and the alumna of the school. City-As-School gives a new lease of life to these kids by giving them hope and self-esteem. The results speak for themselves: more than 60% of these kids graduate within six-year window.

Anand Niketan (Wardha)

Are you ready for another adventure? Let’s take DeLorean all the way to the town of Wardha in the India of 1960s. You will notice that tarmac roads you are used to have disappeared. You abandon the DeLorean and start hiking in the direction of little but well-known village of Sewagram, whose most well-known inhabitant was none other than the Father of the Nation — Mahatma Gandhi.

You arrive at this wonderful experiment in education that goes by the name of Anand Niketan, Nai Talim. ‘Nai Talim’ can be translated into new education, but many scholars prefer basic education.

This is unlike any schools you’ve seen. The buildings are rustic but immaculately clean. Later, you find out that children themselves are responsible for the upkeep of the place. Now this child labor might seem a little odd to you, the city-bred, but to a Gandhian, it is the cultivation of the hand part in head, heart and hand motto. And scientifically, learning by doing has been found to be more effective than passive reception of instruction. But you aren’t convinced, you follow this particular child around to really understand what the school is all about.

The child is Abhay. He has been assigned the task of finding out how much water a cow drinks in a day. Once he has figured that out, his next task is to calculate the litres of water needed to keep all the cows in the cowshed hydrated. He then has to construct a water tank with the capacity to satiate the thirst of all the cows. But not before figuring out how many bricks will be required to construct such a tank.

This has been an eye-opening experience and you travel back to the future. You are shocked to find out that Anand Niketan experiment in education didn’t last beyond the 60s. You find out that the school was shut down for the lack of government recognition and apathy. The scared parents had no option but to find a recognized school for children — a school that played safe with emphasis on rote than real. What a death of a beautiful dream!

Don’t feel sad. The school re-opened in 2005 and is taking baby steps to cover lost ground. The foundation is strong, all it needs is the regulatory scaffolding and faith of the community that Anand Niketan can really fix education.

What is Common in These Alternative Schools

AltSchool, City-as-School, P-TECH and Anand Niketan may seem different species but scratch the surface and you will find that they are built on same skeleton. It’s not hard to notice that these schools:

  • Recognize different learning paces. There is no set time-frame to finish something.
  • Have no grading system.
  • Focus on learning by doing. When AltSchool classrooms needed a redesign, students took a field trip to pottery barn for inspiration and ideas. City-As-Schoolers earn credits by interning across the city. Anand Niketan students do not memorize Botany jargon such as ‘palmate, divergent and reticulate’. They spot Papaya leaves instead.
  • Are a part of the community in which they operate.

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