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 For it to be out of date “is a fundamental flaw.”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

Eat, Play, Sleep

By Susan Maushart

In a recent Australian study, four in ten mothers describe dinner as an “unpleasant experience,” with the meal usually ending in an argument. At the same time, 76 percent agree that sit-down meals strengthen the family’s communication (and possibly its vocal chords), according to a recent survey of more than 16,000 mothers nationwide. Contradiction? Not necessarily.

Maybe the experience of being together as a family is a bit like eating your spinach. As Popeye might have observed, that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Like it or not—and clearly four out of ten of us don’t—family meals are consistently correlated with positive outcomes for children. And not just slightly positive outcomes. Ridiculously positive ones. Kids who eat family meals five to seven times a week get better grades, have a sunnier outlook on life, have significantly fewer problems with drugs, alcohol, or nicotine, and seem almost magically protected from developing eating disorders. They also—surprise!—have healthier diets. Recent research from the Department for Children, Schools and Family found a direct link between frequency of family meals and high school leaving scores, while a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2008 uncovered a clear, inverse relationship between “eating together as a family” and risky sexual behavior. Weirdly enough, simply having supper together was as protective against unsafe sex as “doing something religious together.” Then again, maybe it’s not that weird.

It’s not the “postcode effect” either (where socioeconomic class is the underlying determiner of advantage). Researchers in study after study have controlled for demographics and the findings remain. Rich or poor, middle class or underclass, highly educated or barely educated, families that eat meals together are dishing up a smorgasbord of advantages for their kids.

These facts are hardly news—although the media love nothing better than to give parents a serve on the topic. Or mothers, more accurately. In most accounts, the demise of the family meal is attributed to the usual suspect: feminism—or, as it is more decorously described, “Women’s participation in the workforce” or the “dual-earner family.” The implication is that when mothers work, families, like chickens, go free-range and slightly feral. Yet in Australia, where the full-time workforce participation of women with children is much lower than it is in the United States and the UK—a mere 11.42 percent of mothers report that their children usually eat at the family table. Remember, too, that we are talking about where and how the family members eat, not about who (or what) is doing the cooking. The effect is exactly the same, whether it’s a roast with all the trimmings, a stir-fry with fourteen intricately diced and unpronounceable vegetables, or burgers and fries eaten straight from the wrapper…

Among the things the family-meals literature doesn’t tell us is whether the benefits increase arithmetically with time—if twenty minutes around the dinner table is beneficial, are forty minutes verging on miraculous?—but heading into The Experiment, it seemed safe to assume that more of a goof thing was probably going to be…well, a good thing. Because we had always been a family that ate meals together…I was looking to The Experiment as a way of extending the experience in both quantity (time spent) and quality.

Admittedly, we were coming off a pretty low base. I would definitely have put up my hand along with the 40 percent of Australian mothers who find mealtimes unpleasant AND the 67 percent who believe they are good for us anyhow. Most nights, I’d put a fair amount of effort into preparing a meal. Nothing lavish—like most teenagers, mine are allergic to lavish—but in the main nutritious, balanced, and quasi-palatable…My kids were demon speed-eaters…With no more attractive prospect to lure them from the dinner table, [they’ did not exactly learn to linger over cigars and brandy. But at least they stopped inhaling their food and bolting for the nearest digital foxhole. We did slow down, all of us, and, over time, we did engage in more meaningful dinnertime dialog….

There were unexpected gains elsewhere on the bill of fare. Deprived of his early- morning downloads, Bill started spending more time at the breakfast table. He didn’t initiate a lot of conversation. But he did eat a lot more eggs, and spent an impressive amount of time reading the sports pages. I’m not sure it improved family communication, but it made me smile to see him tented behind the pages of The Australian…Sussy, too eventually started to make unscheduled appearances at the breakfast table…I’d serve her whatever it was I was making for Bill, anyway, and she’d eat every bite. It was sort of the opposite of demand feeding—more supply feeding, really—and I wished I’d started it fourteen years earlier.

Excerpted from The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Marchaut. (c) 2011 Susan Marchaut. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.

Photograph by Anna Demianenko via Unsplash.

14 Great Learning Apps for Kids & Families

Screentime for kids doesn’t get a whole lot of love in the parenting media. But there’s no denying that we live in an increasingly digital world in which we grownups use technology to our benefit, for everything from navigating local kid-friendly restaurants to figuring out where to gas up the car when the “empty” light flashes on. Can’t children enjoy similar benefits?

“The basic misconception about screen time stems from the notion that the screen itself is more important than the action being performed,” says Björn Jeffery, co-founder of the kids game development studio Toca Boca. “But tablets can be used for language learning, playing games, watching educational videos, or video chatting with family. We like to think of a tablet as a tool with endless possibilities to tap into different emotions, skills, and parts of the brain.”

With this in mind, we’ve rounded up 14 truly terrific educational, gender-neutral apps for kids of all ages, to be used alone or with their parents. Because, as Jeffrey maintains, “All kids should have the opportunity to learn about subjects they are interested in and play with toys they find fun.”

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Even on a day when you can’t make it to a zoo near you to get up close and personal with all the animals, children can visit them virtually with this app’s giant panda cam, as well as five others that zone in on gorillas, tigers, flamingos, lions, and golden lion tamarins. The app also includes an animal index that lets kids test their species knowledge, and a whole host of information about animals noises and ecosystems (iPad, iPhone & Android, ages 2+, $2).

Avokiddo Emotions. Kids will come down with a serious case of the giggles when they’re introduced to a zany zebra, shy sheep, jolly giraffe, and modest moose. These characters are meant to introduce children to the vast and confusing landscape of their own emotions as they dress up, feed, and interact with little essential pieces of themselves (iPhone, iPad, & Android, ages 2-5, $3).

Sesame Street Family Play. This is an app that’s actually an anti-app, offering parents stuck with their kids in the waiting room or on the train with over 150 fun games they can play together on the spot. Because sometimes, you’ve all had more than enough screentime for the day (iPhone & iPad ages 2-5, $1).

National Geographic’s Look & Learn: Animals Vol. 1. This bundle of three apps—Animal Bounce, Animal Match, and Animal Words—encourages awareness of the natural world through photographs, animal sounds, and game play. Really, this is a theme that never seems to get old among the under-5 set (iPad & iPhone, ages 3-5, $3).


Gro Garden. Kids become virtual gardeners as they plant and care for crops, feed hungry animals, and make compost from food scraps. It’s the next best thing to getting your kids to plant their own gardens on your windowsill—and infinitely more tidy (iPhone, iPad, Android, ages 5+, $3).


NASA’s Rocket Science 101. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to launch a NASA rocket! Select a mission and build your own rocket that you can then send into orbit. Kids will learn the details of particular NASA missions as well as all about the various components of the launch vehicles and what it takes to get one of these amazing pieces of machinery to break free of gravity (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 5-10, free).



It’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Join this fierce predator as she shatters the stillness of the prehistoric forest! Kids can explore pictures, learn new vocabulary, and personalize the app’s story with their own narration. Because seriously, have you ever met a toddler who wasn’t into dinosaurs? (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-5 $3)


Thinkrolls. This is a logic puzzler for elementary kids that’s meant to enhance problem solving, memory, and spatial cognition skills. Every time children sit down to use it, they learn a little something about force, acceleration, buoyancy, heat, elasticity, and gravity while helping 22 Thinkrolls characters navigate through a maze (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 3-8, $3).

Toca Lab. This colorful STEM-savvy app lets children discover all 118 of the elements from the periodic table (which is more than their parents are likely to know, unless they’re chemists) by experimenting with the various tools provided. Bonus: they won’t be able to blow anything up! (iPhone, iPad & Android, ages 6-8, $3)

The Robot Factory: Build Robots. Children can create any robot they can imagine from 100 parts including exoskeletons, telescopic arms, and spider legs. They can test them by running them through a fantastical world full of obstacles. Then, they can take them out to play (virtually, of course) with whenever they choose (iPhone & iPad, ages 6-8, $4).


Sky Map. This clever app turns your device answers (almost) all your questions about the night sky. Just point your smartphone upwards and Sky Map will tell you exactly what stars, planets, moon phases, constellations, messier objects and meteor showers you see (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).

Leafsnap. This electronic field guides uses visual recognition software to help kids (and their parents) identify tree species found in the Northeastern US and Canada from photographs you take of their leaves. Great for budding (har) botanists and arborists, and a super way for kids and parents to learn together (iPad & iPhone, all ages, free).

Audubon Birds Pro. This mobile field guide will help you and your kids identify 821 bird species, let you explore an advanced gallery for easy comparison, and contribute to NatureShare, a social community of birders who observe, identify, and share their observations online. Once you get started, you’ll be amazed at how many birds that aren’t pigeons you’ll find hanging out at the local park (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, $10).


Project Noah. This super tool lets you explore and document insects, animals, plants and trees on a platform designed to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere. Just upload your own photo of a species and within hours, other users will weigh in with their expertise to identify it. A great way to learn about your environment as a family, and to discover that there are many other like-minded, nature-loving urbanites among you (iPhone, iPad & Android, all ages, free).

Educational Apps Your Kids Will Beg to Play

Now that you’ve downloaded the new UrbanSitter Mobile App for yourself, how about adding a new app to your phone or tablet for your kids? It’s likely the old stand-bys aren’t holding your kids’ attention like they used to.

Wondering how to find a game that’s fun to play and is also more than just candy for little brains? While experts are on the fence about whether or not little kids should be playing with apps, most agree that the best apps are those that encourage creativity, and feature colors, shapes, numbers and the good’ole ABCs.

So, forget Angry Birds, and check out 7 sure-fire apps that are sure to capture your kids’ attention and teach them a thing or two, too:

ABC Zooborns

This app features adorable photos, videos and interactive scenes of baby animals that on their own are worth the download. While its design is award-winning, its educational value is quite praise-worthy, too. It teaches about animals and conservation, links letters to words, builds vocabulary, and certainly entertains. By Peapod Labs LLC, $2.99. Ages 2 and up.


Scholastic’s new e-reading app for your PC, iPad or tablet, is fun, educational and interactive, providing your children with their own shelves of well curated books; tools, like a dictionary; and games. The download comes with five free books. By Scholastic, free. Ages 3-12.

Letter School

This very cool app has won all sorts of awards, including a top 10 ranking in iTunes Educational Category. It lets kids practice writing their letters right on the screen. The bold graphics help guide their finger through the ABCs, lower and upper case, and numbers 1-10. By Boreaal, $3. Ages 3 and up.

Rocket Math

Another award-winner, this app for young and older kids is a math practice session disguised as a game. For younger kids, it covers counting, addition and subtraction, and for older ones it dives into the tougher stuff, even entry-level algebra principles. By Dan Russell-Pinson, free. Ages 4-12.

Stack the States

Here’s a wildly popular app that finds a way to make learning the 50 states and their capitals fun. You answer questions about the state correctly to win the state, then rotate it and find its place on the US map, like a puzzle. By Dan Russell-Pinson, $.99. Ages 6 and up.

Toca Doctor HD

This is a puzzle game that teaches kids about the human body (anatomically correct, mostly) and keeping it healthy. They can solve medical problems (like a runny nose), give shots, remove splinters, and feed the patient healthy foods to ward off germs.  By Toca Boca, $3.99. Ages 2+ (with a 2-4 year old sweet spot).

Math Doodles

The three games in this app are attractive to kids who may not love math, but who love puzzles and want to solve things. The puzzles created look like doodles, and are solved through basic math and creative thinking.  By Carstens Studios, $3. Ages 4 and up.

Need a babysitter tonight? Download the free UrbanSitter iPhone app.