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The Education Start-Up Backed by Mark Zuckerberg

Altschool is backed by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, as well as VC firms Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund.
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This week, children across the country went back to school, and many are going into pilot programs started, sponsored or aided by Silicon Valley.

The goal is to better equip the next generation with the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills needed for the high tech jobs of the future.

Examples: Apple is handing out iPads and Macbooks as part of the White House ConnectEd initiative; IBM is pioneering a STEM school model called P-Tech, which it, Microsoft, SAP and others are implementing in public high schools; and last week Facebook said it would expand its partnership with Summit Public Schools, which runs K-12 schools in California and Washington state.

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But one significant initiative stands out by being, among other things, a for-profit start-up. Altschool is backed by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, as well as venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund. (John Doerr and Pierre Omidyar have also invested.)

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The start-up provides pre-kindergarten through 8th grade education in small schools it calls micro-schools. When a child joins, the school creates a profile of the child's interests, strengths and weaknesses, which is then used to create a personalized learning plan. The child is then given a weekly list of individual and group activities and exercises to complete in order to meet their goals.

Cameras in classrooms monitor lessons, and teachers can review the videos to keep tabs on progress. An app lets teachers and parents keep in touch.

This approach builds on the Montessori method to incorporate new technology. It aims to leverage tech tools to streamline school administration, centralizing back-end operations to free up teachers for more face-to-face time with kids.

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Founder and CEO Max Ventilla, a Google veteran, leads a team of engineers drawn from companies including his former employer, Uber and other start-ups. "We're building tools that 'superpower' teachers to enable them to become more efficient and more effective at personalizing children's learning and meeting their individual needs, respecting their developmental progress and communicating with their parents," said Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool's director of education.

"What is most important is to give them subject matter that they care about. If you have a student that is interested in sports or space or medieval times, if you give them material that matches their interests, they are much more likely to keep reading and to put in the extra effort," Ventilla said. That will "create the kind of entrepreneurial muscle that ultimately they will probably need more than any kind of academic learning when you look ahead to the 2030s, '40s and '50s."

Though the notion of turning education into a for-profit enterprise raises questions over investors' needs competing with the needs of students, parents CNBC spoke with did not see it that way.

Mike Norris, whose daughter Zoe enrolled at AltSchool's new Dogpatch location this fall, said: "It forces alignment for everyone—investors, teachers, administrators. Everyone's focused on the right end game."

It started in 2013 in San Francisco, but this fall it expands to seven locations in the Bay Area and New York's borough of Brooklyn. And though it is expensive—$20,000 per year on average, though 40 percent of students receive financial assistance—demand is strong: This fall AltSchool fielded more than 3,000 applications for 200 open places.

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The goal is much larger than just a series of classrooms: Ventilla hopes to one day offer the model to any school that wants to use it.

"We could have thousands of Altschools in cities and countries where there's sufficient demand," said Ventilla. He hopes a network of AltShools will evolve and "strike at that central problem, which is that schools themselves need to be up to date if they are going to prepare Americans for a future that is changing at an accelerating rate."