MacKenzie Price has thrown down the gauntlet on the 100-year-old model of education.

By: Janaye Barabin. Photos by Joi Conti.

When MacKenzie Price graduated Stanford University, she was adamant that she would never step foot in a school again. Like many others, her experience with the public school system was discouraging. However, once she noticed her daughter losing interest in school, something clicked.

“Very early on, I started noticing frustration around the lack of ability for the traditional model to be able to personalize anything,” she recalls. “About halfway through my daughter’s second grade year, she came home and said, ‘I don’t want to go to school tomorrow.’ She looked at me and she said, ‘School is so boring,’ and I just had this lightbulb moment. They’ve taken this kid who’s tailor-made to wanna be a good student, and they’ve wiped away that passion.” 

Price went to the administration to see if anything could be done, but the response she received was not encouraging. “The principal, who’s incredible at her job, looked at me and said ‘MacKenzie, I understand all of your frustrations, but this is like trying to steer the Titanic. It just can’t be done.’ At that moment I realized that was my cue to get out of there. My husband and I were both products of public school education, so for us, we weren’t interested in a private school option. For us, it wasn’t about going to a private school versus a public school; it was about the model of education. It was about the fact that the way we educate our students in this country is based on a hundred-year model that started with the Industrial Revolution, where schools were training young people to become factory workers. So they needed to learn how to be compliant, how to follow directions and do exactly as they were told.” 

Price, co-founder of Alpha School and 2hr Learning, was determined to find a way to restore her daughter’s love for learning. After she was unable to find a suitable alternative to the traditional educational model, she decided to create the Alpha School. When she speaks, her voice is confident. “I ended up finding somebody who was interested in starting a school, and he was gonna put his own kids in it as well. We started the school back in 2014, when my daughters were in third grade and first grade, and one of the things we knew was we wanted to embrace the future. “We’ve pioneered this idea of what I call 2hr Learning, where we use adaptive apps so the students can learn at their own pace in every subject.” 

At Alpha, two hours are dedicated to core subjects, while the rest of the day is reserved for life skills. The results of this model speak for themselves. “At Alpha, they’re learning twice as fast.  Across the board, the average is 2.6 times faster. The top two-thirds of our students are learning 3.6 times faster, and the top 20% are learning 6.5 times faster,” Price explains. “My mission is that I want parents to understand that their kids do not need six hours of sitting in a class all day to get their academics done. They can not only do it in two hours, but can crush their academics in two hours.”

Although the methods are different, students at Alpha are learning the same material on the U.S. common core curriculum. Price has found a way to use technology as a tool that helps create a personalized learning experience for each student. “The thing that’s really interesting about what technology has enabled is that it does a good job of giving every student the exact level of information they need at exactly the pace they need. We’ve [created]an AI tutor who is basically able to put guide rails along these kids’ educational experience in order to make sure they’re learning efficiently, they’re learning to mastery and they’re not getting frustrated. If they’re frustrated, learning turns off.”

One of the problems with a time-based education system is that students often get left behind. “At the end of the school year, the kids move up. It doesn’t matter how much you knew about fifth grade; it’s time for sixth grade next year. That’s where we start seeing so much trouble with our children.” Price insists that it’s important to not blame teachers for flaws in the system. “I think teachers are amazing people because they are underpaid, overworked and underappreciated,” she says. “They’ve been given an impossible task, which is to take 20, 30 kids in a classroom and try to teach every single one of those kids the material. Those kids all come in on completely different levels, and there’s no way that a human being can meet every single kid and provide an academic lesson plan that hits every kid where they need to be.” 

At Alpha High School, students are encouraged to pursue their interests. “They’re still doing all of the traditional stuff as far as taking advanced placement classes and being able to score well on their SAT, but they have the rest of the day to go work on what we call a masterpiece project, where they start to figure out what they’re interested in. We have one student, a boy named Rhett, who raised $350,000 of venture funding and opened Texas’ biggest mountain bike park in Marble Falls. He had to write the business plan, find investors, find land to lease, build the bike park and manage employees and contractors.”

“We had another student who got really interested in cancer because her grandfather died of it. She started looking into what causes cancer [and if]there is more to it than just bad genetics, and she got interested in epigenetics and how food relates to that. She ended up becoming an expert by interviewing people all over and reading as much as she could. She built a Twitter audience and she created the documentary, and that documentary has been viewed 4.5 million times. The life skills, the experience and the chance that these kids are getting [is]to go out and pursue their dreams now, and not just later, right now. We’ve got kids doing things all over the board. When you give kids that ability to go find the intersection of their passions and their talents that’s where magic strikes.”

Alpha also has campuses in Miami, Florida, and Brownsville, Texas, and is continuing to expand. “We’re opening an esports academy, which is a middle school program where we leverage kids’ love of video gaming in order to teach them life skills and to motivate them to crush their academics. We have a Lake Travis sports academy that’s opening this fall where afternoons are [for]sports and getting active. We also have a [gifted and talented]school opening in Georgetown for people who want to do academically rigorous work. In the afternoon, they’re working on workshops like robotics and writing clubs and all kinds of really exciting hands-on projects.”

Pencil prop design by Liza Fishbone. Styled by Empress Bey, with inspiration from Garden Room ATX. Hair and makeup by Shot on location at Alpha Austin.

Instead of teachers, Alpha has guides. Price believes these guides play a crucial role in the students’ development. “Their job is to provide motivational and emotional support to each and every student. If you don’t have to worry about creating lesson plans and grading homework and papers, it opens up time to do what I believe most educators got into this field [to do]in the first place: to positively impact kids. When our guides have the time and bandwidth to be able to sit down with every single student and spend time with them one-on-one regularly, they learn and understand what makes that kid tick, what do they like, what do they care about, what are the negative thoughts that they tend to go toward when they get frustrated and how can we help give them better growth strategies to change [their]mindset. That’s part of the reason we see such incredible results. We have a kindergartner who every time she masters two units, she and her guide go do a 30-second Taylor Swift dance party because this guide knows this little girl loves Taylor.”

At Alpha’s Brownsville campus, the students have shown major improvements in academic performance. For example, last year the second grade class came in at the 31st percentile. One year later those students were in the 84th percentile for math and the 71st percentile in reading. 

Price’s excitement fills the room as she talks, and it’s clear that she’s found her purpose. “Here’s the beauty of it: AI technology and adaptive app learning is the great equalizer. It doesn’t care if you’re white or black or brown; it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t care if you’re in the 10th percentile or the 90th percentile,” she says. “It’s infinitely patient. It can literally raise the floor of and explode the ceiling off what’s possible. That’s what I truly believe the future of education is based on: how we can help every student in this world. How we can meet them exactly where they’re at, help the kids that need it the most. We can help the kids who have been hindered because they want to go further and can’t.”

“Ninety percent of what makes a great learner is that you have to have a motivated student. If you don’t have a motivated student, the lights are off and nobody’s home. We’ve found that the best thing we can do to motivate students is [to give]back their most valuable resource, which is time to do what they actually want to do.” For Price, it’s essential to teach these students skills that will equip them for life after school. “When we graduate college, we want to come out knowing about leadership, teamwork, communication, empathy, financial literacy, etc. Those are the things we teach via workshops that are really hands-on and active.”

This latest uptick in AI might seem sudden, but Price has used it for years. At Alpha, students are encouraged to approach learning with curiosity. “We’re using artificial intelligence to raise human intelligence. In this day and age, so many jobs exist that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and 10 years from now, these kids in this school building are gonna be doing jobs that don’t exist yet.”

“We have a fundamental belief here that kids are limitless, and we need to provide an environment where they can unlock that potential. We have kids doing amazing things, things parents never thought [their]kids could do. I truly believe my purpose is to change education and help kids unlock that potential.”

Alpha’s original campus was formed in 2016 by education and technology experts in partnership with parents interested in bringing true innovation to the classroom. Frustrated by educational systems that hadn’t changed much in the past 200 years, we challenged ourselves to reimagine the place our children spend the majority of their waking hours. We built Alpha around the realization that kids who truly love school work harder, are willing to step out of their comfort zone and know that hard work delivers success. It was at this original campus where we created our three commitments and developed our academic and motivational models. Today, our Austin campus hosts more than 150 kids, and our first Alpha alumni crossed the high school graduation stage in the spring of 2023.

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