South Austin private school using adaptive AI to optimize learning

A private K-12 school in Austin is going all in on artificial intelligence. The Alpha School is using adaptive A.I. to optimize learning, and the school’s founder says they have the test results to prove it.

"A.I. tutors do a great job of meeting kids exactly where they're at, understanding where their holes in knowledge are," said MacKenzie Price, co-founder of Alpha School.

Here, A.I. apps and adaptive A.I. tutors take the lead on core subjects like reading, math and writing.

"I like that it's kind of on you to figure out like what you want to ask it," said Lulu, an Alpha student. "And that helps me get really good at writing."

But human academic and motivational coaches still play a crucial role—think teachers 2.0. "We kind of let them use it and we show it to them safely. So it's something that they're like, okay, this could help us," said Emily Neal, a guide at Alpha School.

Coaches say the combination of robot and real person enables students not to be tethered to their grade level, and condenses about six hours of learning into only two. 

"I can learn at my own level, at my own pace," said Lulu.

That frees up the rest of the day for life skills workshops—some involving A.I. and others totally unplugged.

"This workshop is the link running club. We're doing it with Austin Fitness," said Aubrey, an Alpha student.

"You're exercising and you're learning other things. we're learning grit," said Elaina, an Alpha student.

Price launched the concept out of her home back in 2014.

"Being a mom, I had two girls that were in the traditional school system and about two and a half years into their educational journey, my daughter came to me one day and she just said, ‘school is so boring’," said Price. "And I realized something needed to change."

Alpha now has three campuses: South Austin (grades K-6), Downtown Austin (7-12), and a third school in Brownsville partnering with SpaceX—all with A.I. front and center.

"We don't want to use it for cheating. We don't want to use it to write our own papers, any of those things. We want to use it to supercharge what we can do," said Price.  

One of the workshops involved a mock racecourse, where kids learn about coding by programming self-driving cars. Once they work out the kinks, the cars drive on a replica of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack. 

"They are, one, learning how to code. Two, our biggest thing is teamwork. We're really teaching these kids a life skill of teamwork and collaboration," said Neal.

Price acknowledges this futuristic model is expensive, and may not be ready for prime time when it comes to public schools.

"I wake up every morning saying, ‘How can we get this out to more and more kids?’" said Price.

She urges parents and teachers to keep an open mind when it comes to A.I.

"That's just like 20 years ago, if we had said no to the Internet, that would have been a problem," said Price.