The birth of edtech cities
Jess Gartner walked into her classroom with a roll of tape, a box of pens, and staples—and that was pretty much it. A Teach for America member, she was gearing up to teach social studies to Baltimore middle schoolers, but her classroom was bare. There were no maps or textbooks, and her globe still showed Russia as the U.S.S.R. She personally spent $3,000 to outfit her classroom.
It’s the kind of hard-up story we expect from underprivileged schools—a case in point for the intractable quandary of inequality in the American education system. However, Gartner worked in other schools in Baltimore where she was lavished with textbooks, teacher development resources, and a steady supply of copy paper, while other schools in the city had iPads for almost every student.
“All three of these scenarios existed in the same district within a mile of each other, with similar student populations.” Gartner said.
She saw how resource management, or lack thereof, created disparate outcomes, learning that principals often had only modest training in financial management—despite being responsible for school budgets that could run into the millions of dollars.
In February 2013, Gartner quit her job and founded Allovue. She was accepted to incubator program Accelerate Baltimore with just a concept: She was going to make the Mint.com of school budgeting—, i.e., a software to streamline school finance and allow districts to aggregate data and correlate spending to outcomes. So far she’s raised $800,000 for the first two years of operation. Two school districts will be participating in a pilot program this fall.
Gartner’s story is one example of grassroots edtech—a catch-all term for startups, entrepreneurs, and teachers working with educational technologies—and Baltimore is one among a handful of cities throughout the U.S. growing a community of highly educated and socially conscious young entrepreneurs and educators.
Silicon Valley may have the biggest investors, but cities like Baltimore are fostering edtech communities with their low cost of living, welcoming local governments, and a pool of forward-thinking educators.
Fostering an edtech ecosystem
It’s no secret education lags behind other sectors in innovation. The federal government gives out $30 billion a year in medical research grants through the National Institute of Health, whereas the entire operating budget for the national Institute of Education Sciences is a fraction of that, about $670 million for 2014. Plus, education research gets hamstrung by politics in a way medical science does not. The result is a school system that clings to practices developed to produce a manufacturing and industrial workforce a century ago.
With the molasses-pace of government in education, many in the edtech sector see public-private partnerships and grassroots enterprise as the way forward. While the mega money dwells in California and New York, edtech scenes blooming in other states are fostering their own ethos and sense of purpose. For one thing, as many entrepreneurs were quick to point out to me in one form or another, “No one here is trying to create the next selfie app.”
Maryland, and Baltimore inand particular, has a host of advisories and organizations dedicated to fostering an edtech community, complemented by a sizable pool of Teach for America alumni and a strong university system. Down in Louisiana, the post-Katrina era brought in rebuild money and a culture of entrepreneurship to New Orleans. There, the edtech scene has grown up around a few early movers and the city’s all-charter school system, where individual schools have more autonomy than their traditional counterparts and can thus make changes and purchasing decisions faster than the average, bureaucracy-laden school district. That’s quite the boon to bootstrapping startups looking to generate revenue quickly.
The movement is happening across the country. Silicon Valley startup BloomBoard, which provides software to school districts that helps teachers find and purchase development materials, opened a Pittsburgh office last summer, and over the last year, it’s made efforts to organize local education and tech types into a cohesive community. Nashville, Tenn., and Providence, R.I., also have growing edtech communities.
The edtech communities tend to have a few things in common: a receptive school district and/or municipal government, reasonable cost of living, and higher-education institutes for easy talent recruitment. But a surefire catalyst appears to be presenting a specific school problem to the right individual.
Creating the solutions
Edtech has attracted a raft of Teach for America alumni. Turns out when you recruit a bunch of highly-educated, super-organized college graduates who have leadership traits and plop them in disadvantaged school systems for two years, some will come out of the experience wanting to address the problems they observed.
Like Gartner, many entrepreneurs approach problems through a social lens, and the field attracts more women than the tech sector at large. None seems to think technology is the panacea for the American education system; another thing entrepreneurs kept repeating to me was, “there’s no silver bullet.” It’s not a sector for the type of entrepreneur looking for a six-figure payout for a concept-stage mobile app. In fact, many of the entrepreneurs I spoke with said they’d never thought about edtech as a sector worthy of strategic entry at all. Mostly, they just wanted to make schools better.
“I had this degree in computer science, and I had this really gnarly problem in schools,” recalled Jen Medbery, founder of Kickboard, an early edtech startup success out of New Orleans. “I didn’t approach it from, ‘This is an industry I can be a part of.’”
Preparing to graduate from Columbia in 2006, Medbery thought for sure she was headed to Silicon Valley, but she decided on a detour when she was recruited into Teach for America. Three years of teaching showed her how important coordinated management was to student achievement, but the tools in use were a hodgepodge at best. Teachers saved emails and tracked students via shared Google spreadsheets, but it was cumbersome and messy.
What started out as simply a solution for the school where she taught became Kickboard, a software that helps streamline instructional decisions by giving every teacher who works in a particular school access to a central system of student records and information. Back in 2009, when Medbery launched Kickboard, there was still little to no national media attention on edtech. It wasn’t really something she was aware of as a category of business, but rather something she’d decided on her own to do. Others in New Orleans have likened Medbery to a kind of local edtech godmother, with her success story raising awareness and inspiring others.
In addition to a large pool of Teach for America alumni, New Orleans also has a unique nonprofit incubator for schools and education startups, 4.0 Schools. Started in 2010, 4.0 School’s’s nonprofit status affords it the ability to take bigger risks on people, concepts, and ventures that are further upstream than traditional, equity-stake incubators. 4.0 Schools’s communication director Tony Zanders is quick to point out that many of their startups have more to do with a great idea that leverages human capital than with technological innovation.
“Tech is not the solution for all school problems. It’s just not,” Zanders said. “That’s a fact that’s hard for some people.”
One success to come out of 4.0 Schools’s incubator program is Enriched, a startup with a fairly analog solution to the problem of class time wasted on days with substitute teachers. It was started by Andre Feigler, a TFA student in St. Bernard Parish who noticed at her school the substitute placement system amounted to a yellow pad with a list of names to call. Out of this, the idea for a network of rotating enrichment teachers began to percolate. In 2012, she was accepted into 4.0 Schools’s accelerator program and started operation in the 2013-2014 school year. The company has a stable of about 100 educators, including poets, musicians, social justice activists, and comedians. The idea is to use the time a teacher can’t be in the classroom to expose kids to members of their community who are doing worthwhile things. In its first year, Enriched saw revenues above $250,000.
4.0 Schools has supported an array of education ventures, including charter schools, a tool to help museums make mobile apps, a digital reading platform that adapts to students’ reading level, and a local youth poetry community. The nonprofit will host its 10th class in its accelerator program this fall, and the organization is increasingly a national one, supporting edtech startups that return to home cities after graduating from 4.0 Schools. It is also growing a presence in New York.
Building something else
Up in the northeast, Baltimore, more strongly affiliated in the public conscious with The Wire than the tech field, is also building out its edtech community. Citelighter, a browser plug-in that allows K-12 teachers to review students’ writing process, moved from New York to Baltimore in 2013. Cofounder Lee Jokl, who started the company with fellow Stanford business school alum Saad Alam, said the move was prompted by several factors. One was that of the $1.7 million they’d raised in seed funding, about $1 million was from Baltimore-based investors. Another was that Baltimore has a great grad school for education (Johns Hopkins University), and a lot of Teach for America alumni happen to stay in the city. Plus, Maryland has TEDCO, a public fund that invests in in-state tech companies, which invested $100,000 in Citelighter after it moved.
“It seems—I don’t want to say easier—it just seems more accepting of edtech startups,” Jokl said. “[In New York] if you’re not an ad tech or financial software or something like that, you kind of get these looks, ‘You do what? How are you going to make money with that?’”
In Baltimore, it’s just not all about making money. Andrew Coy came to the cityto teach social studies in the inner-city, but he quickly switched to technology. Coy himself had dropped out of college four times, so he understood the difficulty of retaining students’ attention in the absence of results that attest to the value of education.
“Students were immediately attracted to the fact that what I was teaching them today could help them make money tomorrow, not just some-day far off in the future,.” Coy said.
Coy started an after-school tech club. He found clients who needed simple websites, and the students were paid for what they built. Once they’d nailed down some skills, Coy’s students also began giving lessons to other teachers.
“Some of them were getting paid better than their parents on an hourly basis,” Coy said. Once they’d nailed down some skills, Coy’s students also began giving lessons to other teachers.
Then in 2012, Baltimore was preparing to shutter about half of its remaining recreation centers. Coy points out that these centers are a sort of relic from the industrial era, tailored for factory workers and focused on physical exercise. “If you reimagine a rec. center as a tech center, you can solve some of the systemic pipeline issues tech companies are facing.” Coy said, referring to the need for a more tech-savvy workforce.
That was the birth of the Digital Harbor Foundation. Opened in January 2013, the nonprofit took over a 5,000-square-foot rec. center and started a host of after-school and summer programs. Digital Harbor’s tech center is a youth-centric makerspace. It focuses on teaching kids Web and mobile app development and 3D printing, but there’s plenty of analog activities too. One 15-year-old girl turned an old upright piano into a Spotify-enabled jukebox.
Another student, a boy named Darius McCoy who is now a rising senior, had a transformative experience at the tech center. When McCoy first started hanging out there, he was exceptionally quiet, mumbled when he did talk, and hung back from participating until one day when someone invited him to help build a 3D printer. McCoy spent several weeks, putting it together and taking it apart, until he got it right. Then he built three more. Now he helps maintain the center’s printers and started his own company, printing iPhone cases with the Baltimore skyline and a Maryland crab on them.
“I was ecstatic because I built something that could build something else,” McCoy said in a talk he gave at TEDxYouth@Baltimore last November.
In cities like New Orleans and Baltimore, that’s pretty much what edtech is all about: Building up students with the confidence and skills so that one day they can go on to build something else.