I started Schoolrunner for a friend. You don’t do that for just any friend. We’re talking about a high school principal who was getting 100% of his low income students of color into college. So when he called me to get my opinion on his technology challenges, it seemed like the least I could do. His question was straightforward: I have way too many systems–how hard would it be to build one comprehensive data system for teachers? Keep in mind, I had just spent the better part of a decade building data analytics tools for BlackRock and then a couple of hedge funds so I knew the easy and hard parts of doing this work. And most importantly, I was looking for a challenge that I was passionate about. Don’t get me wrong, I loved working in finance. I was a math nerd as a kid so the idea that I had to use calculus to compute the numbers we used to assess our risk was a fun challenge. But beyond the fact that all I was doing was helping make rich people richer, I had stopped learning. My own school experience ranged from an extraordinary K-8 Dewey school in upstate New York to a quality but uninspiring high school in northern Virginia. At its best, my schooling was empowering with teachers challenging my assumptions and forcing me to take on problems I wasn’t sure I could solve. At its worst, I felt left to my own devices with work I wasn’t sure was building to anything. So the idea of getting to use my experience and creativity to help a bunch of great people make their school even better was electrifying.
We started out small. I built prototypes and worked very closely with Nicole Brenner, then Data Manager at Sci Academy, to make sure that what I had built was what they needed. We iterated for six months with daily and weekly revisions until we had something that could replace multiple systems and spreadsheets with one simple interface for teachers to take attendance, analyze academic performance, and reward cultural excellence.
We ran a successful pilot during summer school and then launched in their three high schools in the fall of 2012. I remember sitting in the library that first day of school waiting for the chaos. But instead, teachers were executing well-rehearsed lessons and I got to pitch in making bus routes easy to find and helping teachers analyze the results of their literacy screeners in Schoolrunner. That spirit has never left us. Help us understand what problem you’re trying to solve, and there’s a good chance we can use our technical expertise to come up with a solution together.
It’s been a wild ride since that first day. Within a few months, other schools in New Orleans started calling Collegiate Academies asking what this school data management system was that teachers actually said nice things about. After a year and a half of focused execution, we expanded coast-to-coast that next summer, going from 700 students to over 7,000 on the platform. We learned a lot that year about scalability and about the need for flexibility within the system. But the main thing we learned was that schools everywhere are trying to solve the same problems. Teachers need to have real-time data at their fingertips so they know which kids need help with which topics. Leaders need their staff aligned around common and transparent goals. Students and parents need clear expectations and consistent communication from their school. As we heard from school after school it was exciting to see these themes repeated in every conversation. “We’re really trying to build a strong data culture at our school, but without quality tools it’s a major struggle.” Or they said things like, “We really want to be great at this but we’re not there yet.” Or even, “Our number one problem is teacher turnover, and our teachers’ number one frustration is technology.” Think about that – with all the challenges teachers face, technology was their top complaint! We have to support our teachers better than that!
Since those early days we’ve grown up as a company. There are a dozen of us now, from each school’s dedicated School Happiness Coordinator to engineers to marketing professionals to our product manager, whose job it is to take feedback from schools and use it to figure out how to make our product even better. We’re serving schools representing over 25,000 kids and we’ve raised enough money to allow us to build out our team for long-term success. None of this is easy! If ever we forget that, we only have to look to our partner schools. Educators hold themselves to such a high standard – they work so hard and yet their work is never finished. Our work will never be finished either! Our goal is to help teachers help kids by using big data and smarter technology so we’re always working hard to improve what we’ve built.
People ask me why I started a technology business for schools. I did it because I believe passionately in the power of all those teachers and I’m frankly shocked at the level of busy-work teachers are asked to do. We’re not lacking for motivated and dedicated educators in this country. What we are lacking is good tools that empower those teachers to do their best work even more efficiently and effectively. I get up every day excited to be building part of the solution.