NewSchools Venture Fund A non-profit venture philanthropy firm working to transform public education for low-income children Thu, 21 Aug 2014 00:38:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Investment Approaches of the Seed Fund- Part II Wed, 20 Aug 2014 03:52:01 +0000 […]]]> Last week I shared some of our thinking behind our investments in STEM, relevance and communication, found here. With this post, I’ll share our approach for investing in special education and english language learning. While traditional venture capital has backed consumer-oriented english language learning tools like Rosetta Stone, Livemocha and more recently, mobile apps like Duolingo, we take a very different approach. We target tools for educators in schools serving these students.

Specialized Tools Can Better Reach Children Outside of the Mainstream 

Our school system is undergoing a long, slow shift from a mass-production model of instruction to a more differentiated model. This is a good thing and will be better for both the educators and children within the system. While we’re excited that new blended models are pioneering the way for whole school change, their numbers are tiny at less than 1% of US schools. We need to accelerate this shift because achievement data makes it clear that children from less privileged backgrounds and those with particular learning needs have the most to lose from a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling.

As this systematic shift lumbers on, teachers are driving change in their own classrooms. For more than a decade, differentiated instruction has been the #1 topic of interest for professional development. Teachers have long believed they needed more arrows in their quiver to teach the range of learners in their classrooms. And now, with the ubiquity of technology devices and the content ecosystems that come alongside them, teachers are actively adopting tools and content to teach diverse learners — despite the many constraints imposed by a system designed for mass-production.


The demand for educator-focused specialized learning tools and content is strong. Because technology offers unique and easy ways to differentiate curriculum and instruction, our baseline approach across all investment areas is to find products that build these features from within – it should be the norm of all education technology products¹. Newsela, mentioned previously as a tool to promote relevance, is one of the best examples with a built-in lexile leveler to reach beginning and advanced readers alike.

We have narrowed our criteria to areas with: a) high need b) an over-representation of poor and minority children² and c) opportunities to build a scalable and sustainable business. Given limited follow-on funding options, we invest in areas with Federal and State categorical funding available so the company can become cash-flow positive quickly. This space is primed for impact investors and Foundation mission-related investments (MRI’s). Our investments are focused in:

English Language Learners (ELL)

Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge

The fastest growing sub-population of students in the US is English Language Learners, currently at about 11%. Thirty percent of schools have more than a quarter of students from an immigrant background. PISA data shows that students in the US with an immigrant background³ more often attend schools with a) more children from a socio-economically disadvantaged background, b) have lower quality of educational resources available and c) have fewer staff per students, among other disadvantages (see table ii.4.9).

Special Education (SPED)

About 12% of US students have identified special learning needs. Special education teachers have some of the toughest jobs and the poorest tools available. It is an area virtually devoid of innovation and yet these teachers have some of the greatest needs for personalized learning tools. After all, differentiated instruction began in special education classrooms. Faced with the reality of a classroom of diverse learners, special education teachers adapted their instruction and developed new pedagogical strategies.

In both ELL and SPED, we look for tools and curriculum to help educators support the learning needs of their students while efficiently meeting compliance demands for categorical funding. We would like to do a lot more investing in this category and are researching needs for rural children and early-diagnostic tools for classroom teachers to screen for learning disabilities so those children can get help sooner. We are at the tip of the iceberg in understanding how technology can positively impact the lives of children with special learning needs — and we are keen to invest in entrepreneurs who are leading this innovation and will equip our educators with the best tools possible.


LocoMotive Labs designs exceptional assistive and play-based learning applications to empower kids with special needs to be independent learners.



Goalbook creates research-based resources that empower teachers to design rigorous and engaging instructional plans for diverse student needs.


ELEV tagline logo cmyk

Ellevation is exclusively focused on the needs of English Language Learners and the educators who serve them.



PresenceLearning makes online 
speech therapy and occupational therapy practical, affordable and convenient for special needs children while providing an extraordinary therapy experience for each child.

¹Stanford professor Jo Boaler calls differentiated learning tasks, “low-floor, high ceiling” – we look for products similarly designed.

²The overrepresentation of certain ethnic groups in special education programs (and underrepresentation in AP and gifted programs) has been a recognized problem for 30+ years.

³Among OECD countries, only Luxembourg, Switzerland, Australia, new Zealand, Canada and Israel show a higher concentration of students with an immigrant background in schools (the OECD average is 14%).

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Investment Approaches of the Seed Fund- Part I Fri, 15 Aug 2014 18:00:16 +0000 […]]]> Our Seed Fund supports high potential entrepreneurs developing technology solutions for the biggest challenges in K-12 education. We look for areas where the power of technology can improve our education system and its ability to maximize the learning Seed_Investment_Thesis_Vennpotential of every child. We borrow our approach from venture capital¹ in that we develop investment theses informed by listening to educators, researching technology trends, studying student achievement data, and listening closely to the practitioners in our schools and organizations.

In contrast to a fixed theory of change, we are continuously updating, modifying and revising our theses as we gain more visibility. Most of our investing is thesis-driven though we remain open to breakthrough ideas where the entrepreneur is educating us on the opportunity.

Below are three of our investment theses (in no particular order) and how some of our investments line-up against them. The remainder will come in follow-up posts.

The STEM skills crisis

The greatest unmet demand in our economy is for STEM-related jobs. Two million high-demand, high-skilled jobs go unfilled in the US because employers can’t find enough qualified workers. It’s also an equity issue: females, Blacks and Latino’s are critically under-represented in some of the fastest growing and highest valued consumer technology companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter.


Our thesis is founded on two data points: a) about 50% of HS math and science classes are taught by a teacher with inadequate background² b) more than 60% of students who chose a STEM career did so because a teacher sparked their interest³.

Given the importance of teachers to inspire and prepare our children for STEM fields, we seek education technology startups targeted at helping teachers. Specifically, we look for content companies to bolster teachers’ STEM knowledge and support their efforts to deliver high-quality instruction even when they lack the requisite certification, background or skills (as often is the case with computer science).


Tynker is a computational thinking curriculum for K-8, targeted at educators without a background in computer science.


logoCodeHS is a coding curriculum for High Schools, targeted at educators without a background in computer science.

YouCubed was founded by Stanford University professor Jo Boaler. Their mission is to harness the power of new technologies to transform mathematics education in the US and beyond by, helping teachers combat myths about failure and ability.



Mystery Science is an elementary science curriculum helping teachers to deliver inspiring and high-quality lessons even when they lack a science background.



CodeNow introduces under-represented high school students to computer programming through partnerships with leading technology companies and their software engineers. 


Motion MathMotionMath makes rigorous and fun math learning games.


Relevance matters more than ever

School is becoming less relevant to children all over the world who now carry in their pockets access to the world’s knowledge, not to mention addictive video games. But even before smartphones, school’s suffered from a relevance crisis, described by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham:

…we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did [at school] was pointless, or seemed so at the time. At best it was practice for real work we might do far in the future, so far that we didn’t even know at the time what we were practicing for. More often it was just an arbitrary series of hoops to jump through, words without content designed mainly for testability. (The three main causes of the Civil War were…. Test: List the three main causes of the Civil War.)

Over a million students per year dropout, failing to see the relevance of school to their future. Another 250,000 opt to attend school full-time online, without a live teacher. Virtual schools are the fastest-growing category of school choice with enrollment jumping 21% last year while enriching online providers like Schools have struggled to define their relevance for decades but the problem has become more acute with smartphones and everywhere access. Children can find answers, code, connect to an online community, build, sell things, blog, review and learn online — all without schools. We are becoming increasingly connected and it’s not just our laptops or smartphones. The Internet of Things (IoT) is coming. In just six years, Gartner estimates that 26 billion devices will be connected to the internet (e.g. your plant pots, watch, scale, and things we cannot yet conceive of). 


Our thesis is that technology can help bring the real world into the classroom, making it more relevant. Children are naturally hungry for authentic problems to solve, real content to delve into and opportunities to create and contribute to our world. Not only can we help children better understand why the content and skills they are learning matter, but to also apply their learning to build something of value for themselves and community.

Nepris Logo_blue-gray-300x77

Nepris enables collaboration between educators and industry professionals to bring real world relevance to every classroom to engage students in STEM, to expose them to real job skills and to inspire them through role models.



Newsela publishes high-interest news articles daily at five levels of complexity. Newsela develops nonfiction fluency and critical-thinking skills necessary to master informational text.



TuvaLabs empowers students to think critically about data, ask meaningful questions, and communicate their observations and findings. TuvaLabs pushes students to use their knowledge, values and skills to become active members of their own communities and global citizens of the world.


logo-70df3d6d4b63613e44353ee614f4a6b8ListenCurrent teaches students to Listen with the Power of Public Radio and makes it easy to bring authentic voices and compelling non-fiction stories to the classroom.


Better communication leads to better educational outcomes

At a basic level, education is communication between parent, teacher and child, or in ed-school jargon, the Golden Triangle. It is critical to optimize for better communication because it has a significant impact on a child’s school performance.


Technology can reduce communication friction and enable more effective, frequent and purposeful communication between parent, teacher and child. Schools are just beginning to utilize basic communication tools that consumers have been using for years like text messaging, news feeds, translators, push email and social networks. We seek out startups leveraging consumerlike communication technologies to help parents, teachers and children better understand and support each other. This area, in particular, is undergoing major change. Currently, our focus is to dramatically improve parent engagement rates through tools that invite parents into the learning process and encourage a positive partnership between parent, teacher and child. 


Class Dojo is a classroom tool that helps teachers improve behavior and involve the parent in that process.



FreshGrade is a next generation gradebook and communication platform that aligns parent, student and child in the learning process.


schoolmintlogoSchoolmint reduces the friction of school enrollment/admission by managing the process simply and securely.


¹Of course, the big difference between us and a venture capital firm is that we are optimizing for impact, not money.

²About 2/3 of high school math students and 1/3 of those enrolled in physical science have teachers who did not major in the subject in college or are not certified to teach it.

³57% of boys and 68% of girls who chose a career in science technology engineering and math (STEM) had a teacher or class that sparked their interest.

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Equity, Diversity & Edtech Mon, 21 Jul 2014 15:44:58 +0000 […]]]> The “wall of silence” is crumbling. For the first time, Silicon Valley’s technology companies have begun releasing data about the diversity of their employees. The disclosures help to quantify a reality that many have suspected or experienced firsthand: Less than five percent of the collective workforces of Facebook, Google and Yahoo are black or Hispanic; four out of five team members are white or Asian men.

These statistics mirror broader trends. Only 13 percent of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs nationwide are held by black or Hispanic workers; at the same time skills related to STEM are “particularly scarce relative to [employer] demand.”

Gaps begin early in the education pipeline and persist into adulthood: Black and Hispanic students (who account for more than 40 percent of the K-12 population) are not only less likely to be prepared for Kindergarten, graduate from high school or attend “elite and competitive” colleges; they are also less likely to study subjects like computer science or to be part of successful startups. (According to a report by CB Insights, more than 80 percent of venture capital-backed early-stage companies have all-white teams.)

These disparities stem in part from phenomena such as implicit biases and cultures of insularity. They are also driven by (as well as reinforce) cycles of poverty. In the past 40 years, the proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch has doubled to 70 percent, as racially-defined gaps in income and wealth continue to grow.

* * * * *

A student from GLIDE's youth art summer program playtests an app at co.lab. (Photo:  Erin Beach)

A student from GLIDE’s summer youth arts program playtests an educational game. 
(Photo: Erin Beach)

As important as these issues are in regard to consumer technologies, they are perhaps even more critical when considering the users and makers of edtech, an industry in which the holy grail of technology-enabled “personalization” risks becoming “an empty vessel into which one may pour any number of competing theories of learning or favored education policies.”

Increasingly, students’ academic and social experiences are influenced by edtech programmers, whose perspectives and priorities may differ significantly from users’. Nonetheless children from low-income households spend more time than their higher-income peers consuming media each day. As Hack Education’s Audrey Watters asks, “Who writes all these algorithms that will ‘personalize’ our learning through technology? [...] For whom is ‘personalization’ defined (and by extension, for whom is ‘personalization’ programmed)?”

When it comes to edtech, Silicon Valley may be “leading the charge” in some ways (including job growth); nevertheless its contributions must be contextualized within “knowledge and a library of evidence far broader than that which the disruptive narrative includes.” If the “edtech revolution” is to fulfill its promise of closing gaps, it must be understood as part of a broader struggle toward equity and inclusion.

In order to analyze the social impact of edtech, we must begin by disentangling access and usage. Access is necessary, but not sufficient, for improving outcomes; variations in usage matter. Learning environments are characterized by “envelopes” which consist of both technology resources and social resources (e.g. scaffolding, modeling and support from parents and teachers) — these play a prominent role in shaping individual students’ educational possibilities.

Despite increased access to mobile devices and the rising (if tentative) popularity of BYOD, there are barriers that prevent many low-income children from accessing high-quality digital content at home and at school. And even where access exists, disparities can remain: Research has shown that gaps in resource allocation can exist even between students within a single school.

What can edtech developers do to encourage equitable usage of their products? One crucial step is establishing authentic communication with students, teachers and parents from low-income schools — this is the only way to ensure that real problems are being solved. Startups can also take steps to reduce friction to distribution and adoption in a wide variety of classrooms. In addition, early stage companies can prioritize the recruitment of culturally and socioeconomically diverse teams as well as investors, which may increasingly include non-profit foundations.

* * * * *

Students at Startup Weekend Oakland - Black Male Achievement. (Photo: Sierra Jewell)

Students design projects at Startup Weekend Oakland – Black Male Achievement.
(Photo: Sierra Jewell)

And yet, there are more systemic issues to address related to diversity in the design and usage of edtech. Enhanced empathy is important, but it only goes so far. In order to create outcomes that are truly equitable, edtech decision-makers must work to redefine the relationship between students — especially low-income students — and technology.

Educator Jose Vilson argues that “the lack of teachers of color is a symptom and not a cause of the education gaps we currently see.” In the case of edtech, it seems plausible that a lack of representation by (instructional and technological) designers of color is both a symptom and a cause of unfulfilled demand for content and products that reflect the diverse experiences and needs of low-income users.

There is work to be done combating conditions that inhibit equity and diversity at the professional level. In the meantime, a growing group of organizations is addressing these challenges through community-based, technology-enabled educational interventions. Black Girls Code teaches young girls and pre-teens of color in-demand skills in technology and computer programming. Science Genius leverages hip hop pedagogy to engage urban youth and educators in STEM exploration. Hack the Hood connects youth to real-world consulting projects building websites for local businesses and nonprofits. Qeyno Labs harnesses the interests of high potential youth from low-opportunity settings through radically inclusive hackathons. And new ideas are being generated all the time.

In a world where “genius is not always defined by academic success”, important questions remain about how to assess the educational value of technology. In some classrooms, consumer trends like user-generated content could intersect with ideas like portfolio-based assessment to create opportunities for more diverse interpretations of “achievement”. But to become genuinely transformative, educational technologies must function as part of a system of supports that equip low-income students with the skills they need to identify and solve challenges in their own homes and communities.

Cameron White is Associate Director of co.lab, an edtech accelerator by NewSchools Venture Fund and

 * * * * *

If you’re interested in the roles that STEM and creativity can play in empowering youth, check out the video below from Summit 2014 panel “From STEM to STEAM: Creativity as a Lever for Social Justice.”

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Youth UpRising: Changing a Community, One Young Person at a Time Thu, 17 Jul 2014 21:55:25 +0000 […]]]> YU LogoIn the Castlemont neighborhood of East Oakland, one in four people live in poverty. The teenage pregnancy rate is three times the Alameda County average. Homicide is the leading cause of death for residents aged 14-24. These are grim statistics, but there is hope for neighborhood change.

A local Castlemont nonprofit, Youth UpRising, is set on revitalizing the neighborhood by investing in its young people. At the Youth UpRising center, youth make music, receive academic tutoring, develop GED completion plans, gain job experience, and have access to a health clinic. They receive services taken for granted in more affluent neighborhoods but highly valued in communities of poverty like Castlemont. In just nine years of operation, Youth UpRising has served more than ten thousand young people.

14_06_10_NSVF-Youth-Uprising-1Olis Simmons, Youth UpRising President and CEO, is unwavering in her commitment to increase the educational and professional opportunities for students in the Castlemont neighborhood. With declining enrollment and historically low graduation rates, Simmons believes that the existing public schools in the Castlemont area do not put students on track for college and career readiness.

This summer, Simmons and her team submitted proposals for two charter schools: Castlemont Community Primary Academy and Castlemont Junior Academy. With support from NewSchools’ Oakland Fund, Youth UpRising plans to open the pair of schools in the 2015-2016 school year, beginning with a transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and sixth grade. The schools will add a grade level each year, until they cover transitional kindergarten through eighth grade.

14_06_10_NSVF-Youth-Uprising-3Lisa Haynes, a former principal, leads the application effort. She developed a school model for the applications built on best practices from high-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods, including Common Core alignment and blended learning. Haynes remembers the moment she decided to work at Youth UpRising. She saw a student who dropped out of her school working at a Youth UpRising event, wearing a suit and charming guests. At her school, he fell through the cracks; at Youth UpRising, he found the support he needed. Now, Haynes and Youth UpRising are developing high-achieving community schools to support all students.

NewSchools is proud to partner with Youth UpRising to bring education entrepreneurship to the Castlemont neighborhood. “A good charter school has the power to transform a community,” says Gloria Lee, President and COO of NewSchools. “Based on the expertise of the schools’ leadership and the educational philosophy they’ve proposed, Castlemont Community Transformation School has the potential to be a game-changer for East Oakland.”

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Seneca Goes “All-In!” on Education Tue, 15 Jul 2014 16:36:38 +0000 Seneca Family of AgenciesMichael’s school career got off to a rough start. It was only the first week of kindergarten, and he started kicking, biting, and pinching his teacher. His teacher tried every technique she knew to stop him. Not surprisingly, Michael’s teacher resorted to sending him to the principal’s office. Soon, Michael was spending less than 20% of his school day in the classroom.

In many other schools, Michael would be transferred out of a mainstream classroom and placed in a special classroom alongside students with similar difficulties. There, despite the best efforts of educators, he would likely continue to struggle behaviorally and academically throughout his school career.

14_05_05_NSVF-Seneca+Lighthouse-2-2Fortunately, Michael enrolled at Lighthouse Charter School, a partner in Seneca Family of Agencies’ new All-In! school-based approach to support students. Michael’s teacher requested help and the All-In! team at Lighthouse quickly responded with individual therapy and workshops to develop his behavioral skills. Michael’s teacher and his therapist met with his family and provided home support. This comprehensive response to Michael’s challenges transformed his school year. By the time school let out, Michael was spending ninety-five percent of his day back in class. Without Kristi Dahlstrom, leader of the All-In! program at Lighthouse, Michael could not have received this comprehensive, coordinated care.

Seneca-Pull-QuotesHere in Oakland and other urban areas, too many students are like Michael: students that arrive at school with serious emotional and behavioral problems caused by childhood traumas. These students are disproportionately identified for Special Education and placed in programs that put them on a different track away from other students, often in separate classes or schools. They frequently end up in remedial schools or juvenile hall and often fail to graduate from high school.

Seneca Family of Agencies is working to change this harsh reality. Seneca, already a recognized leader in providing mental health services for youth, has designed All-In! to provide students with comprehensive 14_05_05_NSVF-Seneca+Lighthouse-3-2mental health, behavioral and academic support in school, before placing students in special education programs. “Schools belong to their students,” says Jessica Stryczek, a regional director for All-In!, “so our program makes schools fit their students.” With the proper care, Seneca believes that many students with emotional and behavioral problems can stay in mainstream classrooms.

Seneca started out as a small residential center for troubled foster kids. Today, Seneca is a powerhouse agency providing a wide variety of mental health services across California. All of Seneca’s work is rooted in its guiding philosophy of Unconditional Care: never give up on a child in need, no matter the circumstances. As a therapist from another agency said to NewSchools, “The students served by Seneca might not realize it, but they have been given a priceless gift, because Seneca will never give up on them.”

The Seneca team is compiling quantitative data about the school-wide impact of the All-In! program being piloted in partnership with Lighthouse Community Charter School, Education for Change, and San Francisco Unified School District. “We’re anticipating positive outcomes that will include improved attendance, decreased suspensions, improved emotional well-being, and increased student achievement,” says Lihi Rosenthal, Seneca’s Executive Director of Education.

NewSchools’ investment in Seneca reflects our commitment to innovation and our mission of transforming public education for underserved students. At our annual Summit in April 2014, NewSchools awarded Seneca Family of Agencies the “Organization to Watch” prize. It is our hope that others in education will watch and learn about this innovative and impactful approach to reaching our neediest students.


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Defining Impact in Education Technology Mon, 23 Jun 2014 14:20:20 +0000 […]]]> “I have trouble understanding double, triple bottom line funds – there can only be one bottom line for impact funds. That’s why they call it the bottom.”  - a paraphrase of Kevin Starr

The NewSchools Seed Fund optimizes for education ventures that strive for positive impact in education  - sometimes this overlaps with venture capital and sometimes with other forms of philanthropy and business.

The NewSchools Seed Fund optimizes for ventures that strive for positive impact in education – sometimes this overlaps with venture capital and sometimes with other forms of philanthropy

I am thrilled by the attention the education market has been getting lately, from double bottom line, impact, and profit-maximizing funds alike. What “success” looks like is different to each stakeholder, and I consider myself lucky to work at a well financed fund that has just one bottom line: impact.

That said, there are days I  envy the for-profit investor. With dollar values assigned to every action, measuring the success and value of a company, while not easy, becomes quite straight forward. If it makes money, you did well. If only there were a dollar sign for impact. Some magical metric that people could accumulate a lot of and say “I have done good. I am successful.”

Just what is the currency to measure social return on investment, and what are companies trying? When it comes to education technology, I see four main metrics for impact emerging: achievement, affinity, adoption, and audience.

  • Achievement: how well does the product actually improve student outcomes? As an example, NewSchools portfolio company eSpark has shown impact through their case studies of improving student achievement – students using eSpark have been shown to advance twice as fast in a given time than control groups doing similar activities.
  • Affinity: consider net promotor score and retention metrics. Create surveys that allow you to say “[some high percent] of teachers say [your product] is excellent for teaching [subject].” As further example, Ellevation has only lost one customer in their most recent year of operations.
  • Adoption: organic growth is a third sign of impact: if it works, people tell their friends. Class Dojo’s role as the fastest growing K12 edtech company serves as an example of success by adoption.
  • Audience: is your product reaching those students that need it most? How are you measuring this, and how do you plan to reach more disadvantaged students who cannot afford your technology? Learning the percentage of students who are on Free/Reduced lunch can be a good proxy for this.

While all these metrics are good indicators of impact, still none can be compared to the other apples to apples. Even in-depth qualitative research or surveys leaves a lot to be desired. That said, when looking at companies, we still continue to peruse what people are saying on twitter. For example:

There is a complexity buried in here that money misses. A true capitalist might say that if you are able to make sales and scale revenue this is a sign the product is good and the market needs what you sell. But in education I believe it is the responsibility of an investor to look beyond the financial opportunity and into the impact, however ambiguous and (un)measurable it might be.


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Technology and Student Engagement Thu, 19 Jun 2014 14:01:46 +0000 […]]]> In the age of mobile computing, attention and engagement have become commodities. Advertisers are willing to spend millions for mere seconds of viewers’ attention. With all the ads and apps buzzing in students’ pockets in the 21st century classroom, we had to ask ourselves: how are learning technologies (books, desktops, tablets, and otherwise) keeping up with the rising bar of grabbing attention? What are the best practices for engaging students today? Specifically relevant to the NewSchools Seed Fund, how can we measure the role technology can play in student engagement?

I set out to create a white paper to collect some of the research done on the topic and to encourage entrepreneurs to begin asking the questions and collecting data themselves. The report, titled Measuring Student Engagement with Learning Technology, can be found here.


To make sure I was on the right track, I consulted with several professors at Stanford and worked with several CEO’s of edtech companies that NewSchools supports.

One edtech startup founder, Guido Kovalskys of Nearpod, set a great example by using the research and questions to run a survey of his own. The results of his survey will soon be available on the Nearpod website, and I will post them here.

If you run a survey with your own company on student engagement, please email me at dhavens(at) or send a tweet to @eduhavens and I will update this post and promote it. 

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Diversity: Why is it Important? Mon, 16 Jun 2014 16:50:18 +0000 […]]]> I remember the exact moment I realized the importance of diversity in education reform. This realization occurred during a diversity exercise at the opening retreat for a high school leadership program. Ironically, I realized how important diversity was through an exercise that I thought was counterproductive to the inclusive aspect of diversity.

We were standing in a circle and the exercise called for us to close our eyes, listen to a series of questions, and either step forward or backwards depending on the question. As a strategic method of showing us how diverse we were, the questions associated with affluence and/or middle-class attributes required us to step back and the ones associated with poverty and/or working-class attributes required us to step forward. When all the questions had been asked we were allowed to open our eyes. What everyone noticed—which was the objective of the activity—was the distance between the rich kids and the poor kids. What I noticed was the distance between the facilitators and those of us standing in the center of the circle.

Theoretically, this exercise was a great idea. The exercise was designed to be thought provoking and help us sophomore and junior high school students see just how much work still needed to be done in achieving diversity. However, as intelligent young people in the Birmingham, Alabama metropolitan area (the Mecca of the Civil Rights Movement) we weren’t exactly oblivious to race and class issues in the United States. As a matter of fact, there was already an awkwardness between the “inner-city youth” (mostly black and brown kids) and the kids of suburbia (mostly white kids). So our first activity didn’t need to show us how different we were—life had already done that—though the discussion of race and class was necessary. Before we did anything else, we needed to know we were on the same team.

After noticing the distance between the haves and the have nots—and the even bigger distance between us “inner-city youth” and the adults in charge—I thought to myself: Who thought this was a good idea? That question became my reprise during my year as part of the program.

Now please don’t think I hated the program. I enjoyed it! I made many new friends and had conversations that I otherwise would not have had as an African-American working-class teenager who lived in a low-income neighborhood. I even liked the adults in charge, and I could tell that they genuinely liked me and that their work came from a good place. But what I wasn’t too fond of was the structure of the leadership team—they weren’t diverse.

Yes, the leadership team made sure the speakers that spoke to us and the companies that sponsored our events were diverse, but the decision makers themselves were not diverse. This lack of diversity was overt in the planning and execution of diversity-themed activities. At times, some of my peers and I felt like the adults viewed us as a project that they decided to take on after being inspired by a sermon on giving back, not as young members of society ready to be equipped with the leadership skills to change America for the better.

Today, as a senior at Howard University, I am often reminded of the importance of diversity in relation to education reform. So here are four things I think we should all remember as we work towards improving education in our country.

  1. We are on the same team. No matter what race, ethnicity, gender, religion, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc. we all have a common goal: educating our nation’s children. (So let’s not play the blame game.)
  2. We need diversity. Every level of education reform needs to be diverse so that parents and students are sure their ideological perspectives are represented when decision are made.
  3. We need proximity. Besides being physically close to the students we serve, we also need to be emotionally and culturally close to them. (Note: All black and brown people are not agents for low-income and working-class children because not all black and brown people have experienced life a part of those respective classes.)
  4. We have to deal with the uncomfortable. No, we aren’t where we want to be yet, but that doesn’t mean we should continue to whisper about diversity. We have to deal with our issues head on—remembering “the first step to recovery is admitting [we] have a problem.”

With these four reminders in mind, I am convinced that our goal of educating America’s children and closing the achievement gap will progress.

Derrick Spencer is a UNCF-Walton Fellow at NewSchools Venture Fund and an English major at Howard University.

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TinyTap Taps into Educational Games and Interactive Lessons Thu, 12 Jun 2014 00:11:47 +0000 […]]]>  


Just as indie coders can create hot new apps, teachers and students can develop educational content with widespread appeal. However, teachers and students often face technological barriers to producing and distributing great content. TinyTap, a platform for creating interactive lessons and educational games, solves this problem: TinyTap allows anyone to easily create and share engaging educational materials.

Untitled-1When you open the TinyTap app, you are prompted to either create new lessons and games or to play lessons and games that other users have created. If you choose to create your own content, TinyTap allows you to share that content in their store. “We see TinyTap becoming the biggest marketplace for learning apps: like an app Wikipedia for young learners, a place where they can learn about anything in any language in a fun interactive way – created by other students, families and teachers,” says Yogev Shelly, TinyTap’s co-founder. “You could use TinyTap to create an app to help only one person or the entire world,” he says.

14_05_14-NSVF-TinyTap_Spotlight-1Shelly was inspired to create what would become TinyTap so that his father, who has Alzheimer’s, could relive family memories through interactive photobooks. Over time, Shelly and his team morphed this simple app into the TinyTap platform.

Last March, Shelly and his team were selected for the second cohort of co.lab, an educational games accelerator run by NewSchools Venture Fund and Co.lab Associate Director Cameron White says, “TinyTap is the first app we’ve seen that unlocks interactive media design for educators and learners of all ages.”


To explore TinyTap’s versatility, co.lab recently hosted students from San Francisco’s Mission High School and taught them how to use TinyTap. The students, many of whom are from immigrant families, broke out into groups of four and were invited to create TinyTap lessons that explore their cultures, the languages they speak at home, and the holidays their families observe.

Shelly paid special attention to group dynamics as the students used TinyTap. There was one group that was slacking off instead of working on their app. As other groups started sharing their presentations, the distracted group stepped up their game. They worked quickly and put together a serious presentation at the last minute. By the end, Shelly said, “They sounded like they were presenting at TechCrunch Disrupt.”

14_04_08-colab-Tiny-Tap-Hackatahon-24After watching the students present, White said, “TinyTap can empower teachers to create opportunities for students to contribute their personal experiences and voices, which too often are marginalized in educational contexts.”

Returning to the co.lab offices from a meeting with a prominent tech investor, Shelly shared his excitement about TinyTap’s future. “Now, we just need to prove to people that our content is as good as textbooks,” he said. Shelly founded the company less than two years ago. With dozens of new lessons and games shared each day, Shelly’s vision of a TinyTap Wikipedia is fast becoming a reality.

If you are interested in using TinyTap to create your own Tiny apps, download TinyTap from the App Store!

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Proximity Fri, 16 May 2014 22:34:31 +0000 Simmons Lettre, Charter Board Partners

I had the great honor to listen to Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative speak at last week’s NewSchools Summit. Bryan is an attorney who has dedicated his life to not only ensuring equal justice to those who have been written off by their community, but to helping this country consider how we can truly work together across racial, socioeconomic, and geographical lines to ensure that we all reach our greatest potential and support each other along the way.

Bryan stressed the notion of proximity: “In order to truly be transformative, we must get close.” At the time I thought to myself—yes, I’m close. I work on behalf of urban students every day. I chair the board at Capital City Public Charter School. Check that box. Go, me.

As he kept talking, I realized that in fact, while I’m in proximity’s shadow, I’m not close enough. I talk with my school leader every week and we cover finances, governance, strategy, academic results. But I only visit classrooms at Capital City a few times a year. I have not spent a full day at school. I have heard our amazing students speak truth to power publically, but I have not recently made a personal effort to engage.

As charter school board members, we need to heed Bryan’s call for proximity. We need to get closer. We need to find the right way to spend time in classrooms. We need to learn about the true challenges and successes teachers face, and be more proximate to what our school leader has to do to ensure magic happens each day. We need to know our students, understand their stories, and have our own stories about the families, students, and culture at our school—we need to know the way school IS at our school.

As board members, we need to make sure that we are fully engaging our parent board members (every charter school board in DC is required by law to have at least two parents of current students on the board at all times). Too many times I see boards where everyone speaks but the parent members, who bring a critical perspective to the work of the board. We need to ask ourselves why that is happening, and we need to fix it. 

I know we ask a lot of you who serve on charter school boards. Make hard decisions that impact the lives of the students you are serving. Spend time in committees, as a full board, and at school events. Come to Charter Board Partners’ trainings and events. And now I’m asking even more—proximity. I’m not advising you to make promises to parents, to tell teachers what to do, or to roll up your sleeves and teach students. I’m taking a page from the incredibly inspirational Bryan Stevenson and asking you to listen to those in your care. Know their stories. Make sure you are making decisions with those voices at the forefront.

And of course I have one more ask. If you have time, watch this. I mean really watch it. It will push your thinking. I’d love to hear how.

– Note from NewSchools –

Sadly, we have no rights to the video of Bryan Stevenson’s extraordinary speech. We encourage you to watch his TED talk to get a sense of his message and work. 

You can view the rest of NewSchools Summit 2014 Sessions on our Vimeo page.

At Summit we started a conversation centered on social justice and the importance of diversifying education leadership. We asked those of you who were in the room to commit to making diversity a priority and 205 organizations did so right then and there! Go here to keep that conversation going.

You can view Simmons’ original post on the Charter Board Partners blog.

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