NYLP: Welcome to New York Launch Pod, a podcast highlighting new start-ups, businesses, and openings in the New York City area. I’m Hal Coopersmith, and in this episode, we’re going back to school, and stepping on to the Launch Pod, we have Miriam Altman. She is the co-founder of Kinvolved. Welcome to the New York Launch Pod, Miriam.
Miriam: Thank you so much for having me, Hal. I’m really excited to be here.
NYLP: So what is Kinvolved?
Miriam: Kinvolved is a social venture that is increasing student attendance rates in under-resourced communities. We have developed a technology, an app that it’s called Kinvo, which teachers and administrators use to very easily, in a matter of seconds, track attendance. Instantly send a text or email communication to parents to inform them of absenteeism or lateness to class. As well as other topics and positive reinforcement and communication about how kids are doing. As well as looking at data to inform trends in attendance and communication behavior by student, by class, or even school wide.
NYLP: How did you come up with the idea?
Miriam: I was a teacher in New York City’s public schools for three years, I taught high school students. And one of the first things that I noticed was that attendance was really inconsistent in my classes. Anything from having 3 kids out of 30 show up to first period on time, and even throughout the entire period. To a significant number of my kids, I taught somewhere between 100 and 120 at a given time, being absent for 10% or more of the school days. And just seeing the direct connection between attendance and achievement in students’ grades, ultimately, in my classes.
I noticed that parents were often not involved in the equation. And I was hearing from other teachers, whom I taught with and I really respected, that involving parents that our students were coming from wasn’t going to be the most effective solution. But I found that when I started meeting parents in my first year of teaching, that was totally the opposite. Parents were really engaged. They wanted to be informed of whether their kids are coming to school or not. And so I started to build relationships with those parents that I was meeting. And found, in fact, that in many cases, in most cases, that kids were starting to come to class on time when I was able to have that relationship and keeping constant communication with their parents. But, unfortunately, teachers have a million things to do and I didn’t have the tools to really effectively communicate with 100 to 120 groups of parents at a time. And so that was sort of the inspiration to develop Kinvolved.
NYLP: So you were teaching and 3 out of 30 students were on time?
Miriam: Yeah. Unfortunately, that was a not uncommon scenario. You know, on days that it rained or snowed, it could be half the kids were at school. I would give extra incentives to try to get kids to come to school even if it wasn’t that bad out. If it was sunny, then you wouldn’t have kids in school either because it was too nice to come to school. They wanted to go to the beach. But, you know, what we really need to do is reinforce the critical importance of such a foundational issue. You know, it seems obvious, but it’s kind of hard to swallow sometimes the notion that you really need to be there to be successful and to get the information you need. And that’s absolutely true in school just like in many other parts of life.
NYLP: So why are students late or missing school? What are some of the reasons why?
Miriam: That’s a really great question. The reasons sort of run the gamut. And as I mentioned earlier, Kinvolved is really working with schools across New York and other communities as well that tend to serve role students who are coming from pretty tough communities in some cases, and so they’re really facing a number of different challenges and issues, you know, that are really complicated. Sometimes, it’s just that the parents don’t know, like I alluded to earlier. If parents don’t know, they can’t be a helpful part of the solution to make sure that kids are coming to class. And by having that text message as the first line of defense, or intervention with the parents, making sure that’s consistent. That has solved a lot of absenteeism issues, and lateness, and kids cutting classes during the school day, when the parents would otherwise have no idea.
But, certainly, there are more critical issues related to transience in housing. There was a story recently, in “The New York Times,” for example. About a school that’s part of a cluster of schools that we work with where they had 50% of their students who are homeless. So, you know, it’s really hard to keep track of their parents. They’re, obviously, dealing with incredibly challenging, and complicated, and complex
issues. And unfortunately, sometimes schools aren’t the number one important priority because survival is just more important.
And so what our app has really done in some of those more extreme cases is to open up a dialogue between the parents and the teachers. So, for example, the teachers are taking the attendance, they’re sending an immediate text message to the parents, “Here are students absent or late.” And parents are now able to respond to someone who’s reached out to them, and say, you know, “I’m aware of this, or I’m not aware, and this is the reason why.” And then the teacher can say, “Wow, we didn’t know about this. Let me direct you to a social worker or let me help you. Or let me let my administrator know that this family is really facing a difficult circumstance.” And let’s think about how we can help direct the family to the appropriate resources in the community. That can help them solve these critical, underlying issues that are preventing their children from coming to school every day.” And we’ve heard numerous stories of that happening across schools, elementary all the way through high school, throughout the city.
NYLP: So now that there is a knowledge base of what’s going on with the family, how is the school prepared to help?
Miriam: Yeah. So it really depends on the school. Every school is a little bit different. They face similar challenges in the traditional school settings across the city. But, again, it really depends. Many of the schools that we work with are, what’s called “community schools.” And so they are part of the model to be matched with local nonprofit organizations who provide additional…both human capital and people in school to really focus on absenteeism and parent involvement as one of their main charges. When, like I said earlier, in my experience, teachers have a million things going on, really being the ones at the school to focus on that piece of the support to the students.
You know, other schools have Montefiore or other hospitals that will provide training to school nurses around, for example, preventative asthma treatments. Surprisingly or maybe not surprisingly depending on how well you know schools and students. Asthma is actually one of the most common reasons for kids missing school, at all ages, in New York City and many other urban centers. Just because kids aren’t getting preventative treatment, and that’s… You know, to be able to provide that to students and to their families and raise awareness around how you get that treatment. That can eliminate thousands and thousands of kids from missing… prevent them from missing a week of school or more, which is something that’s not uncommon even though it should be.
NYLP: How long were you a teacher for?
Miriam: I was a teacher for three years, so…
NYLP: And then, in year three, you come up with the idea or before? What did you do next?
Miriam: Yeah, I definitely came up with the idea as a teacher. I would’ve had no idea. I’m from Minneapolis originally, and I went to a large public high school. It was a very diverse school, and I thought I kind of knew a little bit about what to expect having gone to a big school like that. And I started teaching and New York is a different animal and New York City schools are a totally different environment than the school that I went to high school in, in the district that I was in.
I definitely was surprised to experience just how many kids, again, were missing school. And how something I would’ve assumed, having been a student, if you are gone, or you’re absent, and you’re parents don’t know, they’ll automatically and immediately be informed. I just assumed that was commonplace. That’s what a lot of people think, but it’s really just not.
And it’s not because the school isn’t trying necessarily. It’s more often that they just don’t have the resources to make sure the parents are looped in consistently. Those are realizations that I had in teaching. Again, I never would’ve realized that these issues exist and are persisting in our schools and so detrimental to students’ success had I not been a teacher.
So I kind of was thinking about these topics, and really focused on it while I was teaching. Whenever kids were absent, I was always the teacher they knew would follow up with them when they came back to school and ask them were they’ve been. And it was coming from, certainly, a place of concern, not a place of trying to catch them or anything like that. I was concerned about them.
And, again, trying to kind of think about solutions. I was on the attendance team at my school, which was formed in my third year of teaching, in part because I was harping to my principal so much about the absenteeism issues that we are facing. And, you know, I thought with my peers and my colleagues about solutions, incentives that we could implement to get kids back to school.
I ended up leaving teaching after three years, which was a really hard decision to make, because I’ve gotten an acceptance to the Wagner School at NYU. I was really fortunate to receive a merit-based scholarship to go there. So that was the right step for me to take at that time.
I was studying policy management there, and in the first really day of school, I actually met my co-founder, who became a very close friend of mine, still definitely is. We’ve been at this since 2012, working together. And we found that we had very complementary backgrounds and experiences. Mine, of course, from the classroom but hers was as a parent advocate in the South Bronx. Helping parents of kids with autism within the Healthcare System understand what their rights were and how to advocate for their children within the school system. So she really saw, from the parent’s perspective, the lack of information that they had access to. That they needed to able to be active participants in the education of their children. And then mine, from, of course, the classroom perspective.
We got together and started this company just for fun and entering in a policy challenge at UPenn. One that, in the spring of 2012, got some initial funding to build out our technology and pilot it. Found that it was actually working and have grown suddenly from there to now working with about 100 schools, across 5 cities. Most of them are New York City based but we’re growing outside of New York as well. And we’re really now starting to see the impact of the work on attendance improvement.
NYLP: So you met your co-founder day one of graduate School?
NYLP: When was the idea actually hatched?
Miriam: Alex and I met day one of graduate school. I remember spending, you know, lots of breaks from studying talking about these issues, getting to be good friends, talking about our backgrounds. And it was right before Thanksgiving of 2011 that NYU solicited this proposal of asking for applications to this policy challenge. And she sent an email to me and a few of her friends. Was like, “Is anyone interesting in doing this?” So I was like, “Yeah, sure. Why not?” Basically, the idea was that you’re supposed to figure out a local problem, a problem in your local community to which you want to develop a policy solution. And I said, “Well, I definitely want to focus on education.” I’m really passionate about this. I did not get it out my system by teaching for three years at all. There’s so much work to be done.
I threw out some ideas. I said, “Family involvement was a really important one,” that I felt like I just started to scratch the surface on when I was teaching. And she said, “Well, that one definitely resonates with me.” And so we did…we probably talked to 100 to 200 people, just doing interviews and understanding what are the problems, you know, have other companies have been built, how do you build an app? We’ve never been technologists ourselves in our past careers, so that was totally new to us. And how do you do user testing, how do you get it out there, how do you figure out how to get people to pay for it, how do you price it, all those questions. And spent really, you know, a lot of time, probably more time on the company than we did on our grad school work, which I shouldn’t say out loud, but probably it’s the truth. And really launched the company in beta in 2012 and out of beta in the fall of 2014.
NYLP: While you were still in school?
Miriam: Yeah. Yeah.
NYLP: What was that like?
Miriam: It was really a blessing, I think, because we had the opportunity and the time to really think about this and build this policy proposal and this idea out into something that we had the time to pilot during the day, when we didn’t have to be in a traditional work environment. And we were able to really work with teachers, and families, and students, and administrators, and understand, starting in one school, which was P.S. 125, which is the Ralph Bunche School up in Harlem. Really get their feedback on the product, what worked for them, what didn’t work. And then really look at the numbers and see does this have an impact on attendance and family involvement in school? Did more parents show up to events, for example? And by being grad school students, we’re afforded that real opportunity to spend the time to really do this thoughtfully, without having to feel too guilty about living on the student loans at the time. And we were doing that for a whole year really, almost and year and a half actually, before we graduated in the spring of 2013.
NYLP: How does the app actually work?
Miriam: Kinvo is the name of the product and it is a mobile app available on both Android and iOS, as well as iPads, and it is also a web application. So we find that most teachers are using it via mobile because they’ve got a million things happening in their classroom and they want something that’s quick and easy.
They’re using it to track attendance. So, basically, swiping left and right across a class roster to mark students as absent or late from class. Sending then, by clicking a single button, an instant text message or email to up to 10 parent or guardian contacts per student. So we really think of, you know, parents or family as a loose term. That could include coaches, it could include mentors, it could include boys and girls club sponsors. People like that who really need to be informed of something like whether the kid showed up to school or not. When those people receive the text and email notifications about attendance, they are able to, without having to download an app or anything to log into, just get a text message. And respond directly to the teacher and administrator who sent out the alert. And again, open up that dialogue between them about attendance and perhaps other topics.
Teachers also use it to send messages to individual students, contact persons, to whole classes. Administrators use it to send alerts to the entire school for example about like an upcoming parent-teacher night. We’ve seen that several of our schools have reported that by sending out these mass messages, they are getting, you know, three to five X in terms of parents turn out to their events prior implementing Kinvolved. So it’s really having an impact on the family involvement as well as the attendance component which we feel is really inextricably linked anyway.
And then finally, administrators, more so, are using it on a desktop, sometimes mobile as well to look at student level data, to look at cross-class level data and trends or school wide. And then at the district level comparatively to identify trends in patterns of behavior on attendance and communications that then informs interventions.
For some of our clients, we do consulting as well and really help them understand what are the best practices we’re seeing across the city in terms of how to use this data to really have the most significant impact possible. It’s always been our belief as people who are not technologists ourselves, that technology alone is not gonna solve the really critical problems of absenteeism. And really you know, decades long issues of low levels of family involvement in the communities we’re working in. It’s going to be helpful in parts of the process in really making the process of communicating with families more efficient for example. But it’s not going to replace that human element that’s really critical to solving the issues.
NYLP: So now that you’re getting all this data, what are some of the best practices in terms of reading the data and extrapolating from that?
Miriam: So we work often with assistant principals and principals, attendance teams, and sometimes what we call community school directors. And those are people from that nonprofit organization that sometimes is paired with these schools that are the people who are charged with focusing on these issues. And we’re seeing a couple of different things. What we’ve seen is that, especially at the high school level. Tracking attendance each period and making sure parents are informed every single period, and not just at the beginning of the day has made a huge difference.
We had a story in “New York Times” that Kinvolved was featured alongside one of our high school partners Wadleigh Secondary School. And they found that by using the technology on a period-level basis, they had parents coming into the school to meet with the assistant principal. Who prior to implementing Kinvolved never knew that they were sending their kid out at the time that they were supposed to be leaving for school. But then they were getting all these messages throughout the day and they’re wondering what’s going on. Because they sent their kid to school and they thought that she had arrived. And they found out via Kinvolved that she was missing certain components of the school day and just cutting out during the day. And that is just one example of a common theme that we’ve heard. So that’s one of the recommendations that we make among many others.
NYLP: So how much has attendance increased?
Miriam: It runs the gamut but what we’ve seen is that, for example, in the 30 community schools that we’ve been working with, there are those schools that have the nonprofit partner organization working with them and many of the schools we’ve been working with significantly for several years. We’ve seen that across those schools, the students have been in school for 11,000 more hours as a result of using Kinvolved than prior to the implementation of product.
We’ve also seen that compared to the New York City Department of Education average, across all schools, whereby you see just a 0.25 percentage point increase in attendance over the last 3 years. Since we started working with New York City schools, the average increase of Kinvolved schools is nearly 2%. So it sounds like a small number but it’s really, you know, pretty significant when you’re looking at the comparatives to the total. And how much of a difference Kinvolved is really making and then translating that into the seat hours that kids are actually getting back into class.
NYLP: So the 11,000 more seat hours and the 2% increase in attendance, what does that mean? What does that translate into?
Miriam: So what we know and one of the reasons that we started focusing on this issue in the first place even though attendance seems so obvious. And we just keep hammering home this issue, attendance is critical. It’s foundational. You’ve got to be there to be, you know, successful and really have any opportunity to gain anything from school. Besides our own experiences, we know that this is very true because several decades now of research really shows that attendance is the number one, most critical, leading indicator of academic success and high school graduation. It’s a data point that we can start tracking for students as early as pre-K and kindergarten.
So for example, there’s a study that proved that for kids who are chronically absent, for pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade. By the time they reach third grade, just two years later, only 17% of them are beyond grade level for reading compared with 65% of their peers who had been attending regularly to school. So that you can see that clear distinction. At the high school level, research proves that kids who are chronically absent, which means they missed 10% more of the school days, have just 20% chance of graduating from high school compared with their peers.
So there’s just a significant delta in likelihood of academic success. And then if you think about beyond that, you know, graduation, how much that contributes to lifetime earnings and development of cities and some of these broader themes, it’s really just the first step to really making sure that students are on track to be successful in life. And so that’s why we really are focused on this issue.
NYLP: And now that you have the data on the student level from the app, have you been able to see improvement in student performance directly correlated?
Miriam: That’s the next step for us. So we’re doing a couple of things. One is working on our own to start to look at the connections between these schools that have seen the attendance improvement using Kinvolved and academic data. But we also are working now on trying to become part of a study. Where there would be actually a third party researcher doing formalized study and randomized controlled trial on the effects of Kinvolved, not only on attendance but also on those academic indicators as well. And so we should know more about that in the fall about whether you’re selected for that study or not. But even if we’re not selected, that is the next step in terms of now we’ve seen attendance is improving. And that was a big question mark when we started doing this a couple of years ago but it’s really no longer the case.
And next is okay, so what is the real impact for students? And again, based on what we’ve seen in numerous other studies, that indicate that attendance is the leading indicator. If you increase attendance, you increase academic outcomes. We are fairly confident that we’ll see parallel results in the effectiveness of Kinvolved to improving attendance and then the improving academic outcomes as well.
NYLP: So how does the app actually work? If I’m a teacher, how long is it going to take for me to do attendance on the app?
Miriam: It’s very easy and simple to use. You download it. We do the setup for the schools so there’s no need to put student data into the system. That’s very simple. That’s already done for teachers. On a daily basis, it takes them, for a class of 30, less than 30 seconds to track attendance. So it’s something that they can quickly pull out their phone at the beginning of class. Kids are coming in, they take the roll at the beginning of the day which is a time-honored tradition anyway that people are doing. Sometimes still on paper in New York City schools for example.
We’re replacing that system and making the data that they’ve just recorded much more actionable. Thirty seconds record the attendance, click a button, it sends a text message to the parents immediately. It sends it in a number of different languages and parents can start responding right away. And the teacher can get back to them when
they’re able to once they have a break in class. So it’s pretty quick and easy to use.
NYLP: I haven’t been in a classroom in years. How long does it take to do attendance normally?
Miriam: It takes a minute or so. You know, what they’re doing in New York City schools still and this is what I did when I was teaching, which is maybe surprising is using those Scantron bubble sheets. So the things that are printed out that they used to maybe take tests on. They’ll have the names of the students always set out for every single class and they have to literally just with a number two pencil bubble in present, absent, late. That process probably takes, depending on the size of the class, between three and five minutes to complete.
But again that data just goes into a machine. It’s manually input into a machine at the end of the day. That data does not get to parents in any really actionable way. And so it’s’ recorded and it’s sitting in a system. But there’s no action being taken on it for sometimes weeks or even months before a parent is informed that the kid was absent. Maybe they come to the conference and they find out via the report card that their kid has missed, you know, a month or more of school. Which is a lot of my parents would find when they came in at the end of October, two months in the school year right?
We’re taking the time that parents are being informed down from two months to a matter of seconds. Teachers are tracking attendance faster using our app and the parents are getting the information almost immediately which is one of the huge benefits to the parents and also to the school. Because they have that parent then being a partner in solving the problem rather than sort of passively experiencing then the aftermath of their kid falling off track after weeks and weeks of being absent from school and them having no idea.
NYLP: Based on what you described, it seems like there’s not that much new technology that’s infiltrated into these classrooms?
Miriam: I wouldn’t that that’s true. It depends on the school. There’s really a wide range of schools’ adoption of technology. What we’ve seen is that oftentimes what ‘s perceived as the most difficult schools to work with, which sometimes they’re perceived as those that are working with kids who are really most under… you know, from the most under-resourced communities. What we see in those schools sometimes is that their access to technology and/or the resistance to technology. Access could be less and resistance might be greater. And so that often contributes to environment where there’s oftentimes less technology. The option that you might see in the more suburban community for example. And I think generally speaking, that trend is consistent with what we’ve seen. And so it sometimes can be an uphill battle to get people to adopt new technology systems.
But on the other hand, many of these teachers are really looking for innovative solutions to some problems that are perhaps as basic as just making sure parents are in the know about how kids are doing in class. And so they’ve been really eager to adopt the technology. You know, it really does range but we found sort of consistency in our schools and their adoption of technology being lower than what you might consider as the average In 2016.
NYLP: What are some of the obstacles in terms of getting into a school?
Miriam: Schools are required to use some kind of technology system. Usually, it’s called the Student Information System to track information like attendance and grades and sometimes behavior or who qualifies for free, reduced lunch, parent contact information, a number of different data points within one system. That’s called a Student Information System.
Most schools across the city and across the country are required to use some sort of system that’s usually handed down to them by either the state or the district. Sometimes, they opt into their own system. But oftentimes, the challenge is that because those systems require so much to be put into them, they don’t do something like attendance really well. And in a way that’s meaningful for the schools in actually creating change.
And so that’s where we really come in. We will integrate with the Student Information System, in many cases. That previously was a huge barrier for us because schools don’t want to use multiple systems to record attendance. They want to use one thing which is understandable. But that was one of our eagerly challenges that we are working every day to solve.
We just started working with a company called Clever that enables us to integrate much more seamlessly than we did, you know, in the last school year with these Student Information Systems. And then the schools get the benefit of using the system that they were required to use, plus Kinvolved on top of it to really dig deeper into attendance improvement and communicating with their families in a real way. That doesn’t necessarily duplicate the efforts of their teachers as much as it would have in the past.
NYLP: So the information from Kinvolved can go straight into the system that they’re using right now?
Miriam: The information from the system they’re using actually goes straight into Kinvolved. That’s kind of how it works. So previously, even last school year, our team was manually uploading CSV files of information in terms of student roster data. And so if a student entered the school or changed classes or left the school, there was a lot of manual effort of either the teacher or our team to move those students around throughout the course of the year. And we work with some schools that have 2300 kids. So on any given day, they could have 150, 200 kids who are coming in and out and moving classrooms. And so that’s just a huge lift.
But now through the system that we’re now integrated with, Clever, whenever a student is added or removed from a roster or moved around within the Student Information System. Every night that will update automatically within the Kinvo app which has streamlined the process so much for our schools and made them so much happier.
NYLP: And how amenable are these schools to getting this application?
Miriam: You know, the schools that really want to improve attendance, and know that it’s a critical need, are really clamoring for it. We…
NYLP: What types of schools are those?
Miriam: You know, they’re pre-K to 12th grade schools. They could be any size. We work with schools that are as small as 125 kids to as large as 2,300 kids. They are across all five boroughs, they’re in Miami, they’re in Providence, Rhode Island. We’ve worked with schools in Baltimore and a number of different cities. What is common about them is that they do have a real problem with getting kids to school. They’ve maybe tried other interventions. They’ve tried more human-based interventions but nothing has really worked or there’s a component of what they’re doing that could be much more efficient if they had a
technology system like Kinvolved that would be…you know, was in place.
And so it’s usually, schools that are in again under-resourced communities that need to really step up their game. And make sure their kids are coming to school and make sure the parents are involved who are reaching out to us and whom we’re working with. And part of that is probably also because referral and word of mouth is a big driver of adoption of new technologies in school systems which is really great. There’s nothing better than hearing a principal or an assistant principal or a teacher or a parent talk about something that you conceived of having been in their shoes a couple of years ago. And seeing really how much it’s having an impact on their school and how much they want to talk about it with their peers and encourage their peers to sign up too.
NYLP: And how agile are these schools able to act? Because sometimes, I can imagine that there’s a lot of red tape.
Miriam: In New York City, the schools have a lot of autonomy actually in making their own purchasing decisions. So that process can be pretty quick. It does depend on the time of the year because we are on a school year cycle. So budgeting cycles at some points they’re more liquid and able to make decisions, purchasing decisions. And sometimes they’re less liquid or it’s not the right time of the year to introduce something new.
So what we see is that oftentimes, we’ll have schools sign up throughout the summer. So this is a busy period for us now and then we’ll do a lot of implementation in the fall. We’ll still sign schools on the fall as well. And then it’s a little bit quieter around the holidays. You know people are thinking about the end of the semester and then the beginning of the next calendar year. It’s still a little bit quiet. But then we’ll start increasing our uptake again around like March and April when they’re thinking about testing things out now that the school year has been fully under way. Testing things out for the following school year. And then the cycle kind of starts all over again.
So there’s some things about it that are not easy at all. I mean you’re really beheld to the school year calendar. But there are things about it that are great. For example, our retention rate has been amazing. We are close to 100% consistently every year in retaining clients which is great and you know, I think a really testament to the product. But also
loyalty of the customer base if they really find something that’s working for them.
NYLP: And you’re targeting under-resourced schools for the most part or could all schools really use this technology?
Miriam: Any school or a nonprofit organization or district that is interested in focusing more deeply on attendance and digging into the data and/or communicating more effectively with their families would definitely benefit from our tool. But where we’ve seen it adopted most quickly and show the most impact, certainly in attendance at least, has been in more under-resourced schools where there’s a critical need for a technology and just a broad solution to this problem.
NYLP: What’s the cost?
Miriam: The cost ranges depending on the size of the school between usually $2,000.00 to about $8,000.00 per school per year. Sometimes, the payor is the school, sometimes the payor is a supporting, nonprofit, community-based organization. Other times, the payor could be the school district. So we’re flexible in who pays us just as long as we are able to continue sustaining the work that we do with our schools.
NYLP: Do you have any competitors?
Miriam: There’s nobody in the market who’s doing what we’re doing. There’s nobody who’s specifically focused on improving attendance. And in fact, some members of our team just did a whole analysis and came to the same conclusion that we’ve come to having done sales in this market for a couple of years. But again, nobody is really specifically focused in on this issue.
Where there’s overlap is in the Student Information Systems that I alluded to earlier. Which are again those tools that districts and schools are required to use to track attendance data, parent contact information, grades, everything. And again, they don’t do the issue of attendance really, really well, and that’s why we’ve really focused on this. So we can layer on top of those systems through systems like Clever with which we can integrate.
And then on the other hand, there are sometimes communication systems like if you remember like if you cut class then your parents get an automated phone call. There are tools that enable that kind of automated communication from the school. Again, they help with communication, they can sometimes help with text messaging. What they lack often is the ability for parents to be involved and responsive. So the text back is often not possible within those tools. And also, they don’t enable the interaction with teachers as well as administrators with the parents. It’s really just administration driven. And oftentimes it’s also robo-calls that nobody answers anywhere because it’s 2016.
So there’s some overlap but we’ve really found a niche in a critical area that’s just gaining so much traction from policy makers as well. As people are learning more about just the severe effects of absenteeism on students individually and really on society as a broader whole. And also the civil rights impacts that have recently been reported through a report that came out from the U.S. Department of Education. Chronic absenteeism is now one of the new data points that’s being tracked in terms of looking at where schools are falling in their ability to really make sure that they’re ensuring that their students’ civil rights are upheld. Attendance is actually a new component of that tracking measure.
NYLP: So one of the things that interesting about your company, which I saw, is that you’re set up as a for-benefit corporation as opposed to a for-profit or a nonprofit. Can you talk a little bit more about that choice, particularly in this space, because we take a lot of entrepreneurs are wrestling with that idea?
Miriam: So we are actually a C corporation but we are benefit certified. So that means that we actually were one of the first ed tech companies to go through the certification process. It was done of the first things that we did as a company because we thought it was really important. We did this back in 2012 when our office was still in the library at NYU. I remember doing this pretty well. We chose to go through the certification process with B Labs to convey a message to both our investors as well as our customers that we really, truly believe deeply in a double bottom-line. And we don’t think that you have to be a for-profit that is purely profit-driven. You can be both a sustainable company but that’s also driving towards the social mission. And be a healthy company that’s worth investing in and that can be competitive in the marketplace.
That has not precluded us necessarily from getting both investment and grant funding. But two-thirds of our funding that’s not revenue has been investment and about one-third has been grant or rewards based, which may not be something you’d assume as a for-profit company. But I do believe, again, that taking a stance on having a double bottom-line is a core sort of piece of the fabric of the company. It has opened us up to additional opportunities, especially as we’re a startup and kind of trying to figure out what our pricing model is and trying to break even. That’s been really helpful and critical.
And you know, often as well technology companies are not often nonprofit. There are certainly a couple of examples but early on that was one of the driving factors that helped us come to the decision of becoming a for-profit.
But truthfully, you know, there’s…you can make an argument in a number of ways as to which way we could have decided to incorporate. And we definitely wavered early on back on forth when we’re trying to figure out, you know, how to get paid for this. But now we are confident that it was the right decision. And it enables us to really make sure we’re building a product that is delivering value to our customers rather than relying entirely on grant-based funding or foundations to continue to develop out the product.
NYLP: And by double bottom-line, obviously, there’s money and then what’s the other bottom-line to you? What do you see is really important to the company?
Miriam: The social mission. I mean there’s no reason for us to exist if we’re not actually seeing improvement in attendance and improvement in parent involvement in schools in the communities within which we work. Equally important to selling our products is also ensuring that we’re seeing real movement in that area. In fact internally, when we’re thinking about this opportunity of applying to be part of this research study that I mentioned earlier. Where they basically put all of our cards on the table. If it’s a system that works, that will be a great upside for the company based on this research study. But if it’s a system that’s really not working, it’s not an incredibly easy to market to work within. What’s the point of really being here if you’re not actually driving improvement?
And the case that we always make to our investors who sometimes question the double bottom line aspect of the company mission is the impact data really also drives the business. I mean it’s critical to marketing principles and districts. And nonprofits want to see that this is something that actually works before they put their limited resources into a product like ours.
NYLP: And so where do you see that company going?
Miriam: There’s a lot more work to do. I mean we’ve just started to kind of scratch the surface. We’re looking to double the number of schools we’re working in at least in 2016, ’17. So from 100 to more than 200 schools in the upcoming school year which will be a great leap for us. And we’ve seen that kind of growth consistent over the last couple of years. We have been going both deep in New York and growing outside of New York City. And we want to continue to expand to other geographies where we know that they’re facing similar problems. Some cases for similar and some cases for different reasons. But they don’t have kids coming to school every single day and it’s a critical problem that they haven’t quite yet figured out how to solve in their communities. And we can bring these types of ideas and this product and these resources to new communities and really see this impact.
Ultimately, we want to contribute to increased graduation rates across the country. I mean that’s really the ultimate goal. And then think about how this affects broader municipalities and local economies. Can we even perhaps predict the likelihood of economic impact, decades down the road based on attendance rates today? And really contribute in that broader way to developing out, you know, cities and communities? That would be really, really awesome.
And also, thinking internationally. We’ve had a tremendous amount of international interest in the product that we, just based on capacity, haven’t really been able to respond to yet. But it’s something that we’re always thinking about. And every time we kind of turn away a potential opportunity at this point to keep focused on the U.S. market. I always think about when and how we’ll be able to serve countries like India where we’ve gotten a lot of interest. They’ve got a huge teacher absenteeism problem there for example. We’re having a lot more interest from Europe as well as specific countries like Brazil and Latin America where they’re facing similar challenges. So to be able to answer to those inbound requests that we get pretty consistently is another really exciting opportunity that we see coming just a couple of years down the road.
NYLP: And what has it been like being a company in New York and using New York schools as somewhat of your laboratory? I imagine it doesn’t get any tougher than that.
Miriam: It doesn’t and at the same time, we wouldn’t want to start this company anywhere else. I’m not a native New Yorker nor is my co-founder. Alex is from Philadelphia but we did both kind of come to be adults in the city. I moved here when I was 21 to become a teacher and I’ve been in the city and developed out my career. Gone to two universities here in the last 10 years or so. And Alex has been here for the same amount of time doing similar things in her own career leading up to developing Kinvolved.
And we kind of joke about how it sort of was a blessing and curse that we were here because there’s pretty significant barriers to entry. Because it’s so difficult to work in New York City public schools. The procurement process is not easy. It’s such a big place. It’s by far and away, the biggest district, 1700 schools. The next closest is I believe LA and I don’t think they have half as many schools. So it’s just really just a massive district. It’s hard to figure out how to navigate it.
But at the same time, you’re working with people that are seeing problems in very similar, if not the same communities, that Alex and I both once worked in. And we’re really proud to be able to continue to actually… You know, having left the classroom and having left working with parents directly. Being able to really still see this impact and having real the privilege to focus in on this issue where we just didn’t have the time. And we knew that…you know, we know our teachers don’t have the time to dedicate to this entirely. We’re happy to be the ones to do it and we’re really proud of the impact that we’re starting to see here.
And also, just really very grateful for the support that we’ve gotten from institutions like NYU and Education Pioneers here in New York City which we both were fellows with. And a number of additional institutions that are really, you know, New York City-focused and centric. That’s been pretty critical to the early stage development of the company.
NYLP: What’s your biggest challenge?
Miriam: You asked earlier if it’s hard to work in New York City schools, and it is. I mean we are revenue generating. Our goal is this year to break even and it’s going to be a challenge to do it. We are confident that we will be able to.
And the fact that schools in New York City can make their own purchasing decisions is both a blessing and a curse. It means that that we can go to door to door and make these kinds of sales and grow that way. But it also means that it’s much harder to get central support in a broad way in a single relationship. And so it makes it sort of difficult. So you know, the financial component isn’t super easy. But we also know of other companies that have faced a similar path and have been successful on both aspects of the double bottom-line. The revenue generation and being a healthy company as well as really seeing impact for their students. And so we try to look at examples like those.
NYLP: What does success for Kinvolved look like?
Miriam: An end to the absenteeism problem. I mean I say that sort of hesitantly because that’s sort of our…you know, what we’re really focused on, the value that we add. But if we had to keep changing our product because we’ve solved these problems, that would be a great problem to have. And we love iterating and we love gathering feedback from our users and evolving the product and so we’ll be happy to continue to do that out of an attendance improvement product because we’ve solved the problem. That would be really, really awesome.
NYLP: How do people find out more about Kinvolved and you and learn more about what you’re doing?
Miriam: The best place to find out more about Kinvolved is to go to our website, which is www.kinvolved.com. From that website, you can learn more about the company. You can learn about the team. You can learn a lot about the spotlight stories of our teachers who had been really excited and have talked about the impact of the product has had on their students and their families as well as administrators. And most importantly, if you work at a school or a nonprofit or a district and you want to learn more about how to bring Kinvolved to your school, you can go and sign up. And we will get in touch with you usually within just a matter of minutes or just a couple of hours.
You can follow us on social media. We have a Facebook page and we have a Twitter which is @Kinvolved.
NYLP: Well Miriam, you’re doing some wonderful things. I hope you solve the attendance problem in schools across the world. Thank you for stepping on to New York Launch Pod and sharing your time with us.
Miriam: Thank you so much, Hal.
NYLP: And if you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod, you can follow us @nylaunchpod or visit nylaunchpod.com where you
can get transcripts from this episode. And subscribe on iTunes, leave us a review. We look forward to hearing from you.SHARE THIS: