Education

Why one charter school system founded an ed-tech startup

Image Credit: NewSchools

One of the biggest failings of the new wave of education technology startups? Entrepreneurs often fail to forge a relationship with their target market: teachers, students, and parents.

So some schools are taking matters into their own hands.

California’s Aspire Public Schools, a nonprofit charter school network, cobbled together its own performance analysis tools to address some pressing internal problems.

“I went out and looked at the market, and there wasn’t anything. I wanted a tool that would still give me the ability to answer questions from the data and meet the needs of the teachers,” said Lynzi Ziegenhagen, Aspire’s former vice president of technology, in an interview.

Ziegenhagen investigated myriad data warehousing solutions, but she nixed them immediately. Many of the legacy data warehousing vendors will charge over $1 million a year for a subscription.

So Ziegenhagen, a computer scientist by training, developed new technology to serve the school system. What began as a data visualization tool used by Aspire’s 800 teachers and administrators to analyze student performance has developed into a fully fledged business.

This week, the school is spinning out the technology — dubbed “Schoolzilla” — as an independent startup, and Ziegenhagen is in charge. The goal in the coming months is to put Schoolzilla in the hands of thousands of teachers in school districts around the country.

Aspire chief executive James Willcox said that going forward, Schoolzilla will focus on making use of data in school systems, “taking what we developed at Aspire even further.”

In a nifty visualization, educators can access relevant information, including a student’s strengths and weaknesses as well as attendance records. The system will also highlight the areas for improvement.

Principals and administrators can use Shopzilla to get a fuller picture of performance across the school system so that they can make more informed decisions whether to invest in teacher training or fill curriculum gaps.

This isn’t the first time that school systems have attempted to analyze student data.

In May, a nonprofit called InBloom launched a database to compile student information — test scores, teacher assessments, and so on. The company won early support from school districts and financial backing from the Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation. However, parents pushed back, voicing their fears on social media. They cited privacy concerns and potential breaches of student data.

Ziegenhagen did not give a clear response to questions about privacy. But she did stress that Schoolzilla doesn’t use any additional data than what’s already stored in Excel spreadsheets and printed reports. “We’re not a data collection service,” she said.

She said that schools have been highly receptive; the low price is highly attractive. Schoolzilla will be available for approximately $25,000 annually per school system. It has spread quickly and is already used in about 500 public schools in 10 states.

Schoolzilla will hire new talent and continue to market its technology with investment from NewSchools Venture Fund and Serious Change. The final figure has not been disclosed. Aspire Public Schools will continue to retain a minority stake, but it won’t be actively involved in the operation of the new company.

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