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Millennials Are Bringing Communication Innovation to Schools

Those born between 1982 and 2000, commonly known as millennials, belong to a generation full of contradictions.

On the one hand, they’re incredibly deft at helping others. According to Leigh Buchanan’s Meet the Millennials, nearly 70 percent of millennials hold “giving back” and “being civically engaged” as their highest priorities.

On the other hand, this altruism often comes with a lack of patience. Having grown up with instant-communication—from pagers to cell phones to tablets—millennials are used to getting things done at the speed of sound.

But millennials are proving that this seeming cognitive dissonance of impatience and hospitality just might work to everyone’s benefit. When it comes to advancing social justice issues, they are among the first to identify and relentlessly pursue innovations to problems that have remained stagnant for years.

Our nation’s school system is a prime example. With complexities that range from size to management to budget, many classrooms lack centralized communications channels.

For teachers, this lack of real-time communications can hinder their efficacy in the classroom.

And for students, constant and real-time communication among their support network (teachers, parents, teacher-teacher) can make a big difference in their likelihood to be successful.

This challenge is particularly relevant for low-income and minority students, who face disproportionately large class sizes and discipline rates, contributing to dropout rates six times that of their higher-income peers. Real-time communication is key to creating a more personalized learning experience, fostering family and community engagement, and addressing the roots of classroom issues—keeping students in school and putting them on a different life path.

While teaching in high-needs communities, the following millennials saw the additional challenges faced by their students. Fueled by a common desire to make things better for kids, they launched communications platforms to address system-wide problems like truancy and classroom isolation.

 

Toni Maraviglia, Eneza Education
I’m not one to back down from a challenge. After teaching fifth grade in West Harlem as a 2005 Teach For America corps member, and then working as a mentor and coach to new teachers, I moved to Kenya to help launch a rural primary school program. I lived in a hut without water or electricity for a full year. So when someone challenged me to create a mobile product for the country’s most remote schools, I was more than up for the task.

In 2011, large cities like Nairobi were seeing a huge emerging mobile scene, and I came up with a plan to harness that technology to put tools in the hands of rural teachers. I envisioned Eneza Education, a mobile platform delivering quizzes aligned to every standard on the syllabus, for every subject. It would be interactive, explain to students why their answers are right and wrong—like a good tutor would—and it would automatically aggregate student data like a teacher’s assistant. It would change a lot of lives, but there was one problem: I was due to start business school in the U.S.

Motivated by my mobile vision, I instead put my graduate school money toward starting Eneza Education. As the only non-Kenyan on the Eneza team, I often follow my teammates’ lead when it comes to working with communities. We keep the tools as inexpensive as possible to honor our mission of reaching Kenya’s most remote schools. And it’s working: Today we reach over 180,000 kids at over 3,000 schools across Kenya.

Ultimately, we hope to reach the world’s most remote schools, starting with expansion to Uganda and Tanzania in 2015. By 2017, millions of students will have access to a better education because of Eneza Education.

Miriam Altman, Kinvolved
I had always intended to devote my career to public service, but teaching was not part of my plan. My experience teaching history in New York City’s Park West High School Campus through Teach For America, however, showed me the tremendous opportunity I had to impact my students’ lives—if only they were present.

Persistent absenteeism and tardiness patterns prevented me from reaching the students who were most in need of instruction. But this is not unusual: 50 percent of kids in low-income areas miss one month of school annually.

Much to my surprise, I learned that no one from the school was telling the parents their kids were absent. By opening the lines of communication with families—via traditional calls home and parent conferences—student attendance and achievement improved dramatically.

Things were improving, but I knew there had to be a way to scale communications and make a greater difference for kids. When I matriculated at NYU Wagner, I teamed up with Alexandra Meis, a former parent advocate in the South Bronx. We formed Kinvolved, a company offering tools that allow teachers, youth programs, and families to share real-time data about student attendance, behavior, and course performance. Teachers and program coordinators use Kinvolved’s first tool to take attendance in less than 60 seconds on any device with an Internet connection. Late and absent students’ registered contacts then receive a real-time text or email. With attendance records at the ready, we then look for patterns to identify the root causes of student absenteeism—and connect these students with existing services to fight these causes.

As of last month, Kinvolved has expanded to seven schools and two youth programs serving 5,500 students and families nationwide. As we continue to grow, we aim to offer a variety of tools that engage families in partnership with schools and community-based organizations to improve student achievement, particularly in low-income communities.

Zak Ringelstein, UClass
I never meant to stay in education. In fact, I only applied to Teach for America as a halfhearted second choice to my medical school plans. However, the moment I deferred Johns Hopkins to accept an offer to place me at an elementary school in Phoenix, I inadvertently fell headlong into the struggle to mend our country’s broken education system.

I had expected teaching to leave me wanting more, and so after two years, I claimed my place at medical school.  But as it turned out, what I wanted more of was my students. After just two months, I withdrew and returned to welcome a new class of fifth graders.

As time went on, I wanted to think through my educational theories using a new lens. I moved to Tanzania, where I helped develop a local teaching corps with Teach for All, and taught at an international school. My students and colleagues, each arriving from their own national systems of education, forced me to confront my own educational biases and to develop a new internationally informed schema of best practices.

While my colleagues and students in Tanzania had a strong mind-share environment, those in Phoenix were isolated by comparison. Teachers weren’t able to meaningfully share resources outside of their classrooms, and kids were only accessing the world inside of their small community, with little chance to collaborate beyond.

That’s why we built UClass—to connect classrooms and make resources shareable. Teachers at more than 5,000 schools now have access to each other’s resources and can seamlessly deliver them to their students.

In an age with constant education shifts, including the Common Core, this is necessary. Instead of reinventing the wheel for each lesson, UClass offers thousands of Common Core resources to help teachers effectively teach any skill.

And students are engaging in projects globally. Recently, we hosted the Hands of Hope for Sandy Hook lesson where more than 4,000 students from across the world posted hand cutouts with “I hope” statements on them for the one year anniversary of the tragedy.

Since launching UClass in Beta in 2012, we’ve seen it become a cornerstone for many school districts. We just released our UClass.io Content Management System, a centralized repository for school and district Common Core content. We’re launching apps on various tablets in the coming months, making UClass more accessible to teachers and students.

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As a former middle school teacher in Washington Heights, I know how key communication is to helping kids achieve. These new platforms break down the barriers of language, time, and distance, making it that much easier for teachers to invest students and families in education.

Technology will never replace an excellent school environment or excellent educator, but it can be an invaluable tool to keeping classrooms full and students’ belief in themselves even fuller.

Melissa Moritz is the Vice President of Education Initiatives at Teach For America.

Millennials Are Bringing Communication Innovation to Schools was originally published on Ideas Lab

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