019: Get to school or else Kinvolved will text your parents

using the Whole Whale Podcast Kinvolved is helping schools and teachers change the game around attendance. Their system uses an online attendance tracker in classrooms that allows teachers to log late/absent students. Then their system triggers an immediate text message to the student’s parents with amazing results.



Kinvolved is raising $750,000 in seed funding on a convertible note led by The Blue Ridge Foundation to supplement its existing revenues and fund expansion to 500 schools and after school programs by the 2015-16 school year. The round will close Oct. 31. The team has also raised grant funding from a variety of sources, most recently The Robin Hood Foundation, for its strong social impact potential. Email [email protected] for more information about either funding opportunity.

Musical Thanks

Music from this episode courtesy of Ahmen’s new album Hero Ball. Great energy and message behind his lyrics, be sure to check him out.


Episode 19

Speaker 1: This is Using the Whole Whale a podcast that brings you stories of data and technology in a nonprofit world. This is George Weiner, your host and the chief whaler of wholewhale.com. Thank you for joining us. Before we get started I just want to say thank you. We’ve had over 25 thousand downloads for really what started as, as an experiment I wasn’t sure how many folks would be interested in a podcast on data and technology in a nonprofit world and so, you know, it takes a little bit of time and energy to put these together. My request of you is obviously, you know, please keep listening but considering sharing a favorite episode maybe it’s this one with [laughter] with somebody else working on social impact or non-profit work out there and yeah lets jump into the cast.

Speaker 1: Right now you’ve probably noticed a trend in these “oh sorry that was actually a text message I just got, I got to read it really quickly, ok. Oh shoot, I’m late for class!” What I just demonstrated there is exactly what Kinvolved, an amazing organization figured out when they thought about the problem of students basically missing class or being late to class. What they did was created a simple solution that would text parents based on when the teachers reported whether their students were late or didn’t show up. Welcome to episode 19 where we’re going to be talking with Miriam Altman co-founder of Kinvolved and seeing as how they’re turning the tide on tardiness with texts. Turn the tide on tardiness with texts, turn the tide on tardiness with texts. Yeah, got it.

Speaker 1: How’s it going Miriam?

Speaker 2: It’s going well thanks, George.

Speaker 1: Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today can you tell us who are you and what is it that you do?

Speaker 2: My name is Miriam Altman I’m cofounder and chief business officer of Kinvolved. Kinvolved is improving graduation rates by increasing student attendance and family community engagement through an application that schools and afterschool programs use to track attendance data and immediately communicate with one another via text, email, and phone calls.

Speaker 1: What does that actually mean? I’m a parent, I’ve got a kid, I bring him to school I think I’m bringing him to school and then I go off to work at Whole Whale. What, what the heck does your service do?

Speaker 2: So teachers will use the application, it’s a web app during the school day to just record attendance is the first function of the system so they log in, take attendance, if your child is late to class or doesn’t show up to class you’d receive an immediate automated text message, email or phone call in English or Spanish if that’s your native language informing you right away that your child has not arrived to class on time. So you are able to actually look at the text message without even logging into the system to respond to the teacher and follow up and find out what’s going on.

Speaker 1: Wow! So you basically have automated like, tattle telling? You just like, text tattle tellers.

Speaker 2: [laughter] I have heard that, my friend actually described our app, as our company recently as, the tattle tell app.

Speaker 1: Alright, it’s amazing. But come on like, there’s so many issues right now with, you know, education in America like, failing schools, like, why choose this as like, you know, attendance?

Speaker 2: So I actually was a teacher in the New York city public school system for a few years and I was just astonished by a number of issues that are, that are facing our schools and our students and families but one that I feel was, I thought was really not addressed but what was really an underlying issue was that kids were routinely absent, chronically absent meaning their missing 18 or more days of school per year or absent even less frequently but it had a direct effect on their academic outcomes and when I started to talk to parents I started to realize that even though I assumed my school my was giving information to parents when their kids were late or absent most parents had no idea so that really got my wheels turning. We started Kinvolved because we started to look at the larger scale numbers so we know that New York City, for example, there are 1.1 million students in the public school system and 20 percent of those kids are chronically absent so again they’re missing 18 or more days of school per year which is essentially a month of school which is just tremendous. Nationwide that rate is about 15 percent or so 7.5 million students. The fact is that if kids don’t show up to school, they’re not going to succeed and the data shows that attendance is one of the the 3 indicators of high school graduation so for example when kindergarteners; 10 percent of kindergarteners are chronically absent across our country. When they miss school at that rate they have only 17 percent chance of being on grade level for reading by third grade compared to about 70 percent of their peers. So this is an issue that starts really early and it has even greater effects as kids get older if we don’t solve the problem.

Speaker 1: Sure but how much is, and by the way I definitely agree right? Like, 80 percent of everything is just showing up, right? Just for gods sakes get to the starting line, but I have to question a little bit here how much is attendance simply a symptom of something bigger going on in the family? Maybe if they’re living with asbestos and they have asthma and they have a particular issue on most days and you know if I’m sick like, that’s, you know, not going to fix my attendance. How is it that you’re measuring the efficacy of this and what do you think about that?

Speaker 2: Yeah, absolutely so one of the functions of, of the application actually, is the ability to not only record attendance, send the notifications to families but it’s much deeper than that so we’ve built an interface based on what we’ve experienced in field as well as talking to teachers as well that allows for teachers to go into the system and actually record reasons that kids are missing school whenever that information is available and over time the system aggregates that data and shows why individual kids, classrooms of kids or entire schools of kids are missing class including, as well as the day of the week for example, or a time during the year kids are missing school most frequently and by looking at that data we’re actually helping by providing on the ground support to actually implement interventions based on that data. So it’s definitely a much deeper issue than just kids skipping school all the time, that is the issue sometimes but sometimes you’re absolutely right, there’s much deeper issues going on.

Speaker 1: Give me some like, exact numbers on what you know, tattle telling has to offer for school attendance.

Speaker 2: Absolutely, so in our first year we worked with the Ralph Bunche School which is up in Harlem. Just did a beta test of our prototype of the application and found that in that school very high needs school up in Harlem we had about a five percent decrease in lateness specifically and lateness is something that is often undocumented but it has a huge impact on student success.

So for example in this school one of the first grade teachers mentioned that she had one student in particular who was 45 minutes late every single day and that’s when she was teaching reading and she was able to use the app to actually show the parents what the impact of lateness was having on his child and said you know if we don’t change this we’re not going to be able to promote your daughter to second grade, so really being able to use the app in that way. Over two years of beta testing with this school in particular and last year we expand our beta testing to about 18 school sites across New York and a few other cities but this was the second year we worked with that particular school. We saw an overall improvement in general average daily attendance by about one and half percentage points which correlates with thousands of hours of seat time even though it may sound like it’s not a huge number administrators get really excited about that. This year we are actually launching in about between 50 and 70 schools between the beginning of September and the beginning of October essentially we’ll be in about 70 schools that’s through both traditional schools, really concentrated up in west Harlem in the south Bronx, as well as some other regions, as well as through after school programs that are operating in schools all across the city. We also have a few sites in Baltimore, Providence, Rhode Island and Minneapolis, Minnesota. So those are some of the metrics that we’re, we’re looking at right now.

Speaker 1: And so what was the average daily attendance improvement that you said you got?

Speaker 2: About one and a half percentage points across two years.

Speaker 1: Across two years and that equates to how much school time?

Speaker 2: About, it depends on the size of the school but several thousand hours of seat time for these students

Speaker 1: So, I am a big hater on averages because I think they’re misleading and so I’m curious as you dive into these data, is this a tool that’s particularly effective say, a little bit for a lot of people or is it that, you know, basically going after those outliers, the kid who is probably missing a disproportionate amount of school and helping identify those problem issues early and so that might, that one kid is the one that is then skewing or, being the outlier on the average? Not that either one is better or worse.

Speaker 2: Yeah, there, a couple of different ways that the applications have been used across the city. So sort of the general school setting, so entire schools using this system, but we also work with the Children’s Aid Society which has something called the Success Mentors Program where they put an Americorp Member or a social worker in different schools across New York City and those people use Kinvolved, and use other data from historic years to identify kids who are really, really at risk because they’ve shown patterns of chronic absenteeism in the past and so in those schools, in those sites the success mentors for example are using the Kinvolved application specifically with those kids and I think it’s going to be interesting to see over this next year when we really have some significant growth and see how the application is used in different ways where it’s going to most effective. At this point it’s sort of hypotheses but we’re going to, were going to be able to see that a little bit more over the next 12 months

Speaker 1: We talked about some early success around the data, how big are you? like how do you measure this?

Speaker 2: I mean, we, we measure in terms of how many students we reach and how many families we reach. So across those 70 school sites we have about 20 thousand students who will be enrolled in the next couple of months. We’ve already, on board about ten thousand of those students specifically with the big partnership we have that’s launching this fall in West Harlem across about 20 schools. And, you know, our goal is to have 100 schools sites using the program by the end of this calendar year which is ambitious but we’re well on our way with that, and at that rate we’ll be able to serve somewhere between 30 and 40 thousand students and their families as well.

Speaker 1: How does the school sign up with you?

Speaker 2: They can contact me directly or they can go to our website which is www.kinvolved.com (K-I-N-V-O-L-V-E-D dot com) and sign up as an individual teacher who can use the account for free or a school leader or after school program leader who can get follow up information from me.

Speaker 1: So, I feel like you’re, you’re kind of crushing it right now. But I mean, I’ve had the pleasure of working along, nearby and seeing some days where you’re pulling at your hair. Let’s, like, throwback one and a half years, like, what advice would you give young optimistic Miriam, you’re still obviously young and beautiful but even younger, still beautiful Miriam, you know a year and a half ago what, like, what do you tell yourself?

Speaker 2: Oh my goodness, there have been a lot of lessons learned. One big lesson was that my cofounder and I, neither of us had any tech experience in our, in our background and that’s really huge and we were sort of reluctant to bring on a CTO and we wanted to see how far we could push by contracting out development and our business has been able to thrive because we actually started hiring tech in-house and found some really great talent, our CTO Brad Gun leads that up and that’s changed the entire game for us. If we hadn’t done that; if we hadn’t really spent the time and the effort to bring that in house we wouldn’t have, we would not have our product as scalable as it is at this point. I think, also, just being very, like, adhere to the values of the organization. We are a for-profit company but we have benefit certification because we really believe strongly in our social mission and there are people who are interesting in funding companies that are only focused on scaling, especially in the education technology market, and that’s really not our approach and so we have not, we’ve not been able to pursue funding from those types of sources but we’ve been able to actually get contracts signed and have our customers pay for the application because we’ve proven our impact and proven our efforts. I think I’m pretty proud of the way that we’ve decided to, to grow the business and the, the sort of strategy that we’ve taken with that.

Speaker 1: If you could go back in time though, would you choose a 501C3 instead of an LLC?

Speaker 2: That’s a good question. We, so we’re actually a C Corporation with benefits certification but we definitely did a lot of research went back and forth quite a bit about being a for-profit or a non-profit, really up until we signed our first contract because we were having some difficulty figuring out how we were going to make, and it’s neat for the first couple of months. And I think we’re really confident at this point in the structure that we’ve taken but if we haven’t been able to actually sign some contracts we would have, done some serious soul searching, potentially switched over to becoming a, a non-profit.

Speaker 1: Yeah, I mean it’s funny, you know, we obviously at Whole Whale focus on working with not for profits and social impact organizations but let’s just be honest here, a 501C3 is just a rubber stamp from the government because you’ve filled out the right frickin papers. If you weren’t doing amazing work and it’s sustainable, I don’t care what you call yourself it seems like you’re approach is working and technology is in line with that. So, that’s interesting you got a CTO early in your process.

Speaker 2: I think it was the right time for us. I think if we had waited any longer we could have, we really could have some difficulty keeping the business going. But I do think that we took the appropriate amount of time to make sure we’ve chosen a member to join our team who really was the right fit, had the right social mission with this skillset but we’ve been really happy with that and the time that we took to, to hire Brad.

Speaker 1: So tell me a little bit about this, this phase where you said you were beta testing for 2 years and I think, we’re always in beta, I mean this podcast is in beta.

Speaker 2: Yeah.

Speaker 1: I’m testing things on you right now you don’t even know it. [laughter] What was your approach as you were building this? Did you go in the classroom did you, you know, go to parents or were you just like let’s hold up in this room and build this thing.

Speaker2: Yeah, so we won a few competitions, we actually won one competition particularly at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 with an idea and a very basic wireframe of the prototype that we had to build up to actually at a Hack-A-Thon at Pace University earlier in that, in that calendar year of 2012. And we were able to show that and get some funding to actually build out the prototype that we were able to test out in, in, P.S. 125 up in, up in Harlem. That application was very very basic and had a roster of students and it allowed teachers to take the attendance, click a button to send one text message or email to one contact for each kid in English or Spanish. The language was very, it was stagnant, or it was already chosen for them, they couldn’t customize the language which it can do now. And just with that basic functionality we were able to see that five percent decrease in, in tardiness as well as anecdotal improvement in family engagement. The school was saying that they were from parents they’ve never heard from before and the parents were saying that they were contacting the school because they actually had a phone number in their hand through this text message that they knew could call to find out more information. A lot of times just a major communication gap when parents don’t know who to call or know whom to contact or have the information they need to be in touch with those schools. And so throughout that year it was just Alex and me, my cofounder, in graduate school going to the school, doing focus groups about every 2 weeks or so with groups of teachers. We, Alex actually went to conferences at the school and talked to some parents got their feedback and we talked to students as well and found you know that they really liked, the application was working well but that there was some things that we could build and improve upon and so we took that feedback. We were able to continuously iterate, you know, following a lean startup process and added on additional features, last year during our beta and its, it kept sort of continued along with that process of lean startup methodology which we didn’t even know was a thing until we were in the NYU summer launchpad in 2013 right after we graduated. We learned a lot about lean startup methodology and we’re pretty excited to find that we had already started kind of doing that intuitively on our own and that’s something that we built into our model in product development in an ongoing process

Speaker 1: So maybe you’ve heard of the lean startup before, maybe not. It’s a very commonly used term now thanks to Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup where he champions this idea, albeit a simple one I’d say, of a build, measure, learn cycle of creating the base level product. What he calls a minimum viable product, right, that simplest thing we can there, out there in the world to see how people actually interact with it and then you make adjustments based on the data, based on how people use it. That’s what you heard them saying, they just kind of automatically fell into because it made sense. We don’t have a lot of money, let’s put something out there and see how this community interacts with it. A great example of why this can be so effective in the book they talk about, let’s say for example you were making a whole bunch of invitations. Say it’s your organization’s job to send out tons of letters. And you do it and you decide to do a batch of ten thousand all at once and instead of doing one by one, you decide to do all of the envelope addressing all at once, all of the message writing on the envelope at once, and then all the stamps at once. And so you kind of move to step by step by step then you’re on the final stage where you’re folding the envelope closed and you realize on the last one, you know, number 9,999 that oh my gosh there’s a typo in the copy of this envelope and this message that we’re sending out you have to undo all of those instead of thinking about it as a smaller batch processing or doing a smaller example to make sure you have the process right before you replicate a million, billion times. Alright let’s jump back into cast.

Speaker 1: If I had like an investment firm and we were looking for startups like, I think I would just choose teachers, I think teachers just make the best product designers and builders because, like, let’s actually go to the classroom, let’s actually see how this is working you build that MVP, the minimum viable product straight out of, you know, Eric Ries’s bible there and you tested it in the field and it took a long time to get there of course and refine it but now you’ve got something that works. What’s interesting is now that you have your, your product how do you balance the sort of what you build next in your feature list?

Speaker 2: That’s a great question and Alex really is leading up this whole charge but we get feedback all the time. So a big part of my role is doing the initial, having the initial conversations with principals and, and teachers and after school program coordinators showing them demos of the app and just by showing demos I get feedback all the time so I’m always vigorously taking notes which I report back to Alex. We’ve actually built out a tool in Excel with one of our wonderful interns this summer where every time we get a comment that mentions a certain topic for example you know they want specific types of data or, you know, types of messaging or certain languages they want built into the application for example. We flag those specific comments and we categorize in to kind of, build a timeline and hierarchy of product development based on the number of responses that we get so it’s really actually quantified by what we’re hearing from users and that’s how we build out the product development timeline in a lot of cases.

Speaker 1: Do your messages change? here’s a little bit, does your alert system predominantly rely on text message?

Speaker 2: It’s text message and email. We actually, interestingly, because text messages isn’t all that cheap, but we interestingly, were hearing from people sort of on the financial side who are advising us in that way that we should consider cutting out the text messaging and just doing this via email or just doing it via, you know, smart phone messaging that it’s much more affordable and we really said we didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want to be excluding parents who didn’t necessarily have access to email, who didn’t have access to smart phones to be able to receive those messages. So we found that text messaging is the predominant way that people are using the app to communicate and email is definitely the secondary way.

Speaker 1: What percent of your audience is of your 20 thousand that are enrolled, you said, have elected for text messaging?

Speaker 2: We’ll actually be seeing that as they’re enrolling over the course of fall but what we have seen in the past is I would estimate somewhere up around 75 percent or more. We know just the research shows that 91 percent of Americans have access to at least a basic cell phone and the population that we’re targeting in really more at risk communities are actually gaining access to cell phones, specifically smart phones, at a much faster rate than the remainder of the population. So that really helps inform what we’ve decided to focus on in terms of messaging.

Speaker 1: Do you have any sort of like interesting stories, you’re firing off all these text messages and it starts to get up there I’m curious, did anything come up?

Speaker 2: Yeah, we had an interesting story from one of our, our beta test partners last year in Queens, where a, there were 2 parents and one of the parents was in the Dominican Republic visiting family there, and he, you know, was far overseas, like a 4 hour plane ride away, and he gets a text message one morning saying that his kid hasn’t yet arrived to school so he called the mother and the mother had, I think overslept was the issue which is pretty common, and was really, you know, upset and, and made sure to get the kid up right away and brought the kid to school and came in and talk to the parent coordinator and it was the parent coordinator who, who let us know about this story. And you know, haven’t had an issue with, attendance with that kid, as we’ve heard of, ever since. And we are hearing similar stories about like that from, you know, parent coordinators we work with in schools across the city and, you know the impact, being able to prove the impact by focusing and making this choice in our business helps contain, you know, helps us contain the scale. Principals want to know have other people seen improvement in attendance and engagements result of partnering with Kinvolved and by focusing on the text messaging and making the financial decision to invest in texting we’ve been able to show that impact which has a sustainable profit for us as well.

Speaker 1: So, did I hear a rumor that you guys are actually accepting funding right now for another round?

Speaker 2: That is true we are closing our siege round by the end of October and you can get in touch with us through our website to learn more.

Speaker 1: Well, as we, as we get to the end here how do people find you, how do people help you?

Speaker 2: Yeah, so we are always looking for more schools and afterschool programs to work with. We are based in New York and that’s where much of our, our partnerships are based but we are always looking for partners outside the city especially innovative schools and afterschool programs who are looking to pilot a new system in their community and sort of being the leading force in that. You can find us through our website which I mentioned earlier and I’ll say it again it’s www.kinvolved.com (K-I-N-V-O-L-V-E-D dot com). And if you click on the signup link on the website you can sign up as a teacher, an afterschool program coordinator or principal we’ll get an email and respond to you right away. Those next steps.

Speaker 1: And remember that’s only if you’re innovative. Just putting that out there, so you know for all you boring teachers out there this is not for you.

Speaker 2: I think that’s a challenge from George. [laughter]

Speaker 1: Thanks again for coming on and best of luck.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much George.

Speaker 1: It’s amazing to see and literally be able to measure the power of a properly applied feedback loop, right? That’s at the core what we’re talking about the teacher is able to provide feedback to a parent not at the end of a semester but in real time when you’re driving down the street and you see that you’re going 10 miles over the speed limit you immediately adjust especially if you see that there’s a cop there or something measuring your speed as radar. The tighter the feedback loop we can make on whatever behavior modification we want to, in this case lateness and tardiness, the tighter that feedback loop, the more we’ll see a behavioral change out of the, the people involved. I have nothing but confidence in what Kinvolved is doing and I only expect to see them grow. I’m just excited that we got to interview Miriam before she becomes a rock star in the social impact space. Well, as always check us out, WholeWhale.com/podcast we’ll have resources find them. They’ll be awesome. Take care

Speaker 1: This has been Using the Whole Whale for more resources on today’s show please visit wholewhale.com/podcast and considering following us on twitter @wholewhale and thanks for joining us.

Speaker 1: As I see you’re still listening so I’ll keep talking this week’s music brought to you by actually a friend of mine named Ahmen. Title of his album called Hero Ball really fun stuff great guy, working on non-profits in New York so give him a look at Band Camp. You can also find links to his music at the wholewhale.com/podcast section for this podcast.

Speaker 1: I mention a MVP a minimum viable product as sort of a method that Kinvolved was using, a product that Whole Whale actually has out right now is allgoodtext.com which sends weekly text messages based on your google analytics data you choose three metrics and it will text you every week based on how those metrics are doing one week versus two weeks ago helping you determine whether or not if things are in fact all good. Alright take care, and, yeah no, that’s about it, just take care