We, as education leaders, from policymakers to entrepreneurs, are failing a striking number our nation’s students.

One in five students drop out of the U.S. public education system each year. And in New York State, 63% of black males drop out of school in each year.

Superintendents and entrepreneurs working in education are faced with many of the same problems. Constrained budgets, long hours and bureaucratic systems are not foreign to either party. It often feels, however, that we are operating worlds apart.

We cannot continue to work in our silos. The stakes are too high.


63% The percent of black male students who drop out of the New York State Public School system each year.

The World of Social Entrepreneurs

A social entrepreneur’s mantra is to respond to the pain points of our constituents, whether that be a teacher, parent, student, or administrator. In response to our nation’s dropout epidemic, my Co-founder, Miriam Altman, and I dreamt up and scaled Kinvolved. A lack of resources to teach students how to code inspired the inception of ScriptEd; the “summer slide” motivated Springboard Collaborative to be created. Lack of transparency regarding a school’s budget sparked the development of Allovue. These are just a few startup companies that are changing the way our schools support student achievement. Their founders, all former educators, have finely balanced practicality and bold ambitions. The power of empathetic innovation and technology built by entrepreneurs who have formerly been in the classrooms and education community runs deep.

Entrepreneurs involve customers and users in our innovation and decision-making; this is a method Christian Bason has coined “co-creation”. As someone working on an app to improve parent-teacher communication, a large part of my daily ritual includes speaking to and learning from parents and educators. If we are trying to keep students in school, it is logical to go the source. Ask students themselves why they skipped yesterday. You might be pleasantly surprised at their reaction. I had one student tell me that I was the first person at his school who even bothered to ask why he did not show up the week before.

A vast number of policies and technologies have been put in place in our public school system without honoring this process. Students and teachers frequently mention that their opinions are undervalued and not considered. StuVoice and Educators for Excellence were both born out of this frustration.

The Power of Cross-Sector Partnerships in Education

Building partnerships across schools systems, entrepreneurs, and policy makers is critical if we are to have a shot at improving our public education system. This work is not easy; in fact it sometimes feels downright impossible.

Asking ourselves the hard questions about how we can collaborate respectfully, understanding the differences in education policy-driven versus entrepreneurial ecosystems, is an important part of the equation in building strong cross-sector partnerships. The future looks dismal for our education system if we, as policy makers, district leaders, or entrepreneurs, fail to attempt to understand one another’s position or perspective.

The iZone, also known as Innovate NYC Schools, is a department of the New York City (NYC) Department of Education that helps entrepreneurs and school leaders gain unique understanding of one another. This organization supports an innovative community of over 250 schools that aim to personalize learning for every student so as to accelerate their readiness for college. Each school is experimenting with new ways to use technology to support learning. The iZone has recently launched a new initiative, SharkTankEDU, which puts entrepreneurs to the test in front of a panel of judges including parents, principals and teachers. Startups leverage real-time feedback and constructive advice on their products and ideas.

“The best educational activities are useless to the absent student.” - Kofi A. Boateng

More recently our education technology company worked in partnership with a nonprofit organization, the West Harlem Development Corporation (WHDC), superintendents and principals of Districts 5 and 6 in NYC, and parents to establish a campaign, “Every Minute Matters”, to improve student attendance in West Harlem. The WHDC has subsidized the cost of our attendance app so that 20 public schools can reap its benefits across their buildings this year. This landmark private-public partnership is one of the first of its kind in West Harlem. “The best educational activities are useless to the absent student. This pilot project will ensure we set up West Harlem children for success by making sure that they are present and learning,” said Kofi A. Boateng, PhD, WHDC Executive Director. ‘Every Minute Matters’ in West Harlem is poised to improve students’ grades by increasing attendance.” WHDC is charged with implementing the Community Benefits Agreement signed with Columbia University in 2009. WHDC has granted $4 million to 119 nonprofits that serve West Harlem/Community District 9 with programs in education, housing, workforce development and other important areas.

As hard as this work is, momentum eventually builds, the needle gets pushed, and change ensues slowly but surely. I have seen it first hand. Two years ago, Kinvovled’s app was only used by one teacher; now it is in the hands of teachers across 90 schools across the nation.

As school leaders, educators, or entrepreneurs, cross-sector collaboration is our students’ most promising chance of reaching the finish line and graduating from high school. I firmly believe that working in partnership with students’ needs first will enable us to make large-scale, enduring social change.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Education, Flickr, under Creative Commons 2.0.