Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
New York City schools may pilot a new mobile app this summer that provides parents with nearly instantaneous notifications if their students are tardy or absent from class.
Founders of Kinvolved, the company behind the app, say it's intended to encourage parents to become more engaged in their children's academic lives. In New York City, nearly a quarter of students miss a month of school each year.
Students with high absentee rates are less likely to graduate, and Kinvolved founders note that students whose parents are involved have higher attendance rates. Their expectation is that the program can help increase graduating rates by helping parents make sure their children are in school.
The mobile app allows teachers to easily mark each student as present, tardy or absent. It then automatically sends text messages to the parents of absent and tardy students, letting them know their child missed class. Kinvolved's co-founders say they choose to deliver those messages via text, as opposed to email, since low-income residents may not be able to afford Internet access, but even the most inexpensive mobile phone can receive text messages.
The app also dramatically reduces the time it takes for teachers to take attendance. Currently, teachers use cumbersome Scantron forms, in which they use a pencil to mark "present," "tardy," or "absent" next to the name of each student, each class period, every day. The forms aren't sent to a central office until the following day, delaying the time it takes for parents to learn of absences, if they learn at all.
The group makes a compelling pitch: teachers spend an average of 45 minutes per day on attendance taking. Based on the average teacher salary, that means the school system is paying each teacher $37.50 a day just to take attendance. Multiply that by every teacher, working every school day, and that means the school system is paying teachers more than half-a-billion dollars annually to take attendance. Kinvolved would cost New York schools an estimated $56 million to implement across the entire system, though that figure isn't firm.
The group plans to launch a summer pilot program at three New York schools this year, pending approval from the New York City Department of Education*. After making tweaks to the the program based on feedback, Kinvolved has a second pilot planned for 20 New York schools this fall, with hopes of making it available to the entire school system in Fall 2013.
The company's co-founders, all students at NYU's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, each have a personal connection to the issue. Miriam Altman is a former teacher in New York who saw firsthand how challenging it is to reach out to students who are chronically absent. "[T]he best lesson isn't going to work if the student isn't there," Altman says.
Alexandra Meis managed an autism program at a New York hospital where she often helped parents navigate the city's education system, and Barrie Charney-Golden has a background in international education. The company is working with coders based in the Washington, D.C. area.
Others are starting to take notice of Kinvolved. Over the weekend, the Kinvolved team won the first National Invitational Public Policy Challenge, hosted by the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. The contest featured students from five universities who submit proposals addressing policy issues in their communities (full disclosure: Governing is a media sponsor of the event). Kinvolved also won the Global BeMyApp Mobile App Competition earlier this year and has progressed in the Dell Social Innovation Competition.
Before Kinvolved is able to sell the service to New York schools, the New York City Department of Education must first name the company as an approved vendor. The team also acknowledges principals may be reluctant to embrace new technology, but its co-founders expect they'll eventually come around once they see the benefits. The team hopes to eventually market the product in other urban school systems like Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Other proposals in this year's National Invitational Public Policy Challenge include:
-- establishing a School Redevelopment Authority to reuse former school buildings (from a University of Pennsylvania team)
-- a coalition to create a marketplace for biogas in Washington state (from a University of Washington team)
-- a Pittsburgh bike-sharing initiative (from a Carnegie Mellon University team)
-- implementing environmentally-friendly driving practices within Chicago's municipal fleet (from a University of Chicago team)
*This article was edited to clarify that the summer pilot at the three schools is pending the approval of the New York City Department of Education. The school's three principals have agreed to the pilot.