• Allovue CEO Jess Gartner in her classroom at New Era Academy during her Teach For America days.

  • From left: ClassTracks intern Delisha Thompson, CEO Lida Zlatic and co-founder and COO Thierry Uwilingiyimana at Teach For America's 25th Anniversary Summit in February 2016.

  • From left: Zlatic and Uwilingiyimana at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, TX.

Building a better classroom: Three Teach For America alums are growing Baltimore’s startup scene

By Tina Irgang

Jess Gartner, Robbie Earle and Lida Zlatic have something in common: When they first moved to Baltimore, they never thought they’d be starting a business here. Actually, make that three businesses — Allovue, ClassTracks and Common Curriculum — all built around making teachers’ lives easier and students’ learning outcomes better.

To find out how three young Baltimore newcomers ended up diving headfirst into the city’s growing ed tech sector, we have to go back in time to 2009.

“I was finishing up college at the University of Texas, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” recalls Earle. “A Teach For America recruiter walked into one of my classes and said, ‘This is what we do.’”

The idea of making an impact in city schools appealed to Earle, and he was itching to get out of Texas, where he had spent his entire life up to that point. He requested an East Coast placement and ended up in Baltimore.

Around the same time, in New Jersey, Gartner was also applying to Teach For America. The two ended up in the same group of volunteers, and each spent three years teaching at Baltimore City Public Schools. Zlatic arrived in the city two years later from Washington, DC, also as a Teach For America volunteer.

A smarter way to spend education dollars

Gartner taught first at Moravia Park Elementary School in the northeast of the city, and then at New Era Academy in the South Baltimore neighborhood of Cherry Hill.

“I was continually confused about how resource-allocation decisions were being made, particularly at the school level — which textbooks to buy, whether to buy textbooks at all. At my first school, I didn’t have any,” she says. “There seemed to be a really big difference from one school to another in terms of educational resources and opportunities that were provided for students.”

 

Jess Gartner

Jess Gartner

Gartner became interested in how decisions about resources were being made, and what kind of data they were based on.

“The more I learned, the more horrified I grew at the fact that any data that was available was incredibly difficult to access, and even harder to understand,” she says. “It was mostly lines and lines of account codes, and there was absolutely no attempt to tie that spending or those budget decisions to what was happening in schools in terms of student achievement or other outcomes of success.”

Soon, Gartner decided that this was a problem she wanted to help solve. “I like to say that it was a unique blend of naïveté and eagerness, and perhaps a dash of narcissism and a healthy dose of complete ignorance as to what I was getting myself into,” she says.

The idea was to build a company that would help educators tie their school spending to actual education goals, such as improving outcomes for special-education students. Gartner took her lead from companies like Betterment, whose mission is to encourage goal-oriented investing for consumers. “Consumers say, ‘I want to save for retirement, a college education or a great vacation this year.’ They plan and they spend their money accordingly,” she says. “Why aren’t we thinking about goals and priorities for kids?”

To get her company, Allovue, off the ground, Gartner participated in Accelerate Baltimore, a startup accelerator program run by Emerging Technology Centers (ETC) and funded by The Abell Foundation. The program provided her with $25,000 in startup funding, which she used to work with a user experience designer to build out a prototype of the company’s platform. The designer, Ted O’Meara, got so attached to the project that he still serves as Allovue’s CTO.

To solve the problem of data accessibility, Allovue’s platform sits on top of a school district’s system, pulling in both financial data and data around student achievement, enrollment and demographics. This enables educators to spot correlations and gauge the effectiveness of spending. “We pull that data in daily, in a format that is much easier for educators to understand, so rather than memorizing 10,000 account codes, they can use natural language to search,” says Gartner. “They can put in ‘special education’ and look where dollars are going, or type in a school and see the budget for that whole school.”

In 2015, Forbes named Gartner to its 30 Under 30 in Education, calling Allovue’s signature Balance app “a powerful tool to reduce waste and misspending [and] redirect dollars to teaching and learning.”

Allovue sells to school districts because that is where its data connection has to be located, but its platforms can be used by educators at the individual school level.

The company’s platform officially launched in July 2015, after Gartner had raised two rounds of funding of $800,000 and $1 million, respectively. In December, the company raised another $5.1 million. Since its launch, Allovue has brought on new school districts every month, and it is on track for 2,000-percent revenue growth this year. The company is also getting ready to move into a 5,800-square-foot office in Remington.

Although Allovue sells nationwide, Baltimore will remain its home for the foreseeable future. “Baltimore really struck me as a place where you could solve tough problems, and it would be well-received,” says Gartner. “I think there is kind of a scrappy underdog culture here, and I definitely was a scrappy underdog.”

Speaking their language

Gartner wasn’t the only one who fell in love with Baltimore. Lida Zlatic, who had been living in Washington, DC, decided she wanted to stay in the Mid-Atlantic when she joined up with Teach For America. “I had friends who had done Teach For America in more distant places, and they had a really hard time without a support network,” she says. To save money, Zlatic at first stayed with her mother in DC and commuted from there to her placement, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women on Franklin Street. (She later transferred to Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary Middle School on Greenspring Avenue.)

“It took me two weeks to realize I wanted to move here and stay here forever,” she says. “I never really felt comfortable in DC, and I

Lida Zlatic

Lida Zlatic

thought maybe I just wasn’t very social, or maybe it was a cultural thing because I was born in Croatia. As soon as I set foot in Baltimore, I felt comfortable with the people here.”

Zlatic was teaching Spanish and watched a math teacher across the hall use a technique called “blended learning,” which involves students studying at least in part through digital or online media, usually at their own pace.

“He could target the kids that needed help,” says Zlatic. “The kids who were using computers could go on to do more challenging work, and get more practice and feedback on what they were working on.”

Zlatic realized that, in contrast, she was spending a lot of her time drilling students on vocabulary and grammar, and that students didn’t have many opportunities to practice real communication in Spanish. “I wanted technology that could do that, and it didn’t exist,” she says.

At first, it didn’t occur to Zlatic that she might be the one to help solve this problem. One weekend, however, she decided to attend an event where young entrepreneurs could pitch their education-related startup ideas to investors. “I really mostly came to network, … but a lot of people with no classroom experience were pitching ideas that were counter-productive, so I just pitched my idea on the spot,” she says. The event had people working in teams to develop their ideas, and Zlatic’s team included Thierry Uwilingiyimana and Jamel Daugherty, who would become the co-founders of her company, ClassTracks.

Also at the startup weekend was Katrina Stevens, now deputy director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, but then an advocate for ed tech in Baltimore. To convince Zlatic to keep her company local, Stevens introduced her to a fellow ed tech entrepreneur in the city: Jess Gartner.

Gartner “spent two hours with me, just talking about the roadmap of getting an idea to a viable business. If I didn’t have a question, she would tell me what I should be asking,” says Zlatic. To this day, she says, she occasionally calls Gartner for advice.

ClassTracks uses a game-like interface to help students learn and retain foreign languages. With funding from ETC, the company has acquired a group of some 150 teachers as beta testers. Zlatic hopes to be able to launch the platform to market this fall and convert its testers, including several schools in California and one in Beijing, into paying customers.

Like Allovue, ClassTracks addresses a big market issue in education, says Deborah Tillett, executive director of ETC. “A hundred years ago, they changed the classroom around to make it a factory, to do what was right at the time, and that’s why we have education the way it is,” she says. “These days, not a lot has changed, and yet it has to, and so that’s what we see in Allovue and ClassTracks. … We’re just on the cusp of revolutionizing the way we educate, and these guys are early … and they’re really doing something.”

Sharing drinks and lesson plans

While ClassTracks was the product of a startup weekend, the origins of Robbie Earle’s Common Curriculum can be traced to Jess Gartner’s birthday party.

Earle and Gartner had become friends after coming to Baltimore as part of the same Teach For America corps. At the party, Earle ran into another friend of Gartner’s, Scott Messinger. Messinger wasn’t a Teach For America volunteer, but was participating in the Baltimore City Teaching Residency, a more localized version started by Teach For America alumni. The two hit it off and agreed to meet up at a hackathon Messinger was organizing with Mike Brenner, one of the founders of startup incubator Betamore.

Robbie Earle

Robbie Earle

The idea of the event was to build apps that would help teachers in the classroom, Earle recalls. Along with Messinger and Gartner, he started working on some ideas. “We had an idea for a video feedback system for teachers, which was cool, but three other companies were already doing it,” he says. “Jess and I presented for it, we talked about it afterwards, and we got into an argument about the design process and how to move forward.” Messinger watched, telling Earle: “You argue with Jess the same way I argue with Jess.”

The two realized they had similar ideas, and went out for drinks in Station North. “He’d been a designer for a long time, and he was like, I need a guy who thinks like me, but has experience with raising money, which I did,” says Earle.

Messinger thought there should be an easier way for teachers to share their materials so they could collaborate and create better lessons. “The problem is that teachers create 180 lessons per year per class, and they create three to four worksheets per lesson. So you’re talking 500 files per class per teacher,” says Earle. “If you’re asking teachers to share that stuff, you’re not solving the problem — you’ve just given them more work.”

The solution, Messinger and Earle thought, was to create a digital version of a lesson-plan book. That way, teachers could plan their lessons on the same platform they would use to share and collaborate.

That night, they decided to launch Common Curriculum.

They raised just under half a million dollars in seed money from a local foundation and angel investor, and got to work on developing their platform. They held five feedback sessions with local teachers “over beer and pizza,” says Earle, showing them different mockups of the platform and asking them to improve it.

The company incorporated in July 2012. “Our first year, we were piloting Common Curriculum and were in R&D mode, so we didn’t generate any revenue. Since 2013, when we first started selling to schools, we’ve doubled our revenue each calendar year,” says Earle. In the fall of 2015, the company also launched a subscription option for individual teachers.

What is it about Baltimore?

Earle, Gartner and Zlatic all came to Baltimore to make a difference as teachers, but they weren’t Charm City natives. So why did they stay and build their businesses here when the time came to make the transition to entrepreneurship?

One answer is the existing support network they had built, but there’s more to it than that, says Earle. “The problems in education are very real and very obvious, and the teachers and principals here very much want to solve them,” he says. Baltimore is still emerging as a hub for ed tech companies, so the city lacks the “jadedness” about startups that has gripped Silicon Valley, he adds. “Here in Baltimore, if you go into a school and say, ‘We have this idea for a new company,’ … that strikes a chord.”

At the same time, there is a solid support infrastructure for startups in the city, especially those that are education-focused, says Zlatic. “I’m from DC, and my co-founder lived in DC, so we thought it would make sense to be in DC, but the community really convinced us to stay,” she says. “There’s more capital in DC, but much more of a competitive attitude. Here, it’s much more collaborative, and everyone knows it. If any company in ed tech does well, it makes it more likely that investors will invest in others.”

“There are many things about Baltimore, and many things about [Teach For America] that are spurring people to think innovatively, and to try to solve problems creatively,” says Tillett of ETC. “I think we’ve also got a particularly welcoming capital community in that there are some pretty important city and state funding devices that have allowed companies to make the decision to locate here.”

In addition, Earle has found that Baltimore teachers don’t hold back on their feedback if they don’t like a design or functionality. “A teacher in Baltimore will say, ‘Let me tell you about how crazy my schedule was today. This is what I don’t like about your app.’ They’re very brutally honest,” he says. “Plenty of people will speak their minds to you. Baltimore is that kind of place.”