Drop the Chalk is a New Orleans based software startup that helps great teachers get even better. Their technology is transforming the way K-12 students learn by providing teachers and administrators with innovative tools for the 21st century. They recently won the Domain Company Prize at the 2011 Tulane Business Plan Competition. Josh Raley caught up with Jennifer Medbery, the founder and CEO.
So in 10 words or less how would you describe Drop the Chalk as a product?
Better tools for teachers to track their students’ progress.
And when did you first have the idea for Drop the Chalk?
It was really my own teaching experience that helped me devleop the idea for Drop the Chalk. I taught in public schools for three years, first in a rural classroom in Arkansas and most recently at a New Orleans high school. I was given a pencil, paper, and a spiral bound grade book my first year to track student’s attendance and grades. I was responsible for my students passing the high stakes tests and preparing them for college. So to make sure they succeeded, I had to track much more information than the grade book could provide. So I built my own tools like many other teachers in my building. We built sticker charts, wall posters, and excel spreadsheets to track every kid’s mastery of all the different skills in our curriculum. It was a nightmare keeping it all seperate from our grade book.
I knew we could build something easier to help teachers assess who knew what, who to reteach, what to reteach, and when to do it. If we could build a better software process it could completely replace the old fashion grade book and meet the needs of todays teacher. The reality is teachers today are asked to do a job that is very different from 20 years ago, yet we’re still using tools from 20 years ago.
What first steps did you take toward that goal?
We started small. One school in New Orleans was willing to be our first partner and customer. We built a simple web based tracking tool their staff members could login and use. Back then we focused more on student behavior because tracking it was a really core issue for this school and the old way took up a lot of their time. But as we started growing, other schoools would approach and say, “We heard what you did for xzy school, and we have issues with all this data we want to collect but right now its just too cumbersome.” So in the early days of Drop the Chalk it was more research and development, sitting down with school leaders and saying, “Where are your struggles and what is your ideal data wish list so we can build something together.” And that really cemented our philosophy that we work hand and hand to innovate with schools and make sure their needs are being met. Today we’re using our technology to store and analyze the evidence of student learning so teachers and administrators can see trends, strengths, and weaknesses.
Are you still teaching, is Drop the Chalk now a full time job?
I’m doing Drop the Chalk full time. As founder and CEO, I manage a team that has grown to 7 of us now, software dev, sales and outreach, and customer support.
Besides your Tulane winnings, what other capital have you raised?
We’re very fortunate that we raised some capital early. It all started with winning the Idea Village’s Entrepreneur Challenge. That put us in touch with our initial inventors, Impact Investment Firm out of Atlanta. Recently we raised another round with them participating along with local funding from the New Orleans Startup Fund. And actually around half the investors in that new round are local to New Orleans. That was really important to me. I wanted local inventors because they understand the impact we’re trying to have with education reform here in New Orleans. Because they’re exposed to what happened here since Katrina in the school system. They understand how we can have that impact on a more national level. So having people that “get it” was really important to me.
Are you looking for more funding at this time?
If somebody approached me with a checkbook, it would have to be a grant. But we want to raise additional funding over the next few years. We have growth goals for our initial phase as we grow out of New Orleans, and then a few years down the line we’re seeking to have a national reach and impact. The goal is for Drop the Chalk to become a household name to teachers across the country. When they think of their list of must have supplies Drop the Chalk will be at the top.
What’s your biggest focus right now as a company?
Definitely growing the number of schools we work with, especially outside of New Orleans. That’s number one.
Thanks for the interview Jennifer!
To learn more about Drop the Chalk and see video responses from real teachers, visit kickboardforteachers.com.
Editors Side Note: Drop the Chalk is one of many great startups being fostered in the New Orleans community. They work out of the IP building along with Launchpad and a number of other exciting companies that Silicon Bayou News will cover in more detail soon.