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Get to Know a C.E.O., with Jess Gartner

In the world of ed-tech entrepreneurialism, the question is often asked: what can we do to help the teacher? Or similarly, what can we do to help the student? How can we permeate the classroom walls and facilitate a more effective education system? How can we leverage automation and data collection to drive a more individualized, attention-oriented learning experience for the next generation of workers, teachers, and most importantly citizens? How can we promote the virtues of a teacher-driven curriculum while simultaneously minimizing the weaknesses?

But the question is rarely asked: what about the principal?

After all, principals are often the core infrastructure to a school's very way of being, the heart pumping the blood that circulates nutrients (culture/curriculum/tech/etc.) to the muscles (teachers) doing the heavy lifting. Well, the heart itself is a muscle in need of nutrients, ain't it? Surely it could use a taste of the ol' geek treatment, aka some ed-tech startup loving.

Jess Gartner certainly believes as much. A former Teach for America corps member-turned-entrepreneur, Jess started a company called Allovue earlier this year in order to help principals streamline their school's financial management and tracking through a veritable cash-flow dashboard. Allovue will be making its debut in classrooms this fall. Here at Reimagining K-12 headquarters, we love our principals, but we also recognize that often times they can be well-regarded teachers and school leaders that ascend to the top of the pecking order, but are not entirey equipt to manage a hundred thousand plus dollar budget. Yet even if someone is equipt to manage of budget of this size and quirkiness, they would certainly benefit from automated data analysis and tracking. Ever heard of a little product called QuickBooks? What about a tool called TurboTax?

Principals across the United States manage billions of dollars in funding annually. Jess Gartner wants to help them better contemplate resource allocation; the same resources - paid by your taxes - that make their way into the hands of teachers and ultimately drive your child's learning experience in the K-12 classroom. Sounds like a good idea to lend these principals a hand. After all, they don't call them princiPALs for nothing!

...(crickets)...

Tough crowd. I should probably get to the interview now - let's get to know Jess Gartner:


What is Allovue and what problem are you trying to solve?

Allovue is a school's financial management system to help school leaders think about their budgets in an analytical way: track expenses, analyze spending over time, compare their spending with other schools in their districts that are similar to them, and plan for the future.


How would you explain the role that a principal should ideally be playing within a school community?

In my experience, the principal has one of the most challenging roles in the school because they wear so many different hats. I would say, primarily, they serve as the instructional and cultural leader of the school, but in addition to that they have to manage human capital, so they essentially function as a sort of C.E.O. of the school overseeing everyday operations. In districts where there is a weighted student funding or fair student funding model, principals also serve a sort of C.F.O.-type role where they are responsible for daily financial decisions and management of million dollar budgets.


What types of areas do you find principals and administrators most struggle to budget for? Where could they use the most help?

I think everyone is still trying to figure out exactly what role technology plays in the school and what the best technology resources in the market are. That goes for hardware and software. In my experience as a classroom teacher, the best tools out there are the ones that help facilitate what a teacher is doing, perhaps take some of the administrative tasks off their plate, and don't try to replace the teacher.*

I think one of the best examples out there right now is actually MasteryConnect. This was something I used on a regular basis as a teacher, and I loved it because it helped me grade all my papers and analyze all my data, which I had previously been doing mostly by hand. It saved me a number of hours, and then I could re-shift my focus from doing manual tasks that can be automated to critically analyzing that data, planning for the future, and being able to figure out how I could best meet the needs of different students in my classroom.

So I think that the tools that help people at the school-level with administrative processes that can be automated and don't try to replace them as pedagogical leaders are the most effective.


As an ed-tech entrepreneur in the process of growing a young venture, can you explain the steps you have taken to go from an initial concept to a tangible business?

It is very much an exercise of running and jumping off a cliff and building the parachute on the way down, which is pretty much what I did. I decided that I was passionate enough about starting Allovue that I was gonna quit my job and jump into it 100%. At the time, I had no funding, no experience running a company, and basically had no idea what I was doing,. I knew I was gonna have to learn very quickly, and the best advice that I can give someone who is really passionate about an idea but doesn't know the steps to take is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, people who have already done it, and people who in the process of doing it, either at your level or just above you, because you are will need a tremendous network of support to be able to learn as many things as you need to learn to start a company, in addition to building your product and meeting the needs of customers. I certainly would not have gotten even as far as we are today without the support and guidance of numerous advisors and mentors along the way.**


As a former TFA'er, what do you think is the overall goal of Teach for America? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the program as a whole?

Oh boy, that's a loaded question.***

I'll tell you what I think it is accomplishing, and I don't know if this is intentional - if they are being a little bit misleading in their marketing, or if it is just some sort of accidental consequence. I think what is actually happening with Teach for America is that a lot of very driven, motivated, smart people are spending time in America's classrooms, adding value to their student's lives but also realizing all of the areas that can be improved. Probably more people than Teach for America would like to admit are leaving the classroom to become education leaders but also technologists, entrepreneurs, and going into fields like law, business, and healthcare.

We've already seen some examples of people going into, for example, policy leadership roles and advocating for legislation that supports student learning. A big example in Baltimore is that Bill Ferguson came out of the classroom, went to get his law degree, and he's now a state senator. He's only 30 (elected at 27), and he just helped pass legislation to put a billion dollars toward rebuilding schools in Baltimore.

It takes having people in those leadership positions to help advocate for what students and teachers need on a daily basis. If we are going to change the education system, we have to acknowledge that teachers can't do it themselves. They need the help and advocacy of people in positions of power and leadership, not just in politics, but also in healthcare and law and business. I think about the impact that large businesses can have by contributing back to the community in different ways, or providing internship opportunities.

In the end, I think what Teach for America corps members learn is that it is a much bigger problem than just what's happening in the classroom day-to-day (author's note: or you could be like me and just watch Season Four of The Wire incessantly).

Now whether that is really Teach for America's secret plan or not, I do not know, but that is what's happening, and whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion.


What is the relationship like between a TFA'er and the rest of the, well, normal faculty at a school?

In my experience, the divide between TFA teachers and those traditionally certified is attributed to one of two things: either preconceived notions or an air of superiority from a TFA teacher. If anyone - TFA or otherwise - walks into a school on the first day of their first year acting like they know it all, it's going to be a rough time all around. Similarly, if a corps member makes it clear that they're there for two years of "service" and out, it's likely to rub people the wrong way. However, if new teachers approach the profession with humility and dedication to the craft and students, they should be able to override preconceived notions and develop camaraderie with their colleagues.


What teacher was most influential in your own development and why?

Mrs. Santoro - one of my high school English teachers - had the greatest impact on my writing skills. She taught me sophomore English, and then I took a second English class elective my senior year just to have her again. She was the first teacher who completely tore my writing apart. I had gotten pretty comfortable typing out essays at the last minute and getting back "A+ Excellent!" The first paper I got back from Mrs. Santoro looked like a red pen had exploded all over it. She really made me work for an A - and I felt an incredible sense of pride when I actually earned one.

In college, Professor Mary Summers inspired me in a completely different way: to take all that fancy book-learning out of the university and apply it in the real world. Her courses generally had a field-work component involved, which is where I first discovered my passion for working in education and advocating for better policies to support student learning and teacher effectiveness.


*a(bleeping)men

**is "gonna" acceptable as a word yet? In practice, I use it every fifth sentence or so, but I always feel weird typing it out. Especially when quoting a girl with a UPenn degree. I think I'm gonna leave it as is for now.

***Come on Gartner, what did you think this was all about when you signed up? This ain't the minor leagues, this is Get to Know a C.E.O., every question asked comes with more load than a baked potato at Outback Steakhouse. No rules. Just right. If you were looking for softballs, I would've sent you Tomassini's way.

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