Nihal ElRayess is Senior Managing Director of Student Achievement and Program on Teach For America’s Technology Solutions team.
Nineteen years ago when I was teaching first grade in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, my students were all low-income kids who worked hard and were eager to learn. But statistically only 10 out of 25 would enroll in college.
Today, the bleak statistics are no longer just around college access, but actual college completion. According to a recent study, only 8% of low-income students go on to graduate from a 4-year college by the age of 24 compared to 82% of high-income students. They may struggle to adjust on campus, and often fail to seek critical support services that would help them successfully navigate college.
While I’m no longer in the classroom, I still feel an urgent need to help reverse these alarming statistics for students like the ones I taught 19 years ago. I see great promise in education technology and EdTech. Increasingly, social networks show evidence of providing effective support to at-risk college students. These networks allow vulnerable students to form communities beyond their neighborhood and access a wider network that may include college-goers and peers facing similar challenges.
Last month, College Summit and the King Center Charter School joined the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch the College Knowledge Challenge, a $2.5 million fund to create Facebook apps in support of college access and completion. The grant kicked off with HackEd, a hackathon co-sponsored by Gates and Facebook, in which 100 people (including me) were invited to the Facebook campus to hack for a day to create solutions in 1 of 3 challenge areas.
My team at HackEd (assigned a weekend in advance) included Marc Weil, Founder/Engineer of CloudMine, Anna Waring, Executive Director of Foundation for a College Education, and Garrett Johnson, Co-Founder of SendHub.
We had 6 hours to agree and hone in on what we could build and pitch. We had a kernel of an idea—some sort of text message reminder with ability to celebrate it out on Facebook. A quick validating chat with Alexandra Bernadotte, Founder and CEO of Beyond12, an organization that provides personalized student coaching services, proved to be motivating.
Our pitch, “Coach Me” allows students to get real-time personalized text message reminders from their “coach”—actual coaches, college access organizations, even their high school counselor—and share them out to their Facebook network. Coaches scale their impact and students get personalized and timely reminders to supplement in-person meetings, help them get organized, and access peer support via their social networks.
Our pitch won in the peer support category. Its hacker code was barebones, but—thanks to Marc’s starter code—it did successfully send the crowd a text message reminder to “fill out your FAFSA” which once clicked, posted to Facebook.
A few members of our team hope to apply for and receive funding from the challenge to build Coach Me into a fully functional app to support organizations such as Beyond12 in realizing its vision for all students to obtain a college degree.
Hackathons in the education space are snowballing, and they’re not just for techies. Teach For America alumni have developed innovations like Classroom Blueprint and Dash at similar events. By creating more connections between students, educators, families, entrepreneurs, and developer communities, HackEd, Startup Weekend Education, and Shared Learning Collaborative Camps provide rich professional development crash courses in entrepreneurship, lean methodology and design thinking. Most importantly, they may lead to the development of solutions to help close the achievement gap that are grounded in reality.
So what are you waiting for? Sign up, pitch your idea, and join or build a team—you may get access to funding to see it through!
Born in Florence, Italy, Nihal ElRayess grew up in Aleppo, Syria until the age of 9, followed by upstate New York through college, joining the corps in 1993. Her career has ranged from teaching 1st grade, medical illustration, web design, and brand strategy, to product management. Nihal resides in the Bay Area with her aviation-obsessed 2 year-old daughter, Leila, and husband, Brian.