Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder, Kinvolved
A former NYC Department of Education high school history teacher, Miriam Altman is CEO and Co-founder of Kinvolved, a social enterprise that takes a holistic approach to fighting student absenteeism, combining technology tools and human interventions to increase funding to school districts, create more economically viable communities, and improve graduation rates.
Miriam’s responsibilities include strategic planning and execution, business development and sales, fundraising and investor relations, and external relations and representation, and more.
Kinvolved has been featured in press, including the New York Times, and has won awards from The Robin Hood Foundation, Teach For America, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, and more. Miriam and her co-founder are winners of the Gratitude Award, Forbes 30 Under 30, and the Jo Ivey Boufford Award for Innovative Solutions to Public Service Challenges by New York University.
Miriam is a 2018 School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) Entrepreneurial Fellow at Columbia University, a Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation entrepreneur, and a Gratitude Network Fellow. She is also an Education Pioneers and Teach For America Corps alumna.
Miriam is a mentor for the Social Innovation Initiative and Women’s Launch Pad at Brown University from which she graduated with a BA with Honors. She also holds an MPA from the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, where she is an Adjunct Professor in the Social Enterprise specialization, and an MA, Ed., from Lehman College.
How did you get into the industry?
I started my career ten years ago as a high school history teacher in the NYC Department of Education. The most prominent and foundational challenge my students faced was inconsistent attendance—on any given day, easily one third of my students missed or were late to class. As I started to meet parents, I realized that many were not receiving information from school when their children were absent, because their phone numbers had changed, or they spoke a language other than English, or they simply did not answer robocalls, especially while they were at work. When I started to build personal relationships and communication loops with parents, attendance almost immediately increased for most students. Yet, without the tools to efficiently communicate with all my students’ families, the efforts were piecemeal and inefficient.
My co-founder, Alexandra Meis, a former parent advocate, and I met in 2011 at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School for Public Service at NYU. As graduate students, we developed Kinvolved as an entry into a policy challenge, which we won, in the spring of 2012. Using that funding, we launched a successful pilot of products at an NYC public school. Six years later, Kinvolved has expanded to school districts in eight states nationally ranging from small rural, like Wayne County in south Georgia to large urban communities, including the NYC Department of Education.
Any emerging industry trends?
One of the trends I am seeing and hearing more about is partnership and consolidation across the education technology industry. I think this is a really positive trend, both for small businesses, and for the end users we serve.
The edtech industry really started booming in the startup world about 10 years ago, which makes it a fairly young field. Early on, there were probably hundreds of edtech startups at various early stages. The field was generally split into two camps: companies that raised financing, and offered their products for free to educators, with the hope that they could get millions of users, and then figure out the business model later; and companies that went the more traditional route, focused on enterprise sales to schools or districts, and often raising less initial startup capital.
In most instances the innovative first approach was unfortunately unsuccessful. The companies that have lasted have generally sold their products into the education system. The problem is that sales to the education market are incredibly challenging, costly, and the cycle is long. Companies really have to be motivated by impact and have something that districts find compelling to make it, which is really tough for small companies.
As such, companies around our size, give or take a few million in revenue, are starting to look to collaborate: by sharing sales resources, making client referrals, and even building product integrations. In other instances, companies are starting to roll up into a single suite of product offerings, meaning they merge or are being acquired at earlier stages than in the past.
While an effective partnership can be very difficult to pull off, if executed effectively, it can be a win-win for companies and the district clients. Companies can use fewer resources to grow sales capacity and revenues, while districts can be exposed to products and offerings about which they may otherwise have never learned.
At the end of the day, this means that more products that can produce positive impact and results for students, families, educators, and administrators, which should be our universal end goal.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
Kinvolved is a social enterprise that takes a holistic approach to fighting student absenteeism. Combining our technology tools and human interventions, we help bring increased funding to school districts, create more economically viable communities, and improve graduation rates.
Our primary product is KiNVO, a web and mobile application that directly integrates with school districts’ systems of record and enables automated, two-way, translated SMS, email, and robocall communications. Our product opens lines of communications, often for the first time, between school and home, breaking pre-existing barriers, engaging families, and creating positive school cultures. KiNVO also provides insights into student, class, school, and district attendance trends that inform interventions. Research, and our own impact reporting, proves that this method significantly improves student attendance.
However, knowing the education landscape well, we don’t believe that technology alone will solve absenteeism—a challenge that is often reflective of deep societal issues related to poverty, race, and equity. Thus, we have also developed a school and district consulting curricula based on our Guide to Family Partnerships: Intention, Empathy, and Engagement which complements the technology. We offer direct consulting to school systems, but also hold seminars and large community summits based on this curricula.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
Providence Public Schools, Rhode Island’s largest school system, serves approximately twenty-four thousand students.
In Spring 2018, Providence Public Schools launch a seven-school pilot with Kinvolved, the social enterprise boosting student attendance and tackling chronic absenteeism through software and community engagement services.
Providence Teams up with Kinvolved to launch KiNVO software and professional serves
Providence’s pilot objectives were to train school leaders on KiNVO functionality, collaborate on the following school year’s rollout plan, and measure the pilot term’s impact.
KiNVO is a powerful, user-friendly attendance and communications app that gives school staff, students, and families real-time data that highlights attendance patterns, building bridges for parents who are hard to reach due to irregular schedules, work commitments, or language barriers.
External research, combined with our own work in the field, has shown that an investment in strategic family engagement yields significant attendance improvement. Through ongoing school-level coaching on KiNVO and its accompanying “Intention, Empathy, and Engagement” family partnership curriculum, the Kinvolved team ensured that the process was approachable and realistic for Providence schools.
Over the course of the semester-long pilot, Kinvolved’s professional services team convened implementation and policy strategy sessions with key district and school leadership, developing critical relationships and ensuring that the partnership rollout accommodated the district’s culture and community. The team also led sessions on building empathy with families, using KiNVO effectively during attendance team meetings, and initiating open-ended conversations with students to understand the “why” behind absenteeism and lateness.
KiNVO use across pilot schools was intentional, and school leaders followed tailored protocols every week. Kinvolved worked with district leadership to develop and provide school leaders with weekly messaging templates about attendance tips for parents. Further, leaders were guided through how to focus on a target group of students’ families whose children were on the brink of being chronically absent.
As of May 2018, concluding a three-month, mid-year pilot:
Providence district leaders rightfully believe that school-level buy-in is critical to success. At the conclusion of the pilot, the district offered all forty schools the option to participate in the Kinvolved partnership and KiNVO rollout, and 100 percent opted in.
Ranging from kindergarten through twelfth grade, every school now uses KiNVO to enable real-time, two-way communication with families.
Spotlight: 360 High School
360 High School’s chronic absence rate decreased by 8.6 percent.
Dulari Tahbildar, 360 High School’s director of student support, directed the pilot and learned the importance of accountability as she rolled out KiNVO to her staff.
Ms. Tahbildar established a culture of positivity, and required all staff members to follow suit. “We want our families to work alongside us as equal partners, and we need to establish a baseline of communication and trust so that parents understand they have this equal voice,” says Ms. Tahbildar. “KiNVO is the tool we use to establish those baselines.”
She collaborated with with Kinvolved’s co-founder, Alexandra Meis, to develop a texting etiquette guide—an approachable, commonsense reference document that outlines appropriate ways to effectively engage families. Kinvolved incorporated the etiquette into its national solution and now offers it to all partner districts as part of its coaching service.
Ms. Tahbildar also convened student leaders to assess how to best leverage KiNVO. “We founded our high school in Providence with a focus on student voice and empowerment—students working alongside adults as partners,” says Ms. Tahbildar.
This two-way dialogue illuminated what was important to her students—for instance, students communicated that they would like to see their own attendance report cards, which Kinvolved automatically generates.
For the 2018–2019 school year, Ms. Tahbildar is expanding her school’s KiNVO utilization. By using KiNVO to facilitate invitations to the school building, 95 percent of families attended the school’s open house, and responses rates to KiNVO-powered messages are high.
Ms. Tahbildar is excited to see relationships continue to strengthen between parents, teachers, and students.
Career advice to those in your industry?
There’s a quote by Theodore Roosevelt that comes to mind when I reflect on my now ten years in the education field: “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.”
This industry is a tough one to change, but it is worth the effort. Stay focused on the end goal: positive impact on students and families. Be persistent, focused, and humble. Keep your nose to the grindstone, but take a moment to look up every once in a while to see the progress you’ve made.
And, collaborate. There is so much work to do as an industry, and so many smart, committed people trying to do their part. If we partnered more often, we could really amplify our impact in ways we may not yet even realize.