In leading a team of entrepreneurs and educators, a co-founder and CEO confronts today’s challenges head-on—and still looks ahead.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Andrew Herman founded Alma based on the belief that schools deserve a modern, future-ready technology system that provides the core administrative and classroom management needs in one intuitive, flexible platform. As CEO, Andrew sets long-term strategy and leads team development and collaboration to plan and meet product development goals.
Under his leadership, the company has achieved optimum growth – and is now in 45 states and 50 countries. It is now widely recognized as among the best-in-class SIS solutions available on the education market. Indeed, Alma recently earned top honors as the Winner of the Cool Tool Award for “Best Student Information System (SIS) Solution” as part of The EdTech Awards 2020 from EdTech Digest.
‘We have always been focused on improving student outcomes and right now a big part of ensuring that happens is through reliable and frequent communication.’
Before starting the company, Andrew served in several financial and corporate management positions, including founding a successful analytical instrumentation firm and leading numerous acquisitions for Danaher Corporation. As an early member of the Advertising.com team, he lead the venture investment raise for the company and helped lay the foundation for the its long-term success.
Andrew’s passion for education began early in his professional career when he taught middle school at Link Community School in Newark, NJ. He earned an MBA from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts from Wesleyan University.
In this interview Andrew addresses current issues and challenges in education including remote, hybrid, and in-person learning, attendance, grading, and other specifics, as well as where he sees trends moving toward in the not-too-distant future.
How have you been able to support schools during these tumultuous times?
Andrew: Well first we listen to the educators, superintendents, tech directors, curriculum coordinators, admin staff, students and parents. Because [our solution] is already built as an all-in-one school platform that can be worked on anywhere, at any time – we asked, “How else can we support schools this year?” Immediately we extended our messaging services to all users for free, so no one missed out on new class schedules, health information, teachers notes or laptop and textbook pickup days. We also began updating existing products and adding new features aimed at making distance learning feel less, well – disconnected.
For example, teachers are giving 200% this year; so we developed a new Assignment Turn-In feature that makes it easy for educators to assign and collect coursework. This simplifies the day for students too. Now kids and parents of young students can submit assignments on the same platform as their Science and English classes.
For those utilizing [our platform], the 2020-2021 school year is a more positive experience because it provides a sense of structure in a very separated class environment.
What else have you built or bolstered in response to the way this year has unfolded?
[Our company] is made up of former and current K-12 educators. On a personal level, we understand the daily challenges school communities are facing this year. From ensuring sustained class attendance to maintaining optimal social and emotional best practices – for both kids and grown ups alike – our platform contains most of the school day. We’re not just talking about data and tools either, some districts have tens of thousands of versatile students attending class online everyday who all learn and interact with technology differently. We have always been focused on improving student outcomes and right now a big part of ensuring that happens is through reliable and frequent communication.
Messaging is key to connecting with students, parents and teachers now and in the future. We make it easy for users at any tech level to stay in-touch and access school day information in real-time from the palm of their hand, desktop or laptop.
Bottom line, our robust messaging tools and alert functionality embedded throughout the platform guarantees staff, teachers, and families stay connected and informed on what to do next, so nobody checks out.
What concepts—or let’s say, ‘pivots’—will stick around once all the ‘2020’ dust settles?
I think flexibility around changing schedules, grades and grading policy will still be an asset post-pandemic. In a normal year, school communities plan their academic class schedules out ahead of time with minor changes, but this year, entire school districts were forced to overhaul their class schedule structure. Large scale schedule changes can be challenging but we have a stronger and more flexible system when changing class schedules. Users can create as many bell schedules as needed, whether it’s a distance learning bell schedule, an A/B bell schedule, a special holiday schedule or any other variation. And, even more intuitive, schedules have attendance connected for all-in-one access to class rosters.
Like alternating schedules, our users can also adjust how grades are measured, including switching from traditional A-F grading to standards based grading. Flexibility around changing grading policies is especially useful as many schools pivoted from letter grades to a pass/fail system in Spring 2020.
What would you recommend to schools now? Next year?
Saving teachers time and reducing stress is our number priority, especially now that teachers are working overtime. I don’t think our platform itself will solve all the problems in education today, but it will make teachers more powerful and students more engaged.
This year is an opportunity for schools to assess and reassess which tech tools create efficiencies and which one’s don’t. K-12 learning communities should really rethink their systems that add to the administrative burden. I encourage schools and districts to adopt future ready solutions designed to meet the needs of the 21st century educator. No more beating around the bush. Teachers deserve better.
‘This year is an opportunity for schools to assess and reassess which tech tools create efficiencies and which one’s don’t.’
One relevant trend with long lasting impact is the Wellness Survey feature. We developed this tool for in-person schools to prevent spreading by routinely screening and documenting kids’ temperatures and symptoms. When you combine school-wide surveys tracking health risks with industry leading communication tools – our users are in a strong position to make informed decisions.
With the education landscape having undergone a dramatic shift in light of world events, how does your platform plan to differentiate itself from legacy SIS’ moving forward?
We are really proud to have created an SIS designed to propel school communities forward in-person or fully remote. I believe it’s this built-in flexibility that allows us to truly serve K-12 schools and districts of all sizes.
This school year brings unprecedented changes to the classroom, and our new and existing features support highly-flexible learning plans that keep schools safe and students involved in the learning process, in a meaningful way. Producing accurate and useful data is more important now than ever before. And we take that very seriously.
What specific features and tools do you provide that support hybrid, remote and in-person learning models?
It’s no surprise that 2020 has shifted school operations on a global scale. Our modern platform can quickly respond and adapt to school communities pivoting from in-person to 100% remote as quickly or as cautiously as needed. While certain features enhance live education, other tools empower progress within remote and hybrid school environments.
For districts and schools participating in any of the three learning models, our cohort scheduling allows educators to split traditional classes into different subsets, inspiring collaboration and responsive learning within various groups of kids. This is especially useful for hybrid school models, ensuring specific groups of students, such as siblings or students on the same graduation track are in class on the same exact days. In a time of isolated learning, cohort schedules are also helpful for social and emotional well-being as kids get grouped together based on shared similarities.
What is your team doing now to support learners, educators and school re-opening?
Many schools and districts are already in their first school semester, so it’s actually less about reopening and more about sustainable continuity of learning and comprehension. Right now we are focused on saving teachers time and stress while empowering them to improve student outcomes. We know that educators are overwhelmed and students and parents are anxiously navigating remote learning. For example, a lot of creativity and collaboration is needed to facilitate a high school science lab in a 100% distance learning environment. No matter how well prepared a school is for remote learning, it’s still a tough situation that requires a lot of patience and resilience. It makes sense that in order to succeed this academic year, K-12 communities need proficient and experienced classroom tech tools.
‘No matter how well prepared a school is for remote learning, it’s still a tough situation that requires a lot of patience and resilience.’
One particularly challenging factor this year is attendance. With some kids at-home and others participating in live education, we empowered parents and students to self-record attendance. User-submitted attendance makes sure students are accountable for their school day, whether half-day, full-day or by-the-hour. This is not only a new tool but it’s a whole new concept in education, and so far it’s game changing.
Regardless of where or how instructional learning is taking place, our platform is where educators and families can make significant progress.
Any trends to watch as we move into the near future, and the year ahead?
Without a doubt, standards-based grading (SBG) is here for the foreseeable future. K-12 school communities are learning (and in many cases, re-learning) new standards by which students’ skill mastery will be measured and graded.
K-12 communities are used to seeing A’s, B’s and C’s on their report cards but with SBG, it displays how well a student comprehends the subject matter and equally as important, it conveys their progress towards mastering the subject. For example, in traditional grading, a late assignment negatively impacts the student’s overall grade. With SBG, a late or missing assignment does not impact their understanding of the subject matter, but late work will negatively impact the student’s social and emotional competency. What this conveys is, the student’s tardiness means they have time management issues but they’re comprehension of the subject is still on track towards greater understanding.
Our report card designer can easily be configured with the school or district creating the way the report is structured. This includes a school working on developing SBG criteria, social or emotional growth, interpersonal skills, and any other extracurricular competencies. These standards can all be incorporated into the report card with ease. Parents will receive a polished report that communicates their student’s progress and subject mastery in a way that best reflects the school or district’s knowledge culture.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Without ever having to enter a school building, AlmaStart contains everything necessary to start the academic year remotely including custom forms, file requests, survey options and more. It gives school administrators the ability to create custom forms and timelines for registration and admissions and provides students and parents better visibility into enrollment. Parents and administrators can digitally complete, submit and store any and all necessary forms to school 100% online, using our File Cabinet.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]