NYC taps four startups to close achievement gaps in its public schools

When it comes to watching movies and playing games, New York City’s middle schoolers likely already know their way around laptops and smartphones. But if a group of educators, tech innovators and entrepreneurs have their way, technology will increasingly play a starring role in classrooms in helping them learn.

Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Department of Education kicked off a first-of-its kind competition, called the Gap App Challenge, inviting developers around the country to submit ideas for apps that could help close achievement gaps in middle school math.  On Tuesday, Schools Chancellor Dennis Wolcott announced that, out of more than 200 applicants, the department — which overseas the largest school district in the country — had picked their winners.

The startups, which included adaptive learning company KnowRe (Best Instructional App), Google Apps management startup Hapara (Best Instructional/Engagement App), video-based math lesson website Mathalicious and behavior tracking software company LiveSchool, won a total of $100,000.

“Our students are really into technology – they know it like the back of their hands,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Wolcott. “If we can find better ways to engage them [around learning] that’s to the benefit of the entire community.”

While the amount of money itself isn’t huge (the top winners won about $15,000 each), the competition – along with the city’s broader Innovation Zone (iZone) program – holds a lot of promise for more cross-pollination among educators and entrepreneurs.  Launched in 2010, the iZone includes about 250 of the city’s 1,700 public schools and is focused on finding ways to personalize learning through new tools, technology and ideas.

It remains to be seen how much traction these apps will actually get among teachers and students, but the hope is that iZone schools will partner with the winning developers to refine the apps and implement their use in classrooms.

While plenty of ed tech startups partner with individual school districts and schools to beta test their products, New York’s iZone is among the most ambitious attempts to blend the worlds of education and tech innovation. While the app challenge isn’t expected to become an annual event, the program is planning a series of hackathons, challenges and workshops.

Here’s a little more on the winning startups:

KnowRe: One of the growing companies in the increasingly hot adaptive learning space, KnowRe, which focuses on math, aims to personalize learning process by determining a student’s strengths and weaknesses. As students progress through a series of questions, it figures out where the student is struggling and its algorithms adapt to the student to help them master the necessary skills.

Hapara: As Google’s Apps for Education gain traction worldwide — at last count they were in use by 25 million schools — Hapara helps schools and teachers optimize the tools with easy-to-view intuitive dashboards.

Mathalicious: Instead of teaching kids math with boring old word problems with little bearing on reality, Mathalicious creates and licenses lessons for teachers that helps students learn math through real-life examples related to sports, music, technology and more.

LiveSchool:  In an effort to record information about students’ classroom behavior, some teachers might spend up to two or three extra hours a week filling out paperwork. To help them save time and more effectively communicate with peers and administrators, LiveSchool offers subscription-based software that enables teachers to track and share classroom behavior information in real-time.