Abl Acquires School by Design to Scale Effort to Make Class Schedules More Equitable
Why do some teachers always have more students in their classrooms? Why are certain science classes lacking in female pupils? And why do some students take many honors classes when others have none?
The possible answers to those questions are endless. But they are all reflected in a school’s master schedule, which is akin to a Rubik’s Cube that determines how, where and when students, staff and other instructional resources are allocated throughout the year.
Since 2015, Abl has worked with nearly 150 schools to revise their master schedules to help teachers and students get the supports they need. Today, that effort will get a boost with the acquisition of School by Design, a Waltham, Mass.-based provider of technology-enabled consulting services that works with districts on resource-planning projects.
The heads of both companies describe the deal as a merger of two similar services with the same goal, but which serve different levels within a district. School by Design helps district leaders create plans for re-allocating their resources across their schools. Abl helps principals put those plans into place via their schools’ master schedules.
In other words, says Abl CEO Adam Pisoni, “School by Design’s work ends where ours begins.”
Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. School by Design’s team of nine employees will join Abl, giving the San Francisco-based company a headcount of 39 people.
School by Design originally started as a division of Amplify in 2013, back when Amplify was a much bigger company owned by News Corporation. Before News Corp. sold the company to a group of private investors led by Laurene Powell Jobs, Amplify divested assets that were not core to its curriculum and assessment business, and spun off several divisions as independent standalone companies. School by Design was one of them.
Since 2016, School by Design has worked with several dozen K-12 districts to identify how resources are used across their schools. This work begins with ingesting information about students and courses from a district’s student information system, along with other tools that hold financial, scheduling and staffing data.
The software then shows how that resource distribution may impact teachers and students. The findings can be startling, according to Andrew Joseph, CEO of School by Design. Students at one school may have fewer days of instruction than their peers at another campus within the same district. Or some teachers have much more allotted time for lesson planning and professional development than others.
“Time is really the key lever in a district,” says Joseph, and knowing how and when resources are deployed “uncovers opportunities for improving equitable access to education.”
School by Design works with district leaders to create blueprints for redistributing resources to better support academic objectives. But to turn those plans into reality, changes must be made to each school’s master schedule. That’s where Abl comes in.
Abl’s flagship product is a scheduling software system that helps school principals create schedules for staff and students. It’s an intricate process; after all, given a fixed amount of time and staffing resources, any changes to a day, or a class period, will impact everyone’s schedule. Abl’s system can automatically flag for conflicts, such as students and teachers who may be assigned to different courses at the same time.
As they create master schedules in Abl, principals can also set rules in the system. For example, they can cap the maximum number of students per class. Other priorites include giving every teacher a balanced courseload and adequate lesson-prep time during the week, or ensuring that every English language learner and special-ed student has access to extra support.
Abl also offers an auditing tool that ingests different data points, including bell schedules, student transcripts, test scores and teachers’ class assignments. This information is then presented on a dashboard that flags inconsistencies in areas such as how many classes teachers have to teach, or which kinds of students have access to rigorous courses.
Abl charges schools an annual subscription based on the number of students they serve, along with additional fees for hands-on services. “Master schedules isn’t a problem that we can just serve with software,” says Pisoni. So the company has a services team to provide hands-on support for projects ranging from data management to creating master schedule plans.
With the addition of School by Design’s staff, Abl will expand that support team. Andrew Joseph will take on a new role focused on building strategic partnerships with states and districts. Collectively, the two companies will serve 230 schools in 55 districts across 23 states.
To effectively implement a new schedule, however, software and customer support can only go so far. Engaging community stakeholders—especially parents and teachers—is key, says Kathleen Shriverdecker, the executive director of school performance at Aurora Public Schools in Colorado.
As school leaders pursue new instructional models (like personalized or project-based learning, for instance), they may find that such efforts require “a pretty radical departure from a traditional schedule,” she says. Sometimes that means moving from a traditional, 7-period day to longer “flex” blocks—a change that requires meticulous planning.
At Aurora Hills Middle School in her district, which has worked with School by Design, school leaders created one “plus day” each week where students work solely on multidisciplinary, elective projects. That undertaking required creating a new master schedule. But that was only half the battle, says Shriverdecker.
“Engaging with the teachers who were going to implement the new schedule was critical, in terms of getting consensus and buy-in,” she states. At Aurora Middle School, she notes, the principal “was very intentional in engaging with teachers and their union representatives to ensure they all had a say in what the new schedule would look like.”