A startup making software for tracking student progress – launched by a teacher who landed then- employer Columbus School for Girls as her first customer – already is making enough revenue to cover expenses as it enters its second full school year on the market.
Constance Borro left her job at the Bexley school last fall to focus full- time as CEO of Mastery Portfolio LLC, as well as a separate tutoring business, all with two children learning from home.
“(Co-founder and CTO Ben Nockles) and I are pretty adamant that we’re going to have such a big impact,” Borro said. “We’re going to change the face of how students interact with learning.”
Founded in 2019, the startup raised $185,000 from individual investors but now is bootstrapping – unless Borro decides to greatly speed growth with outside capital.
Exposure to the target market greatly expanded with the July hiring of COO Starr Sackstein, a nationally known consultant, author and speaker on the method of standards-based grading that Mastery Portfolio’s software supports.
“This company would provide me some critical and dynamic tools to offer my current portfolio of schools, and it would allow me to expand and scale the work I’d been doing solo to have an even greater impact,” Sackstein wrote in a blog post about her new position.
Educators are ready to rethink the approach to student assessment and grading after more than a year of remote learning, Borro said in an interview.
“Coming out of the pandemic, it’s a natural catalyst for people to question, what are we doing, and does it work?” she said.
Ever since No Child Left Behind, students are expected to meet checklists of skill standards for each subject, such as relating the changes in the sun’s arc across the sky to changes in seasons by grade 4. But simply assigning a numeric score for how many standards a child meets assumes that they can’t improve.
Instead, standards-based grading treats each point on the checklist as a goal. A student who’s not yet proficient is told what needs work, gets additional instruction and more practice until mastery. The iterative feedback loops can augment or replace the standard A-B-C grades, with the understanding that a low score in fall can grow to an A as the year progresses.
“Education needs to be more about these transdisciplinary skills that prepare them for the workplace,” Borro said. “We need to be less about teaching ‘stuff’ and content, … less about teaching them to be compliant, and more about being innovative and analytical and critical.”
As a teacher for a decade in New York City and since 2017 at CSG, Borro embraced the method, but struggled with cumbersome spreadsheets to keep track of student progress. Every grading platform she tried was an ad-hoc retrofit of the old way of grading, and not customizable.
“Most ed-tech apps are not very user friendly,” Borro said. “We were on sales calls with these companies before we decided to start our own.”
She teamed up with Nockles, based in Washington, D.C. – an app developer who’s a former math teacher.
“Having a technical co-founder is huge,” Borro said. It’s another way the startup could build without huge amounts of outside capital.
Columbus School for Girls piloted the software in 2019. School officials declined to comment, citing time constraints. In the 2020- 21 school year, Mastery Portfolio added a charter school on Morse Road and public school in suburban Dayton. The latest clients include schools in Utah and Georgia. So far they’ve found Mastery Portfolio on Facebook discussion groups about standards-based grading.
Her other business, Ivy Tutor Connection, also has grown rapidly and is profitable. She’s hired seven tutors in six months.
Borro also has a mentor in college classmate Chris Olsen, co- founder of $1.2 billion venture capital firm Drive Capital LLC in Columbus.
“He’s the person I seek advice from,” she said. “He has a lot of experience with the big fish.”
So far VC investors have told her they don’t see a huge market. “I would argue that’s coming,” Borro said.
Although focused now on grading, Mastery Portfolio has adapted its software for in-house feedback for its four and soon to be five employees.
“Expectations are totally clear; it eliminates any politics,” Borro said. “(Nockles) sees this as a trickle effect, where we revolutionize how we develop humans in general.”
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