A few years ago I immersed myself in trying to understand the world of K-12 education. First as a volunteer at my own kids’ school, then I did an interim-CEO gig at a charter school management organization, and then I spent several years on the advisory board of the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
What I mostly learned is that K-12 education is hard.
The turnover rate for good young teachers is very high. Every year, bright young people go into the profession with passion and dedication, but nearly half leave in less than five years. At Title 1 schools (lots of low-income students) the teacher turnover rate is nearly 50-percent greater.
Meanwhile, when we talk about the education gap (the fact that, academically, kids in poor communities of color tend to underperform kids from wealthy white communities), emotional well-being turns out to be a significant factor. Math and science teachers aren’t trained as child psychologists, and yet many inner-city teachers are working with a classroom full of kids dealing with emotional trauma in their lives.
So I was super-excited when I met Ashley Williams and her startup Infinite Focus Schools. A former classroom teacher herself, she’s developed a digital platform to help teachers help their students to improve their mental well-being through mindfulness and other techniques.
The goal is to teach kids about their cognitive functions and empower them with the tools to cut through toxic stress. The digital platform includes an app for the kids and a dashboard for the teachers, with a multimedia curriculum that engages students while teaching them cognitive skills to deal with rejection and conflict, anger and sadness; how to be more mindful, focused, and relaxed.
As one 9-year-old recently said, “In math class, sometimes I get upset because the work is hard for me. But when I really engage in mindfulness, I try to work it out”.
K-12 education is still hard. Ashley’s digital platform isn’t a panacea that will suddenly fix everything. But while politicians pontificate about top-down approaches to improving education outcomes, Ashley and her team at Infinite Focus Schools are quietly working bottom-up on what really matters: giving all teachers in all communities access to tools that can help their students achieve — in the classroom and for the rest of their lives.
Ashley Williams is part of the 4thly Startup Accelerator for Female Founders.