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November 2019

Life Learning Experiences Built In

Creative Montessori School in Homewood worked with ArchitectureWorks to redesign its 2-acre campus. Photos by Chris Luker, Luker Photography & Video

Innovators in the architectural design of schools focus on improving the student experience with special enhancements to the learning environment. Award-winning upgrades and expansion of the Creative Montessori School in Homewood provide a case in point.

The private, non-profit school, which serves children from 18 months to 8th grade, worked with Birmingham-based ArchitectureWorks to create a new master plan for its 2-acre campus in April of 2013.

The first phase, which included major upgrades to the school, is complete. A second phase, centered on building a new gym and repurposing the school’s existing gym, is in process. “It had been awhile since the school made any major changes, so there was much they wanted and needed to do,” says ArchitectureWorks’ project architect Mary McGarity.

Creative Montessori, which was founded by Barbara Spitzer more than 50 years ago, follows the Montessori Method of Education. The method, still considered innovative after 100 years, emphasizes experiential learning tailored to a child’s developmental needs and interests.

“We always try to design schools with the student experience in mind,” McGarity says. “Because of the school’s student-focused philosophy, what they wanted were the kind of things we would have suggested. It is wonderful to work with a school that shares our values.”

A learning environment designed with good aesthetics and natural materials was a standard set by Dr. Maria Montessori, the famed Italian physician and educator who created the method named for her. Montessori could not know a century ago that the field of architecture would come to value many of her suggested elements for enhancing the student environment. The AIA (American Institute of Architects) currently has a committee — the AIA Committee for Architecture in Education — that focuses on best practices for learning spaces.

Phase One of the Creative Montessori plan, including a new administration and preschool building, renovations to the existing elementary building and field renovation, wrapped up in August 2016. “When I visit the school and see how the students enjoy learning in the environment, it makes me wish I could be young again and go to school there,” McGarity says. “It’s a wonderful place to experience and explore.”

Site work for the new gym was completed this past August, and plans for the gym are in development. “They want a larger, new gym designed to go with the new school,” McGarity says. “The current gym is a small metal building that will be renovated for multipurpose use after the new gym opens. Because the school’s campus is relatively small, flexibility of facility use is especially important.”

Creative Montessori has been pleased with its partnership with ArchitectureWorks, says the school’s executive director, Greg Smith. “The new design of the building has allowed us to offer an equitable experience for all our students and teachers,” he says. “The teachers and our families appreciate how ArchitectureWorks designed the building with a purpose in mind that allowed us to meet the needs of our students in the most meaningful way.”

When a number of mature oak trees at the school site were going to have to be cut down because of their location on a flood plain that needed drainage improvements, ArchitectureWorks was able to incorporate milled wood from the stately trees for various purposes throughout the school. “One thing we’re most proud of is the ability to balance resourcefulness along with aesthetic appeal,” Smith says.

ArchitectureWorks has become known for creating benches from site wood when mature trees must be removed and has established its own in-house workshop to create its signature benches, McGarity says. “Using natural materials when possible in design is a growing trend that we like to foster,” she says. “Wood creates a warm, comfortable feeling.”

Phase One of the Creative Montessori renovations included a modern facelift to the existing elementary classroom building and repurposing part of the school’s 2,500-square-foot library building to create a main entry for the campus. The library now houses two new administration offices, as well as resources that include the school’s book collection, language and art classroom, and multi-purpose room.

A new, 13,000-square-foot preschool classroom building connects to the administration entrance and includes a commercial kitchen, lunchroom, multiple resource rooms and a community meeting space. The building includes four new preschool classrooms and two new toddler classrooms, each with in-classroom restrooms and kitchenettes.

Natalie Garcia, communications and development director for Creative Montessori, praised the architecture firm’s design guidance, which enhanced the school’s Phase One improvements. “Easy access to outdoor learning, natural light and open spaces align with our institutional vision,” she says. “As a Montessori school, building amenities into the classrooms, such as teaching kitchens, private bathrooms and reading nooks, foster student independence and a child-centered approach to learning.”

The upgrades and additions to the school were designed so that community spaces would be flooded with natural light, reducing the need for artificial lighting and connecting the spaces to the changing seasons and outdoor activity. All classrooms open to school gardens through outdoor learning spaces.

“The classrooms are designed so that the children have freedom for their various self-directed activities but with the security of teachers being able to visually monitor them at all times,” McGarity says.

Entry and exit access points to the school are better contained since the completion of Phase One and the grounds being fenced in. The second phase will provide additional entry control features. “Security is always a big issue for schools, of course, and it played a major role in our design for Creative Montessori,” McGarity says.

Although mature oaks had to be removed from the site, many new trees and plants were added through landscaping improvements, including a turf playing field at the center of the campus. New outdoor elements include play equipment, an open-air gathering area and a dry creek bed.

The outdoor additions were chosen to create opportunities for hands-on learning within the unique physical environment, another Montessori signature.

Landscaping for the project was provided by Birmingham-based Macknally Land Design. JohnsonKreis Construction was the general contractor.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood.

Life Lessons from the Farm

Students Corniqua Murphy, left, and Tiara Hawkins, right, consult with instructor Kelly Baker. Photos by Art Meripol

In Woodlawn, an underserved neighborhood in east Birmingham, a group of local teens are growing and harvesting bushels of crops, knowledge and opportunity.

The teens are all students or recent graduates from Woodlawn High School, the site of a two-acre urban farm where they and their instructors are growing banana peppers, turnips, collards, okra, sorghum and other produce, along with sunflowers and gomphrena and more than 40 apple, pear, plumb, fig and persimmon trees.

Destiny Nelson-Miles, 16, a soft-spoken 11th grader at Woodlawn, says she has already learned how to harvest, pull weeds around tender plants and build raised garden beds.

“I love how, if I plant something, I’m able to watch it grow and turn into this beautiful thing,” says Nelson-Miles. “It’s so amazing.”

Woodlawn High’s urban farm is the creation of the Jones Valley Teaching Farm (JVTF). Established in 2002, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit builds teaching farms and provides food-based, hands-on, preK-12 education programs that provide academic enrichment.

One of the programs is Good School Food, which uses food to teach concepts as diverse as environmental science, biology, math and humanities. Unlike most school-based teaching farms, JVTF promotes a continuing approach to learning instead of a brief farm experience that lasts only a few days, says JVTF Executive Director Amanda Storey.

“We implement the teaching farm and the food-based education and experiential learning across a 12-year school career,” says Storey. “We’re actually more interested in how it can impact students for the long term perspective instead of just where you happen to have an interested science teacher and a great garden.”

With Good School Food, JVTF appoints full-time instructors to each partner school that, besides Woodlawn High, includes Glen Iris, Avondale and Henry J. Oliver elementary schools, C.W. Hayes K-8, W.E. Putnam Middle School and John Herbert Phillips Academy. The instructors work with teachers to develop lesson plans that incorporate the use of food, while meeting prescribed academic standards.

“My job is to collaborate with the teachers in the school building,” JVTF instructor Kelly Baker says. “So that could be a science teacher, a math teacher, English or social studies. I brainstorm with them on how we can bring their classes out to the farm.”

The day Business Alabama visited the Woodlawn farm, Baker co-taught a ninth grade biology class about macro- and micromolecules. During the session, held on the farm’s outdoor classroom that resembles a picnic shelter, Baker showed students samples of protein-rich vegetables and how the lipid-based outer layer of peppers makes water droplets slide off of their waxy surfaces.

“I believe students retain information, understand it better and are able to apply it better in life if they’ve had an actual interaction with whatever they’re learning,” she says.

JVTF instructors obtain seedlings from the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse located on Woodlawn’s farm to plant and to use at their appointed schools. Storey says the greenhouse produces and distributes more than 35,000 seedlings every year.

But besides Good School Food, JVTF offers after-school enrichment activities such as Farm Club, where students learn how to grow and harvest produce on their schools’ teaching farms. Afterward, through the JVTF Market Club, they gain experience selling their farms’ produce at the Pepper Place market in downtown Birmingham or at the student-run farm stand at Woodlawn High School that is open to customers three days a week from 3 to 5:30 p.m.

JVTF Education Programs Manager Leah Hillman says the Market Club teaches students several skills.

“One is being comfortable making change,” says Hillman, “understanding what a profit is, inventory and being able to assess what you have, what you’ve sold and how much you might need the next week. Marketing is another big one. Our students love making flyers to bring people into their market. The other skills are knowing what you’re selling, being familiar with the vegetables, knowing what they taste like when someone asks or being able to identify them on the table.”

Another program, the JVTF Culinary Club, gives youngsters the chance to taste fresh fruits and vegetables and try their hands at cooking recipes.

Student Avant Claiborne at the market stand

Growing Jobs

JVTF also has a jobs component through its competitive, paid internship program for course credit. Interns gain a deeper understanding of farming as a trade by helping to manage the farm and selling produce at the farm stand under the guidance of the JVTF farm manager at Woodlawn, Mohamed Jalloh. Woodlawn students can apply in their junior year to fill between seven to nine open slots, Storey says.

On the day BA visited, Woodlawn senior and intern Avant Claiborne, 18, had pulled weeds on the farm under an afternoon sun for two hours and said he planned to stay two more.

“The farm manager has us teaching the new people how to weed,” says Claiborne, who says he is considering owning a farm some day or getting an HVAC degree. “He works us hard and keeps us on track.”

Nelson-Miles says working on the farm has also influenced her career plans.

“My initial career interest was business management,” she says. “But when I started coming out here to the farm, I started wanting to do agriculture. So right now, I want to major in finance, but agriculture is competing.”

Former intern and 2018 Woodlawn High graduate Jerick Hamilton credits the internship program for making him career-ready.

“As an intern, I got to watch the organization develop,” says Hamilton. “I had leaders who were above me, and I got to work under them and learn how to farm. It gave me the foundation and the skills I needed to go out into the real world and see what I want to do for myself.”

Hamilton says that one of his goals is to own land and farm.

JVTF also has an apprenticeship program and recently hired Hamilton along with Telvin Caples, another former intern and 2018 Woodlawn High graduate. Apprentices are full-time JVTF employees whose duties include assisting the instructors and running the after-school programs.

Caples says the farming experience has inspired him to want to teach others how to farm and to be a role model for younger generations.

“I want to be able to give back to as many people as I can,” Caples says.

For now, however, Caples says he is thinking about attending Auburn University to major in horticulture and minor in business.

“One of the success measures that we’ve seen here is the vision of the organization,” says Jerone Wiggins, JVTF’s director of educational programs and partnerships. “We eventually want to see this organization run by the very people who come through it.”

Wiggins says one former intern and apprentice has earned a culinary arts degree and is now a full-time JVTF instructor at one of the elementary schools.

In addition, JVTF conducts assessments tied to standards-based lessons and has students in the farm and market clubs complete surveys asking what skills they feel they have gained, says Hillman. Participating students also earn merit badges whenever they demonstrate having learned new skills.

Meanwhile, Storey says plans are in the works to further develop JVTF’s three-acre downtown urban community farm, built in 2007, so more Birmingham city school children will have the chance to participate in JVTF programming. She says Good School Food and other JVTF programs are impactful for education, career development, job creation and preparing students for whatever they want to do in life.

“And it’s hard to find programs that have the ability to do that,” she says. “So, it’s instilling so much more than we can even see on the surface of how you can carry this with you for the rest of your life.”

Apprentice Telvin Caples

Harvesting Community Support

Support for JVTF’s programs comes from federal and state grants, as well as from corporate sponsors and other nonprofits. But another source of support comes from JVTF’s annual Twilight Supper, a charity event that raises monies for Good School Food. Now in its 14th year, the Twilight Supper, held every September, is a formal dinner where donors, for $1,000 a plate, can enjoy a catered meal prepared by a renowned chef at JVTF’s community farm in downtown Birmingham. Some 350 people were expected to attend this year, Storey says.

But another more grassroots fundraising effort is The Gather, where anyone can host a dinner party on their own — from a formal sit-down dinner to a potluck supper or pizza — and invite guests for a donation. To help, JVTF provides the produce and an online platform that hosts can use to collect reservations and donations.

Gail Allyn Short and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

Cyber High Coming to Huntsville

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Officers of Redstone Federal Credit Union presented a donation of $3 million at a fundraiser for the Alabama School of Cyber Technology. In addition, Redstone Arsenal is located near the school grounds and military leaders are discussing a potential ROTC program focused on cybersecurity.

Modern businesses and governments depend on data security for survival. And as cyber threats continue to become more sophisticated, there’s a crisis-level shortage of cyber professionals qualified to address those threats. That’s why Alabama is launching its new Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering (ASCTE), a public, residential high school based in Huntsville and open to students from across the state.

The new high school, created by state legislation SB212 and signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey in April 2018, is scheduled to open in August 2020. It will be the state’s third magnet school, joining the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham and the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science in Mobile.

With Huntsville’s concentration of high-tech and engineering professionals, the school is a natural fit.

“We like solving challenges in the Rocket City,” says Claire Aiello, vice president of marketing and communications at the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce. “Local companies have expressed a need for these workers, and we are answering the call to help Alabama supply more cyber systems and engineering professionals to this very needed specialty.”

The Business Case for a Cyber High School

Alabama doesn’t need a technology magnet school because its current high schools are failing. On the contrary, “public schools in Alabama are performing at unprecedented levels,” says Matt Massey, president of the new school and former superintendent of Madison County Schools, a graduate of Citronelle High School in Mobile County and Troy University. “This is not because our public schools aren’t working. The need is because we’re facing a crisis of cyber threats in this country and Alabama wants to start earlier to help fill those needs.”

Cybersecurity has become increasingly important for industries of all types. For instance, while enemies of the state historically attacked governments and government offices, “they are now going after the industries that are important to the country, such as financial networks and utility networks,” Massey says.

Matt Massey, president of the Alabama School of Cyber Technology. Photo by Dennis Keim

As a result, companies such as Alabama Power and its parent, Southern Company, have expressed interest in partnering with ASCTE to help develop the next generation of cyber professionals. As new businesses and government entities relocate to Alabama, many have shown interest in partnering with ASCTE as well, Massey says, because the need for qualified cyber and engineering professionals is widespread.

Globally, 82 percent of employers report a shortage of cybersecurity skills, and 71 percent believe this talent gap causes direct and measurable damage to their organizations, according to McAfee research. Currently, there are 4,400 unfilled cybersecurity jobs available in Alabama, and more than 300,000 in the United States, Massey says.

School Building from the Ground Up

Alabama’s solution to the cyber workforce challenge will be the first school of its kind in the United States. Creating something completely new is exciting and promising for future generations and for the success of security of the country, but it’s also challenging, Massey says.

ASCTE’s four-member executive committee meets monthly, and its 19-member board of trustees meets quarterly to make decisions and keep the process moving. Plans are to open the school in a temporary location beginning in August 2020, and to move into a permanent location by 2022.

Decisions about the number of students will depend on the level of interest, but Massey predicts that ASCTE will start with about 150 students in ninth and possibly tenth grades, and that it will grow to about 350 students in ninth through 12th grades, when it reaches full capacity.

Fundraising is an important part of the process, and many high-tech companies are lining up to donate. Huntsville-based companies such as Davidson Technologies and Torch Technologies have made large donations, and at the 2019 Paris Air Show, accounting firm Deloitte gave $100,000 to the school’s foundation.

Massey, who came on board in June 2019, is in the process of hiring his leadership team and will begin hiring teachers in the coming months. Once teachers are hired, the team will work together to develop the school’s curriculum. While some high schools focus on cybersecurity, ASCTE will be unique, because it will include the engineering piece of the puzzle.

“We’ll be teaching students to implement cyber protections throughout the engineering process, designing products and programs with cybersecurity in mind throughout,” Massey says. “Cyber protection is traditionally seen as the icing on the cake, added when a product or program is already developed. But instead of icing on the cake, our students will learn to bake cyber protections throughout the whole process. That’s the long-term solution, to engineer with cyber protections.”

Students at ASCTE will have a wide range of options for high school experiences and work opportunities after graduation. For instance, as the FBI relocates a large piece of its headquarters to Huntsville, there will be potential opportunities for students to gain experience in digital forensics for law enforcement. With close proximity to Redstone Arsenal, ASCTE and military leaders are discussing a potential ROTC program focused on cybersecurity. And a variety of high-tech employers in the Huntsville area are interested in working with students and providing hands-on educational opportunities.

“Our students will be exposed to internships, co-ops and field experiences throughout their high school careers,” Massey says. “Many will go on to college, but our high school curriculum will also offer a gateway to industry, and some local industries will be interested in supporting them through college. We’ve got industry that is knocking our doors down because they want our students in their company. Our students will have lots of options.”

Reaching Students Across Alabama

Those students will represent a cross-section of Alabama’s population, Massey says. While all students will go through an application process, school leaders are committed to securing a student body that will represent all regions of the state.

But ASCTE won’t just welcome applicants from across the state; it will also work with public school districts throughout Alabama to ramp up their own cyber and engineering courses.

In fact, that task is a requirement according to the legislation that established the school. It requires the magnet school and its personnel to “assist teachers, administrators and superintendents across the state in replicating cyber and engineering studies in their own schools.”

Massey looks forward to helping boost cyber technology and engineering instruction across Alabama. “We can’t solve this problem just with our own students,” he says. “Our goal is for this school to serve as a flagship school for the state.”

Student applications are expected to be available in January 2020, with selections made in March before the school opens in August.

Learn more and stay updated with news about the school at ASCTE.org.

Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Jackson is based in Madison and Keim in Huntsville.

New Venture Capital Fund Yields Early Returns

Raymond Harbert, a key investor in the Alabama Futures Fund, who believes that it takes a pool of committed capital for early-stage companies to create a robust Alabama economy, according to AFF advisory firm partner Matt Hottle.

Birmingham, along with the rest of Alabama, continues to make inroads in the nation’s entrepreneurship circles, particularly the high-tech sector.

The city received a major boost in September 2018 with the formation of the Alabama Futures Fund, a $25 million early-stage venture capital fund that will fund startup companies based in Alabama or companies that would consider moving to Alabama.

Backers include some of Birmingham’s biggest names — Raymond Harbert, chairman and chief executive officer of Harbert Management Corp.; Auburn and NBA basketball great Charles Barkley; Protective Life Insurance Co.; Hoar Construction; G. Ruffner Page Jr., president of McWane Inc., and businessman Benny LaRussa Jr.

“We were fortunate to have several investors commit to the vision Mr. Harbert fostered and raised a total fund of $25 million,” says Matt Hottle, a partner in AFF’s advisory firm Red Hawk Advisory.

Hottle says Harbert had been considering an Alabama-focused, early-stage venture capital fund for a number of years.

“Mr. Harbert believes that in order to create a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem in the state of Alabama, one of the elements needed is a pool of committed capital to invest in and support early-stage companies,” Hottle says.

Several recent studies show high-tech entrepreneurship is moving from areas like Silicon Valley and the North Carolina Triangle to the middle part of the country. Given that trend, Hottle says, “A fundamental tenet of the Alabama Futures Fund is to foster the Alabama entrepreneurial community and to attract early-stage companies to relocate to Alabama by creating a resident pool of capital to invest in our previously underserved market.”

Like any investment firm, AFF’s goal “is to create positive returns for the investors,” Hottle says. “But we are also taking advantage of the opportunity to work collaboratively with other stakeholders in Alabama’s business and entrepreneurial community to promote the entire spectrum of entrepreneurship and economic development. Whether we invest in a company or not, we try to encourage their success by providing access to a network of professional service providers and community business leaders to help with an array of non-financial support — ranging from executive mentoring to assistance with finding office space. The Fund will help promote the state as a supportive and strategic place for startups who can grow and innovate as effectively here as anywhere in the country.”

Hottle says that while the Alabama Futures Fund encourages early-stage investing and the development of startup communities across the state, Birmingham was a natural fit to serve as the base of operations. He points to Harbert’s strong ties to the institutional investor base in Birmingham and the recent success of several local startup companies.

“Maybe more instructive than any assessment that we made regarding the environment for early-stage companies in Alabama is the success that the Alabama Futures Fund has had in recruiting two of our first three portfolio companies to relocate their headquarters to Birmingham,” Hottle says. “We see this as definitive validation of the strength and attractiveness of Alabama’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

In just over six months, four firms have announced an investment from AFF and a decision to relocate to Birmingham simultaneously:

• In September, TeamingPro — born in Virginia as a software-as-a-service firm helping contractors find federal opportunities and potential partners — accepted capital from AFF and announced plans to move its headquarters from Chesapeake, Virginia, to Huntsville. TeamingPro President and CEO Tim Hagerty praised the Fund leadership for “exceptional investment capabilities” and “strategic business acumen.”  Added Hagerty, “And now, with our move to Huntsville, Alabama, an important federal contracting hub, we expect TeamingPro to grow exponentially.”

• At the end of June, San Francisco startup Prepaid2Cash Holdings Inc. announced that it had received capital from AFF and was relocating. “We are excited to join the burgeoning tech community in Birmingham,” said Peter Vogt, cofounder and CEO of Prepaid2Cash. “We were blown away by the ample resources and support available to a growing business like ours. This gives us confidence in our ability to scale our company and access new customers and tap regional connections.”

• In March, Case Status, a company founded in Atlanta to help law firms strengthen relationships with their clients, accepted funding from AFF and announced a move to Birmingham. “We believe the missions of Case Status and the Alabama Futures Fund are very much aligned,” says Case Status CEO and founder Lauren Sturdivant. “From our earliest days, we have focused on building deep, trusted and expansive relationships for the benefit of law firms and their clients. AFF demonstrated their commitment to the same ideals.” Like Vogt of Prepaid2Cash, Sturdivant praised the “Birmingham tech ecosystem,” and says her firm “is excited to be part of it.”

• Last December, Joonko Inc., which helps employers find a diverse pool of job applicants, announced plans to move its headquarters from San Francisco to Birmingham, after accepting AFF funding. “Expanding our operations in the U.S. is an exciting moment, and we couldn’t find a better place than Birmingham,” says Ilit Rax, founder and CEO of Joonko. “Working alongside the Alabama Futures Fund has been incredible from day one. Their support of the business, willingness to make introductions, and belief in the team, product and mission is not something you find in every investor.”

AFF also has invested in the Alabama-born firm VirtualCare LLC and its direct primary care platform, dubbed DoctorWellington, which provides access to virtual care, telemedicine and primary care physician office visits for a monthly subscription fee, without co-pays, deductibles and other traditional insurance.

Several Southeastern communities have well-organized, early-stage investor communities, says Hottle, citing Atlanta, Austin, Raleigh and Nashville, as well as Chattanooga, Tampa and Charlotte. That investment “has helped those communities not only retain their local startup companies, but also attract startups from around the region, including some with Alabama roots.”

Birmingham’s existing entrepreneurial element, embodied in Innovation Depot, welcomes the AFF influence.

“Innovation Depot has been focused on building the tech entrepreneurial community for over a decade, and we are incredibly excited about the added momentum of focused capital sources like the Alabama Futures Fund,” says T. Devon Laney, until recently president and CEO of Innovation Depot. “Being able to attract and support high-growth tech startups is essential to the future of our community and state, and we expect to continue working with partners like the AFF to drive these results moving forward.”

Bill Gerdes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Hoover.

Business School for Scientists — STEM Path to the MBA

Katie Heywood, project manager for HealthSpring in Birmingham. Photo by Cary Norton

When she entered the University of Alabama almost 10 years ago, Katie Heywood knew she wanted to work in health care. Motivated and inspired by a college-level anatomy and physiology class she had in high school in Cincinnati, Heywood planned to eventually practice medicine.

Although her focus of study would be the sciences, Heywood was attracted to a then-new program at UA — the STEM Path to the MBA. The program allows science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors to weave honors business courses into their undergraduate curriculum before completing an MBA in only one additional year of study.

“I knew, no matter what, I was going to need some kind of business knowledge,” Heywood says. “Most undergraduate prerequisites aren’t in accounting or finance, and basic life skills are learned in classes like that. So, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to need this.’ ”

During her junior year, Heywood realized she no longer wanted to be a doctor. “I couldn’t see doing it the rest of my life,” she says. “I’m one of those who always asks, ‘OK, what’s next?’ I wanted to continue to grow and challenge myself to do different things.”

Rob Morgan, director of the STEM Path to the MBA program at UA, suggested Heywood consider the possibility of working for a health care company as opposed to practicing medicine. She remained in the STEM/MBA program and now is a project manager for HealthSpring in Birmingham.

“If you had asked me as a freshman, I would not have thought I would be working for a health care company as a project manager,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a PA or PT or pharmacist. I looked at everything. But that wasn’t what I enjoyed. When I sat down and really looked at it, I enjoyed learning about the many different aspects of health care. The STEM/MBA program provided an avenue that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

One of Heywood’s classmates in the STEM Path to the MBA program was Samantha Whorton, who now works as an engineer at Alabama Power Co. in Birmingham. At one time, “I was debating on changing majors, when I heard about the STEM Path to the MBA program,” Whorton says.

“I had been interested in business, but I wasn’t sure what segment of business. I didn’t know it was possible to put both technical and business together, but once I learned that it was, there was no looking back for me. The ability to learn more about business skills while working towards my engineering degree was exciting.”

For Los Angeles native Joseph Wolfe, Alabama’s STEM Path to the MBA program “was all about getting school done in one go. I always knew that I wanted an MBA because I wanted to go into engineering management long-term and believed that it would be useful for that career path.

“But I didn’t want to spend an extra two years somewhere down the line either, going back to school full time or taking night/weekend classes. Getting the MBA in just one extra year before entering the workforce was a much more attractive option,” says Wolfe, now a project manager at Adtran in Huntsville.

Heywood, Whorton and Wolfe all agree that communication skills attained through experiential learning were the most important part of the STEM/MBA program. Much of that came from doing innovative problem solving in teams.

Says Heywood: “I think it’s great to do well in the classroom when you’re in college, but in the STEM program and all the MBA classes, they force you to work with people on projects from day one, whether you want to or not. That’s more real world, more applicable to the work force, as opposed to just sitting behind your computer getting straight A’s by yourself.

“You’re having to collaborate with people from different backgrounds. And you’re graded as a team. You’re not graded as me, Katie. You’re graded as Katie and whoever else is on your team.”

Working in teams taught those in the STEM/MBA program communication skills both for presenting before a group and for communicating with other team members. Assignments for those teams range from executing projects for companies to addressing various issues in Alabama — food scarcity, for example.

“As an incoming freshman, I was not the most outgoing person,” Heywood says. “I had ideas but never shared them. I was a follower, not a leader. Well, in the STEM program, you had to lead the team. That taught me public speaking skills that I never would have attained outside the program. Now I speak in front of hospital systems, physicians, you name it, and I don’t bat an eye. It does not bother me one bit. But if you had asked me to do that as a freshman, that would have been my worst nightmare.”

The program also emphasized persuasion skills in dealing with others. “It taught you to realize that sometimes you put your pride aside and admit you’re not always right,” Heywood says. “Especially in the STEM program, you’re with a lot of very, very high-achieving, high-performing students who aren’t used to not being liked, not used to somebody else having an idea that might be better than theirs.

“It takes a bit of humility to be in class with a bunch of people who are so incredibly intelligent, some of the smartest, brightest people I’ve ever met in my entire life, and yet I’m sitting in their classroom with them, learning beside them, and there were times when they would say, ‘You know what, you’re right.’”

The first STEM Path to the MBA class started in 2011, with 46 students, and its various offerings have come to include team studies abroad in China, India, Europe and other locations. Three years ago, UA started a companion program — the CREATE Path to the MBA — and today the two programs have a combined 1,100 students. Both require a 28 ACT score or equivalent and a 3.5 high school GPA.

“The CREATE Path is for students who chose to go into journalism, advertising, dance or music, apparel/textile design, theater or disciplines we consider to be highly creative,” says Morgan, Phifer Fellow and professor of marketing in UA’s Culverhouse College of Commerce. “We mixed those students in with STEM students, and that’s been a real positive for both sides.”

Roughly 75 percent of students in the two programs are from out of state, and about half of those who finish the MBA portion of the program are female. Of those who start the program, roughly 30 percent complete the MBA portion.

Morgan travels the middle of the road when asked about differences between the STEM and CREATE students. “They’re all just so bright,” he says. “I’m not sure there is really much of a difference between them,” he says.

Charlie Ingram and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.

Behind the Scenes at Huntsville Startup Glimpse K12

Glimpse K12 co-founders Nicole Pezent and Adam Pearson located their company in Huntsville. They got their startup in a venture capital accelerator in Silicon Valley. Photo by David Higginbotham

Glimpse K12 co-founders Adam Pearson and Nicole Pezent started working together in the ed tech industry more than a decade ago, when Alabama-based Chalkable (then STI), a company offering web-based education data management solutions to K-12 schools, acquired Learning Earnings, a startup that Pearson co-founded in 2006. As the two worked on integrating Learning Earnings into Chalkable and partnering with school districts throughout Alabama, they repeatedly saw the challenge districts faced tailoring their budgets to ensure that money spent on curriculum and professional development was being put to its best use.

“There were problems we couldn’t unsee,” says Pezent, referring to the lack of information shared between accounting departments, curriculum and the student demographic.

When Chalkable was sold to Power School in 2016, Pearson and Pezent decided to found their own company. “We really wanted to help [school districts] by providing tools that allow them to look at student outcomes in the context of what they did to generate those outcomes,” Pearson explains. With that information, a district could then assess its classroom investments and take corrective measures as needed to ensure that future expenditures would have maximum impact on student achievement.

“No school system has as much money as they need to solve all the problems that they face,” says Pearson. “So, we figured, since we can’t print more money, we can help them understand which expenditures may not be as effective as others, so they can divert those resources to more effective activities.”

Pearson and Pezent started Glimpse K12 in 2017. The company’s AIM platform creates a curriculum map that lays out resources, products and tools that are being used throughout a district. Those components are then organized into impact areas and aligned with objectives, goals and costs, providing a foundation for analyzing and managing an education Return on Investment (eROI).

“Basically, the platform allows us to pull out data from different systems that are sort of siloed in the district,” Pearson explains. Those silos include financial accounting, student demographic information and student achievement data. “Traditionally, the problem has been that the accounting systems don’t have the concept of a student, right? And vice versa, you know, student achievement and student demographics platforms don’t have a concept of cost for activities.” Over the course of a year, AIM connects those dots and provides a student outcome analysis and eROI insights that pinpoint where spending is effective.

Pearson says it takes about 30 days to set up the software and provide user training. During this phase, districts can identify the issues they want to focus on, such as the correlation of a specific activity and a certain student demographic. For example, working with the Morgan County school district, Glimpse K12 was able to identify that when a curriculum platform was used with fidelity — in this case, 45 minutes a week — they saw double the growth in student achievement, compared to students who weren’t exposed to the resource as much.

“And that established a good best practice for them,” Pearson says. “They could put that information back out into the district and say, ‘Look at the data. When we use this activity, it’s helping students succeed.’ That was a big success story.”

“In training, we talk about the annual process districts go through identifying what spending was ineffective, so that they can re-allocate those resources,” he continues. “Most of the time we’re redirecting those funds to something that may bear more fruit for the students.”

“We really want to get to the redirecting of spending,” Pezent adds. “Because of the way their budgets work, they’re not in the business of banking a lot of their funds; they have to spend them in certain increments or by a certain deadline.” If a district is looking to spend less, Glimpse K12 can certainly identify areas where less-effective resources can be eliminated. Otherwise, “we want to make sure that we can tell them when they’re dispersing funds to other areas that they can rest assured it will directly impact their students in a positive way.”

Glimpse K12 currently has over 50 clients across Alabama and the Southeast. Its software developers, data analysts and sales team members are split about evenly between Madison County and the rest of the state and region, with Pearson and Pezent working out of its Huntsville headquarters. Pearson, who is from Huntsville, and Pezent, who relocated from Mobile, were both drawn to the area’s talent pool.

“We could have been based out of San Francisco,” Pearson says. When Glimpse K12 was in development, they applied for funding from Y Combinator, a venture capital accelerator based in Silicon Valley that has helped launch more than 2,000 companies, including Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit.

“Ten thousand companies worldwide apply every year, and we applied and were accepted for the winter session in 2018.” Startups attend a three-month training cycle in Silicon Valley that works with them to expand their business goals and connect them with investors. It also strongly encourages participants to stay in Silicon Valley and continue to tap into its many resources. Y Combinator “is a great experience, and it would have been a really great opportunity,” says Pearson, “but we wanted to see if we could build a successful business in our home state.”

“We talk to superintendents all the time who want to make sure their students graduate and go to college and come back and build industry where they’re from,” Pezent adds. “And that’s something that was close to us. When you see that progress, that’s what you want to do, too.”

Pearson and Pezent encourage other area entrepreneurs to take advantage of programs like Y Combinator to expand their access to West Coast capital and business connections that may be useful to them. “We try to do that as much as possible: broaden the outlook. You feel like that’s a different world, and you get there and you realize it’s the same world, just a different location.”

Remaining in Alabama hasn’t hurt the company at all, and it’s beginning to get inquiries from school districts across the country. “We’re in a big growth phase at the moment,” says Pearson. The company already has its sights set on expanding beyond the Southeast in 2020, viewing population centers on the East and West Coasts as areas of big opportunity. They’ve also had a lot of interest from the Midwest, where Pearson sees a lot of similarities in the challenges faced as those in the Southeast. And, he points out, when the Glimpse K12 platform is nationwide, Alabama will be known for its genesis.

Katherine MacGilvray and David Higginbotham are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville and he in Decatur.

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