The more Jake Gannon and Josh Knutson heard about the new coronavirus, the more they worried about the future of their fledgling business.
The Denton entrepreneurs had envisioned and guided development of software, Rhithm, that would help track the social, physical and emotional well-being of students.
They had day after day of wall-to-wall meetings with school districts interested in giving the software a shot in March. Pilot programs were concluded or underway, and negotiations were going well with several school districts when stay-at-home orders ground everything to a halt.
“People that we had built great relationships with just weren’t responding,” Gannon said.
School districts were moving online while shifting guidelines, executive orders, policies and suggestions put the world into a state of flux. Education leaders weren’t thinking about finalizing technology contracts the way they might under normal circumstances.
Knutson said he started to panic before Gannon. The pair had been giving away the service for free in the hopes that teachers and administrators would fall in love with it and sign a contract. He compared the weeks of internal pandemonium to “playing hypothetical Russian roulette.”
Gannon said they had to take time to consider how to handle the money they’d already raised for the business: “Instead of saving the cash we had, we doubled down.”
They spent thousands on digital ads, hired more contractors to get the word out, and they rebranded as a tool to track student well-being even while in-person classes seemed a thing of the past.
Roughly four months later, and Rhithm is on track to be in several school districts come next school year. Negotiations were ongoing with more than 100 school districts, including Denton ISD, and even a state department of education, though they declined to specify which state until a contract is signed, expected later this month.
They’ll be serving close to 1 million users if all the contracts they expect to materialize come through.
The pair attributed much of their current success to Denton ISD, which gave them their first shot with a pilot program. In particular, they credit Rebekah dePeo-Christner, coordinator of social and emotional learning at Denton ISD, for being the real hero in their story.
“We wouldn’t be here without Rebekah,” Gannon said. “She was the very first one who believed in [us].”
For her part, dePeo-Christner said she likes how the app can look at how a single child is doing and can analyze an entire campus. It can tell you whether a student is getting enough to eat at home or is sick just as well as it can show that a campus isn’t handling a crisis well.
“If we don’t meet the basic needs, they’re not going to academically perform,” she said.
Also, the app will enable the district to track a student’s well-being between grade levels and across campuses, which should help teachers at each campus more quickly understand who their students are so they can help those who need it most.
She said the district wouldn’t hold onto that data after students leave the district.
Right around 11 campuses took advantage of the program across the district over past semesters, she said, and she hopes to bring a few more into the fold come next school year.
Gannon and Knutson said they try not to look too far into the past or stare too long at the future: The past has promising memories of what they’ve achieved, but the thought of soon helping so many students and educators can be daunting.
For now, they said they do what they can to keep their heads in the current moment to help the next student as they come along.