When Eleanor Smalley was working as an education superintendent she noticed that wealthy school districts had access to effective learning materials, while lower-income districts did not. Thirty years ago, she set out to change that. Today Smalley runs JASON Learning, a nonprofit that provides curriculum and learning experiences in science, technology, engineering and math for k-12 students, as well as professional development for teachers. JASON Learning prides itself on placing students in challenging, real-world situations where they are connected with and mentored by STEM professionals. To date JASON Learning serves over 5 million students across the United States. Smalley hopes to grow that figure to 25 million students in the coming years, with at least ten school districts across all 50 states engaged with the program.
Smalley’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
Having been an educator and ultimately a Superintendent with 30 years experience in education, the one differentiator in all the districts in which I worked, was access for students to remarkable, exceptional content. If it was a wealthy district, students received access to opportunity and effective materials. If it was a lower-income district, teachers had to create their own resources. JASON Learning has been an opportunity to develop a program that provides quality STEM resources at a reasonable price in a format that teachers can easily utilize.
How do you define success?
Making a difference in the lives of educators and students, and also building the non-profit JASON Learning, so that all 50 states have at least ten districts engaged in our program. We currently reach 5 million teachers and students. Our goal is to reach 25 million students.
Tell us about your biggest success to date.
The Houston Region Consortium, which includes multiple K-12 districts, which is about 1 million students, came on board with JASON Learning. This is our eighth year working with them, and have seen great success. Fairfax, Virginia has utilized JASON for over ten years, reaching 80% of their schools on an annual basis. The Chevron-JASON Learning partnership has been a big part of this model, and continues to represent the importance of public-private partnerships in education. In the last five years, JASON’s curriculum, which includes, digital materials, hands-on activities, videos and online games for students, as well as lesson plans, implementation tips, professional development and a powerful digital platform for educators, has tripled in size.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
JASON has significant, relevant content, and an amazing platform that can be available to K-12 or outside groups. We’ve never really done heavy promotion. It’s always been about word of mouth. As a small nonprofit, even though we are on the cusp of significant scaling, without visibility, we won’t get there. We are partnering with outside agencies for sales and marketing, as well as scaling. We are partnering with AASA (American Association of School Administrators), SFS (Standard For Success), and others to inform its user base about JASON. JASON could be available for every kid in the country, in and out of school. We just need to get there.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
Because I was a superintendent, and I am significantly connected to American Association of School Administrators, it has affected how we roll out our district model and appeal to superintendents. I believe that leadership matters, and superintendents should be heavily involved in curriculum planning. The most important thing a school can do is focus on curriculum. Because of these connections, this has been the model that has driven JASON for the last four years. Since I worked at Darden, and led a Wallace Foundation Grant on Aligned Leadership, I understand the importance of aligning in and out of school curriculum. This has influenced the way we encourage superintendents to engage in the community, and make connections with groups like Boys and Girls Club. It’s my belief that great schooling cannot occur without involving the community. It’s only when the community is hugely involved that you see dramatic changes in student learning.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
Brand awareness is key. Although my nonprofit has been in existence for over 30 years, we are still relatively unknown and in order to scale up, brand awareness becomes critical. At JASON, we have always believed that if we created it, others would come. To date, that has not been true. What becomes critical is that while you’re creating, you’re also networking and sharing information about the company. JASON’s design for its content is built to be scalable, and has been from the beginning. JASON is now positioned to make that leap.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
I look at where we’re making a difference and I turn to colleagues for a pep talk.
Who is your most important role model?
Dolly Parton. She created a model that changed the lives of many children by sending them books, while employing a sound, sustainable, financial model for her employees.