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Straight Up Conversation: TalkingPoints Founder Heejae Lim

By Rick Hess — June 21, 2018 11 min read
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Heejae Lim is the founder and executive director of TalkingPoints, a family engagement app used by 150,000 families and teachers in over 3,000 schools that aims to improve parent-teacher communicationespecially for parents who are non-English speakers. Before launching TalkingPoints in 2015, Heejae worked for McKinsey & Company and earned a graduate degree from Stanford’s business school. I recently had the chance to chat with Heejae about TalkingPoints, the idea behind it, and the importance of parent engagement. Here’s what she had to say.

Rick Hess: So Heejae, what exactly is TalkingPoints?

Heejae Lim: TalkingPoints is an education technology nonprofit working to make it easy for any parent to be engaged in their children’s education—especially in low-income, diverse communities. Through a parent education platform with human- and AI-powered translation, we help teachers and parents communicate, build relationships, and understand what effective parent engagement looks like. Teachers and school administrators use our web or mobile app to message parents about what’s happening at school, and parents can respond back or initiate conversations in their home languages.

RH: When did you launch it?

HL: TalkingPoints came out of my personal experience growing up as a Korean immigrant student, and seeing that my mother was able to make a difference in my education because she had the “voice.” My mom was involved in my education: She could help me with my homework, she knew what it meant when a reading packet was sent home, and when there was a permission slip to be handed in, she signed and returned it to make sure I could go on the field trip. Sadly, the trajectory of many of my immigrant friends was not the same. Many of them struggled through school and dropped out. The difference between my friends who were failing and myself was not intelligence or effort, but how engaged my mother was in my education. I decided to start TalkingPoints to help facilitate this engagement for the 18 million immigrant students who are being left behind.

RH: How widely used is TalkingPoints?

HL: To date, TalkingPoints has enabled 150,000 family members and teachers across the U.S. and Canada to have more than four million conversations—60 percent of them non-English speaking. We are in over 3,000 schools across the country.

RH: So let’s say my kid’s teacher uses TalkingPoints. How does it work?

HL: Teachers use our web or mobile app to send a message to parents, which they receive in SMS format and through the mobile app in their home languages. Messages can be about what students are learning in class, how parents can support learning at home, or updates on student behaviors. Parents can reply in their own languages back to the teachers. The two-way translation goes through human translators through a crowdsourcing application.

In the new school year, TalkingPoints teachers and parents will get personalized advice tailored to each individual student. Depending on who the student is, how they have behaved in the past, what the topic of conversation has been between the teacher and parent, and what’s been learned in the classroom, TalkingPoints will recommend a course of action. For example, TalkingPoints can detect that there is a homework assignment due next week, and can suggest to the parent what actionable steps they can take to help the child so that it is handed in on time. We’re able to do this through artificial intelligence and natural language processing that analyzes the conversations and the platform data. In this way, TalkingPoints can help teachers and parents feel they’re on the same team, support students’ learning, and help underserved, marginalized parents feel empowered to be involved in their children’s education.

RH: How do teachers and parents get started?

HL: Teachers can sign up for a free TalkingPoints account on our website. Schools and districts can also enroll in our premium TalkingPoints for Schools program for less than ten dollars a student, which provides additional features like personalized teacher coaching and parent education, unlimited numbers of students and classes, and higher translation quality. Parents don’t have to do anything to get started. They can start connecting once they receive the first message from the teacher or school.

RH: WestEd recently issued a report showing that TalkingPoints generally improved parents’ engagement in their child’s education. Can you talk a bit about the study and what you think it tells us?

HL: The WestEd study aimed to measure our impact on building strong parent-teacher partnerships and increasing parent engagement, especially for immigrant, low-income families of color. WestEd researchers interviewed teachers about their experience and surveyed parents by asking them to complete a voluntary online survey. The results showed that 87 percent of parents increased engagement—by doing things like responding to messages, initiating conversations with teachers, and showing up to school events—after receiving more communication from their children’s teachers through TalkingPoints. This was especially the case for low-income parents of color, with 100 percent of parents increasing their involvement. In terms of opportunities for improvement, teachers have told us they’d like more support in sending messages home that build meaningful engagement, such as positive messages, instead of using it more for general announcements and reminders. Parents have told us they’d like more information on how to work with their child at home, and for those who didn’t attend school in the U.S., how the American education system works.

RH: I want to push a bit more on this study. It involved just two elementary-school teachers with similar student populations. While the findings were broadly positive, what makes you confident that TalkingPoints will work for teachers in other grade levels and those working with different student populations?

HL: You’re right that the findings are based on two elementary school-teachers in the Bay Area. These classrooms were chosen because they are representative of our user demographics. The findings were also consistent with the findings from our impact study last school year, which involved over 3,000 parents and teachers from 15 schools in California and New York, with over 70 percent of students qualifying for the free and reduced lunch. We have also observed this impact in our work with teachers and parents. More parents are attending parent-teacher conferences and school events, and teachers are seeing classwork and homework completion rates go up. Based on these findings, we are confident that TalkingPoints will benefit teachers of all grades levels working with diverse student populations.

RH: I want to come back to the impact study, but let’s stick with the WestEd study just a bit longer. One of the teachers in the study described “feeling overwhelmed with the requirement to implement TalkingPoints messages in addition to her classroom duties.” We know that teachers have a lot on their plates—can you talk a bit about why you think TalkingPoints is a valuable use of teachers’ time and how you try to address such concerns?

HL: TalkingPoints provides a way for teachers to connect with all families, regardless of their home languages. Teachers don’t have to go through a translator, so they’re able to connect with families more regularly about what’s happening at school, how their children are doing, and send more positive messages home. Teachers say being able to connect with parents directly without language barriers has resulted in positive changes in the classroom, and it’s made it easier to hold students accountable for their actions. One teacher shared that students are more inclined to meet deadlines when parents are in the loop, and that parents have been on top of their children to complete their work, which has led to stronger student performance and outcomes. We understand that teachers have very busy schedules, so in order to help them get started, we provide pre-written messages and templates for connecting with parents and recommendations on how to make TalkingPoints part of their daily and weekly routine.

RH: Okay, let’s circle back to the impact study you all conducted last school year. What were your big takeaways from that?

HL: The survey results showed that TalkingPoints is helping teachers reach the hardest-to-reach parents by getting rid of language and technological barriers and involving them in their children’s education. Eighty percent of teachers saw positive changes in their students’ behavior and performance in class. Parents had positive changes in their feelings about the school community and behaviors since using TalkingPoints. Ninety percent of families felt better-connected to their schools, and 85 percent of families had more conversations about school with their children at home. Next steps are to build on this foundation to increase parent engagement by offering in-app teacher professional development and coaching, as well as parent education through the parent-facing mobile app. We have ready-made materials and content to send to teachers based on their interactions with parents and what we see as best practices on the platform. For parents, we can provide information on how the school system works and questions to ask teachers about their child’s progress which are translated into their home languages.

RH: Can you talk a bit about the technology that makes this possible? How do messages actually get translated for parents who speak a different language?

HL: The two-way translation goes through human translators who access the messages through a crowdsourcing application that we have built-in on the back end. Messages are censored and prioritized depending on the sender, content, and time sensitivity. We use this human-generated data to train the internal translation engine so it improves over time. Eventually, we’re planning on asking parents to be volunteers in this translation, since many translators are parents in the schools. We’re excited to explore more of this path.

RH: I know teachers who work in schools where “parent engagement” feels like little more than one more routine. How does TalkingPoints attempt to create actual engagement—not just on paper?

HL: That’s a great question. We work with teachers to help low-income, immigrant parents support their children’s learning at home by providing personalized content based on their conversations and the student’s grade level. For example, if a student is struggling in reading, we’ll recommend message templates that the teacher can send home with suggestions on how the parent can help. We do this through AI-powered topic analysis of conversations, while factoring in the seasonality of messages based on different points within the school year. Our goal is to support teachers in educating and empowering parents to be equal partners in their child’s education.

RH: What’s the financial model? What’s the cost of TalkingPoints for families, teachers, or schools? Is there foundation support—if so, who’s providing it?

HL: As a nonprofit organization, we receive funding from donors to keep TalkingPoints free for teachers. We also generate revenue from selling licensing for TalkingPoints for Schools. We’ve raised $1.4 million from the New Schools Venture Fund, Ashoka, Peery Foundation, Google, AT&T Aspire, Echoing Green, Fast Forward, Walton Family Foundation, Stanford University, Twilio, BlackRock, Westly Foundation, Miller Center, NBC Universal Comcast, and individual donors.

RH: What are your goals when you think about reach and impact over the next few years?

HL: Since launching in 2015, we have reached 150,000 families through teachers and school leaders helping us spread the word. Our goal is to serve three million teachers, families and students by 2020. We plan to do this by doubling down on word-of-mouth growth, increasing school district partnerships through sales outreach, activating parent communities across different geographies, and strategically partnering with other distribution channels such as family engagement programs, government departments, or other nonprofit organizations.

RH: Last question: What have you learned in this work that’s surprised you about the challenges or the power of helping schools to better engage parents?

HL: Removing language barriers is just the first step to meaningfully engaging low-income, immigrant parents. Misconceptions and lack of education remain critical yet solve-able barriers. Parents and teachers in low-income communities can have misconceptions about each other, coming from different backgrounds—teachers think that parents are not involved because they don’t care, and parents who don’t hear from schools don’t feel welcome. Also, these parents are often uneducated and do not understand how the school system works. They might not have had good experiences themselves while at school, which skews their perceptions and attitudes towards the education system and the school in general. Teachers and parents need additional support to overcome these barriers to meaningful engagement. This is a growing need as student demographics are changing rapidly in school districts across the country. By 2030, 40 percent of students in the U.S. will speak a language other than English at home. Breaking down language, cultural, and perceptual barriers and building strong parent-teacher partnerships will be critical for helping all students succeed.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.