In one of the 1,000-plus videos that ReadyRosie can text or email parents, a preschool-aged boy describes an item on a kitchen counter while a mother figure stands next to him, eyes closed, guesses the item. “It’s smooth and in the pantry,” the boy says slowly. “It’s soft and smooth.” Peanut butter? she asks. “Uh-huh,” the boy replies.
The video’s simplicity and accessibility is the point for ReadyRosie, which offers parents ways to turn a chore like putting away groceries into vocabulary practice. ReadyRosie’s goal with its platform is to provide these videos, usually two minutes in length, to parents as instructions for games and activities to continue learning after preschool.
The Denton, Texas-based company is also growing up itself. Today, it celebrates a new milestone with its purchase by Teaching Strategies, a Bethesda, Md.-based early childhood technology and services developer best known for its GOLD observation-based assessment system and its Creative Curriculum product lines for infants, preschoolers and kindergarteners. Terms of the deal were not released.
ReadyRosie founder and CEO Emily Roden says helping children by engaging their parents has helped her company grow to serve 6,500 Head Start programs, childcare centers and elementary schools. Head Start is a federal program to support school readiness in children 5 and younger from low-income families.
The platform’s videos are in English and Spanish and includes tools for educators to measure engagement from children’s parents. Educators see how much of a video parents watched and how that video connects back to lessons from the day. “Our content is what people fall in love with,” says Roden, 41. “But our data gets people to continue to use it.”
Roden worked as an elementary school teacher and in sales for Pearson before founding ReadyRosie in 2012. For her, it’s a family affair: Her husband also works at the company, which is named after their oldest daughter. The company has raised no outside capital since its start.
The company has about 15 full-time employees today. Its platform costs between $200 and $350 a year per classroom, with lower prices if several classrooms sign up. The minimum order is usually $1,750 and families never pay. The paying customers are schools, organizations and government agencies.
An example of a ReadyRosie video lesson for parents.
While most of the educators and families served are in the U.S., the company also has customers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. ReadyRosie hopes to continue to grow internationally after the acquisition, she says.
Back in her home state, Roden says what helped her company grow was legislation passed by Texas in 2015 requiring school districts and charter schools to implement family engagement plans to help schools involve families and improve family attitudes toward education. “That ended up throwing gas on our little fire,” she says. “Districts all over Texas had to implement high-quality family engagement plans.”
But ReadyRosie’s growth also comes as a result of growing smartphone use among lower-income families. Pew Research Center found that the share of lower-income Americans who rely on smartphones to go online instead of a broadband connection has nearly doubled from 2013 to 2019. “Any serious engagement of this demographic with educational technology tools must have a mobile-first strategy in place,” Roden says.
ReadyRosie is currently involved in a study with University of Pittsburgh researchers to find the impact of its platform on children and families, which is expected to publish by the end of the year at the earliest, she says.
A Pennsylvania State University evaluation of families who used ReadyRosie for three weeks found that their total number of used words increased by 80 percent; that children’s responses increased 60 percent and that the total number and complexity of utterances increased 40 percent.
This acquisition will help new parent company Teaching Strategies, founded in 1988, add a division to interact directly with parents and improve learning outcomes with tools used outside of the classroom, says John Olsen, who became its CEO in July. “When we talked to these folks, it felt like talking to a brother from another mother,” Olsen says.
Teaching Strategies provides curriculum, assessment, professional development and family connection resources to programs for children in grade three and younger. It claims to have about 220 full-time employees, thousands of early childhood program partners in the U.S. and service over two million children a year.
In 2015, it purchased Tadpoles, another company focused on communication between parents and early childcare educators. L Squared Capital Partners, the investment firm that used to own Teaching Strategies, sold the company in May 2018 to Boston-based private equity firm Summit Partners.
Other recent education-related investments by Summit include leading a $33 million investment in A Cloud Puru, a training platform for cloud computing professionals, earlier this year.
Olsen previously worked at Duke Street Advisors, a firm that advised on mergers and acquisitions. That experience may well come in handy, as the company has the means to make more purchases, he says. The company is interested in how new technology like machine learning and voice recognition might impact early childcare learning outcomes. He also plans to hire more employees to help ReadyRosie grow.
Both companies cite bipartisan interest in improving universal access to preschool as an encouraging force behind their growth. The National Institute for Early Education Research’s 2018 annual report on the state of preschool found nine states that have committed to improving access, funding or quality standards.
The report also found that preschool enrollment nationwide grew slowly. “States added only 21,292 three-year-olds and 33,827 four-year-olds over the prior year totals,” it stated. “These small increases amount to only half a percentage point for 3-year-olds and less than a percentage point for 4-year-olds. Although these increases were larger than last year, the difference is small, and there has been little progress towards increased enrollment for several years.”
Martha Strickland, state director for the kindergarten program for 4-year-olds at the South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness early childhood agency, stumbled across ReadyRosie at a conference while in need of a tool to better engage the families she works with.
The problem Strickland heard over and over from parents was how little time they had to continue children’s lessons at home. “We didn’t want to just send newsletters home,” Strickland says. “Most of our parents are working parents."
ReadyRosie breaks through that barrier with its short videos and simple activities for parents to engage with their children academically, she says. The company currently serves about 2,400 families in Strickland’s program, double year over year. She says she plans to renew her annual licenses with ReadyRosie.