Shani Dowell has felt the tension between a parent and a child’s teacher from both sides. As a former seventh and eighth grade teacher, Dowell has received her share of criticism from parents. And as the mother of two children, she’s joined in text group chats and conversations around what schools could do differently.
Dowell has turned that contention into a company: Possip. The Nashville, Tenn.-based startup offers a platform that texts parents to invite feedback about teachers and schools. But most importantly, says Dowell, it explicitly asks for positive feedback to share with educators. “Schools get better faster. It’s an opportunity to learn quickly,” says Dowell, 43. “They can do even more with feedback.”
Possip has won over users, boasting more than 50,000 parents and 100 schools across 16 states, including Tennessee, Ohio, Oregon and Florida. And now, it’s won over a fair share of investors. The startup has raised about $1 million in a new round of funding from Launch TN Impact Fund, Flywheel's social impact accelerator in Cincinnati and angel investors.
Dowell says she is the first black woman in Tennessee and one of fewer than 40 black women in the U.S. to raise more than $1 million in venture funding. Digitalundivided, a nonprofit with the goal of empowering women of color through entrepreneurship, found only 34 black women had raised more than $1 million in venture funding as of 2017.
Founded in 2017, Possip (short for “positive gossip”) provides parents with text-message prompts like “Are you happy with the school this week?” and “What praise do you have?” School officials receive reports on common feedback and are alerted if any comments require a quick response. Schools can set how frequently they want to text parents, but Possip recommends weekly disbursements.
The goal is to catch an issue before it reaches a boiling point and spills out onto social media or a school board meeting. Some issues are resolved quicker and fueled less by anger when parents and educators talk to each other, Dowell says.
But positive comments can go a long way for teachers, who work against systemic pressures that can lead to burnout and demoralization.
Possip has eight full-time employees and seven part time. Dowell does not have plans to hire new people with the new funding but will use the money to expand partnerships with schools and districts plus refine the product and analytics features. Schools pay on average a $1,000 flat rate, plus $3 per student per year.
School communication tools that aim to connect parents and educators continue to attract investors and their wallets. ClassDojo raised $35 million this past February. Edlio, which provides tools for K-12 web design, parent communication and content management, acquired an online payments and receipting provider in September.
Annie Poag, a parent who uses Possip and a friend of Dowell’s, says the tool has helped the administrators at her fourth-grader daughter’s public charter school better understand what parents care about. In one instance, the school brought in a guest speaker to discuss suicide prevention and bullying when enough parents wrote in about those subjects. “It’s another way for parents to advocate for their children,” says Poag, 37. “I feel heard.”
For Poag, a social worker, the platform has helped improve her relationship with her daughter’s teachers. Poag sends small pieces of praise, along with questions about the decisions they make in class. “It gives us the ability to, as a parent, provide positive feedback,” she says. “You might not necessarily reach out to a teacher or staff member for something so small.”
In one of her latest messages, Poag expressed appreciation for the teacher investing so much time in her daughter’s education.