Speech and other special-education professionals were already in short supply even when classes were in session. Now, with students largely confined to homes, reaching learners who need extra support has become even more of a challenge and priority for school leaders.
Long before the pandemic forced schools to close, though, districts have been turning to online companies to fill staffing shortages. One such provider is PresenceLearning, which has facilitated more than 2.5 million “teletherapy” sessions since the company started in 2009.
Once used mostly by tech-savvy school districts, demand for its platform has accelerated as remote instruction has become a reality, according to Kate Eberle Walker, CEO of PresenceLearning. And the New York-based company is also getting a timely boost in the form of a $27 million Series D fundraising round.
Leading the round is Bain Capital Double Impact, the arm of the investment giant that funds companies that deliver “social and environmental impact” alongside profits, according to its website. This marks its second deal in the education sector. In 2018 it acquired Penn Foster, a provider of online workforce development programs.
As a result of the deal, Bain Capital Double Impact is now the biggest shareholder in PresenceLearning. Previous investors Catalyst Investors, New Markets Venture Partners and Catamount Ventures also contributed to this funding round, which brings the company’s total venture capital raised to $71.5 million.
PresenceLearning launched its teletherapy platform more than a decade ago in response to a shortage of licensed speech and language pathologists available in schools. That problem persists today, as states and districts across the country report difficulties finding credentialed professionals. In California, where PresenceLearning was founded, acute shortages in licensed special educators have continued even as the percentage of special-needs students has grown.
The company has since branched out to provide services in other areas, including occupational therapy and mental health counseling, and offers online evaluations to help districts determine whether students qualify for special education or gifted-and-talented programs.
Today, it works with schools and districts to connect students with professionals from its network of over 1,000 licensed clinicians that specialize in speech therapy, mental health, behavioral and other special-education services. They work as contractors and are paid by the hour. During these live sessions, specialists work with students through a series of activities, games and assessments.
Eberle Walker says the company aims to complement, not replace, in-person support services, and that in most cases it is up to school and district officials to determine which students are best suited for virtual counseling.
Previously the CEO of The Princeton Review, Eberle Walker took the helm of PresenceLearning in January 2019 as part of a broad leadership sweep initiated by the company’s board of directors. Her former colleagues from the test-prep giant later joined her to lead the company’s financial, technology and marketing operations.
While PresenceLearning had been modestly growing its business, “it needed a focus on being able to scale nationally,” according to Eberle Walker. That meant “de-manualizing” some of its operations, cutting back on costs and investing more on building a national sales team, which currently has just 11 people on staff. The new capital will grow that headcount, she adds.
The goal was to expand the company’s footprint beyond its early adopters, and woo schools and districts that were not seeking or considering online special education services in the past. Her team has made some strides. Today, more 450 schools and districts are customers, an increase of roughly 100 since early 2019, she says.
And, perhaps just as significant, the company is now cash flow positive, Eberle Walker notes.
Adapting to School Closures
Normally, the virtual therapy sessions conducted on the platform take place on school grounds. But that is no longer a possibility, with buildings closed. To ensure that students could still get teletherapy services at home, the company had to work with schools to implement new processes for scheduling sessions and communicating with parents.
But other factors were out of their control. “On the technology side, it was a big issue for some of our lower-income, rural districts,” Eberle Walker says. “In the first few weeks there were a lot of problems around bringing devices and internet access to homes.”
Such was the experience for Michael Lowers, executive director of the Central Kansas Cooperative in Education, which provides special education services for 12 school districts in that region, spread across 4,000 square miles. To ensure continued support for the 550 students who use PresenceLearning services, the district first had to deliver Wi-Fi hotspots for those who lack internet service at home.
Since transitioning teletherapy sessions to homes, Lowers says he’s involved the therapists from PresenceLearning’s network much more closely with day-to-day operations. The ones he works with come from as far as Newfoundland in Canada, and Israel. “It doesn’t matter where they live anymore, as long as we can get our time zones lined up.”
Lowers admits he was initially among the skeptics four years ago, when the cooperative first considered PresenceLearning. He questioned whether an online variant could work as effectively as in-person sessions. But the fact that the therapists in the network are licensed and credentialed—something already difficult to find in person—helped quell his concerns.
“A lot of times, it’s us adults who are spooked by change,” says Lowers.
To meet the increased demand for teletherapy services, PresenceLearning launched a new training program to help existing school and district special-education staff to lead sessions themselves via the platform during the transition to remote learning. Nearly 100 districts have requested training for their staff, says Eberle Walker, and so far more than 1,000 school professionals have already completed the program.
The company has also seen a surge in the number of licensed therapists seeking to join its network and offer their services to schools through the platform, especially now that most businesses have been forced to cease in-person operations. On a typical week, it sees about 100 applications; post-pandemic, that number has grown about ten-folds, claims Eberle Walker.
The team cannot accommodate all those requests, but it has recently licensed its platform to professionals who are seeking to provide their services online, even for private practice. “A lot of the capabilities are useful for any professional who’s working for students with special needs,” says Eberle Walker.