The Crap Sandwich

“How an Innovative Education Management Platform was Built Out of a School District”

It’s not an elegant way to title a story but it is the subtext to this one.  The story, like most good ones, is a confluence of some really unlikely events.  But let’s make a long story short:  Two guys, let’s call them Zach and Chris, were the tech team for an 8,000 student district in southwestern Ohio, Hamilton City Schools.  Both come from varied backgrounds and have some non-overlapping tech capabilities but they had a couple important things in common.  They both spent time in the classroom teaching kids and they both had, in equal parts, a pragmatic excitement for what technology could do to support schools and instruction and a rather large disdain for the current state of education software (insert crap sandwich).  It is these two diverging threads that have lead to the development of an open source project that created a very different kind of software platform that a growing number of schools are adopting called Abre.

At the time Zach was tech director at Hamilton City Schools a large investment were being made in Chromebooks for every student in the district.    Simultaneously they was experiencing a big increase in the number of web-based software applications that needed management and deployment to staff, teachers, students and parents.  

Zach had to think about how the district was going to be successful deploying so much tech.  There were known issues; frustration with having to keep track of the various software, managing multiple login credentials, spending way too much professional development time learning how to use the next thing and, in many cases, a lot of redundant work because all this software didn’t speak to each other very well.

This is where Zach meets Chris, a math teacher in his district with a passion for software development and design.  Chris developed the first content management system that the district’s website was running on as well as a cool gamified classroom app called  Sensing an opportunity, Zach pulled Chris in to work for him at the district.  The goal was to make it easier for everyone involved to manage and sign on to the various software being managed by the district. This led to the Abre Homepage, a single sign on environment that also streamed important information from apps like email, calendar, education stories and articles and Google Classroom.  Suddenly, everyone – teachers, students, staff – all had a single, personalized place to start their day.  It became the technology hub for navigating through the myriad of applications used to run the schools and deliver education.  

Teachers were happy and the admin were pleased.  But, Chris and Zach were not satisfied.  As Zach put it “We were still getting served up the crap sandwich!”  What is the crap sandwich?  In short:  dated technology producing poorly designed software with old backend data infrastructure and little to no open architecture (no APIs).  So what does that mean to the layperson?  Poorly designed user interface means more professional development time for teachers to learn new software.  Old backend data infrastructure means poor security and software that doesn’t expand or grow well.  No open architecture is a fancy way to say that none of the software can communicate with the other software.  This means you lose control over your data and miss opportunities to improve.

So the two enthusiastic and slightly idealistic tech directors went to their district, with the success of the homepage in their back pocket, and lobbied for a methodical approach to displacing many of the web-based apps they were currently and planning to buy.  Basically, they wanted to serve up their own sandwich, hold the crap!  

This is where the story could have ended but the leadership team at Hamilton City Schools, seeing the opportunity to support their Chromebook investments and save significant money, got behind the idea.  Sparing the suspense here – it was a really good decision.  Ultimately Abre, through replacing existing software and future software purchases, has saved the district upwards of $400K per year.  Funds that could be used to hire more teachers and invest in more things that directly drive a better educational experience.

So just over two years later, Abre has eight apps with another four in development, and a growing number of school districts adopting it.  All built with a common, simple interface using Google Material Design and a unified backend database to consolidate all the critical information flowing through the various apps.  So the unlikely event of a school district supporting the development of a fully functional education management platform happened.  

And this is the story.