ChalkTalk Reemerges to Find Scale in Schools—and More Funders


ChalkTalk Reemerges to Find Scale in Schools—and More Funders

By Wade Tyler Millward     Mar 18, 2019

ChalkTalk Reemerges to Find Scale in Schools—and More Funders

A couple of years ago, Mohannad Arbaji had a problem, one he could only solve by going back to school. Not enough students were completing lessons on his digital platform ChalkTalk, aimed at helping students grades 9-12 understand English and math concepts and improve their scores on tests like the ACT and SAT.

So the CEO of the Boston-based company sat in on classrooms in over 12 schools. Arbaji realized that the original design of ChalkTalk needed an overhaul. Students weren’t completing lessons on their own outside of school. He needed the educators to incorporate his platform as part of their class.

“If students can really cruise on their own, we’d give them 12 years of textbooks and have them study the entire content at home,” Arbaji says. “But that doesn’t work.”

Scaling an education technology company has been an ongoing lesson for Arbaji. Now, two years later, he tells EdSurge he’s pursuing a Series A fundraise to expand the company’s footprint beyond over 50 schools that use the platform, and grow its team from 17 full-time employees to about 50.

Origins in Jordan

Arbaji’s decision to start an education company is rooted in how education shaped his own life. Growing up in Amman, Jordan, “I saw what education did for my father,” a physician, he said. “It opened doors.”

Arbaji attended an international boarding school in Las Vegas (in New Mexico, not Nevada) and graduated from Brown University. He wrote an SAT prep book for international students and sold it door-to-door in Jordan before founding his current business. Seeing the importance of education to his family and his clients built the foundation for ChalkTalk.

ChalkTalk launched in 2016, graduating from Boston’s LearnLaunch accelerator, a program that mentors and invests in early-stage education companies. The company had raised $3 million in seed funding. At that time, the company served students at private international high schools, focusing on the Middle East and North Africa markets.

But the language and cultural barriers that came with scaling the business in multiple countries led him to redirect his focus to the U.S.—for now. That’s where he learned that students were struggling to complete the lessons on their own, and why he had to redesign the platform to make it more accessible for teachers to use in the classroom.

Now, after two years of testing, Arbaji believes he’s finally arrived at the right tool, one that he hopes will attract more school customers—and investors.

4-Step Model

On the ChalkTalk platform, students start with a practice test to establish a baseline for their grasp of math and English concepts. Based on this benchmark, the platform creates lesson plans that teachers can use to guide each student through a four-step instructional model where:

  1. the teacher demonstrates a lesson
  2. students work in small groups to complete activities
  3. each student uses ChalkTalk to complete personalized practice questions
  4. the teacher reviews class scores and assigns additional intervention activities and resources for students to complete

Every four weeks, ChalkTalk will highlight the topics where a student may be weakest and provides additional practice and exercises to help him or her revisit and master them. ChalkTalk sources third-party content for the lessons, and is supposed to be used by schools for a semester or the whole school year. At the end of the program, students take an exit exam to see how much they’ve improved since the start.

Studies performed by the company suggest a correlation between usage of the program and improvements in test scores. At East Boston High School, students who used ChalkTalk boasted a 126-point improvement on the SAT. Arbaji says he is open to having third-party studies done to independently verify the impact of using ChalkTalk.

One of the company’s vocal proponents is Jayne Ellspermann, an education consultant and 2015 National Association of Secondary School Principals National Principal of the Year, who has been advising the company. She believes that the platform can be useful in schools with tight budgets, where teachers feel overwhelmed. “With this in the hands of teachers, the impact would be huge,” she tells EdSurge.

The product isn’t entirely cheap. Chalktalk charges schools an annual site license based on the number of students using the platform. So far, schools pay on average $15,000 for a license, according to Arbaji. The company is currently not profitable.

Among the executives Arbaji has recently attracted to the team: Paul Smith, a former teacher whose edtech career included stints at PowerSchool, Apple, and LearnSprout across nearly two decades. He returned to Apple in 2015 after it acquired LearnSprout, only to leave in 2017 for a brief dabble in politics. Smith thought he was done with the industry. “I never wanted to do another edtech company,” he tells EdSurge.

But Smith says he’s aligned with ChalkTalk’s mission to give learners of different levels access to quality educational resources. So here he’s reprising a familiar role in the industry, as marketing director of the edtech startup.

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