Make universal school lunch permanent. Many school districts waived fees for school lunch programs during the pandemic and provided meals for every student. This lunch program is a change that schools should adopt permanently. Students who have enough to eat perform better in school. Free or reduced lunch voucher programs create discriminatory conditions that hinder achievement and growth for students from more impoverished families.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the U.S. educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Maxwell Witt and Kevin Celisca from Integrate School.
Maxwell Witt is the co-founder and CEO of Integrate, a lesson planning tool for K-12 schools that streamlines the creation and approval process. Working from teacher to school and district-based sales, Witt has firsthand experience growing a SaaS-based solution. As an EdTech entrepreneur, he has become a thought leader, keynote speaker, and mentor to many young entrepreneurs.
Kevin Celisca is the co-founder and COO of Integrate, a lesson planning tool for K-12 schools that streamlines the creation and approval process. He started his early career as an auditor at Ernst & Young and has a degree in accounting from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Before co-founding Integrate, Celisca was the founder and lead sales representative of an education nonprofit called College Lingual. He is an EdTech thought leader and keynote speaker who has won many awards including Silberman College of Business’ 50 under 50, Industry Insider, The Haitian American Changing Education, and more.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
Maxwell Witt: I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was always entrepreneurial-minded and would come up with ways to innovate everyday problems I would see. I studied business management and entrepreneurship at college, where I met my soon-to-be co-founder, Kevin. In high school and college, I started to see the problems in the education space as I used a software called Blackboard for eight years. My peers and professors would complain about having to use this learning management tool. I found that this software was considered the gold standard learning management system (LMS), which led me to question why bad software could be so sticky in education and why education was so slow to innovate. We got the idea of a more streamlined academic and administrative software approach from this negative experience. As I looked to gain some experience after graduating from college, I went to entrepreneurship events where I was lucky to have met my mentor, Gerard Adams, an angel investor and serial entrepreneur. At first, I worked for Gerard as his assistant but became his apprentice and helped him create his accelerator called Fownders in Newark, New Jersey. Through that experience, I gained the confidence to pitch to my co-founder, Kevin Celisca, and pursue Integrate with the dream of innovating and improving the education space.
Kevin Celisca: I am a first-generation Haitian American who was the first person in my family to attend and graduate from college. I struggled in education because I grew up in an underprivileged community that provided little help to students falling behind. Like many first-generation Americans, I had little help from my parents with schoolwork, and my parents and principal decided they should hold me back a grade. If it were not for my fourth-grade teacher who saw something special in me, I would not be where I am today. My fourth-grade teacher told my parents that all I needed was a little extra attention after school to get me on track. My parents said they did not have the finances to pay for a tutor, but my fourth-grade teacher insisted on helping for free. She taught me my learning style, time management, and organization skills. Because of my fourth-grade teacher, I went to a Fairleigh Dickinson University almost entirely for free. I studied abroad three times with all expenses paid to Italy, China, and London and worked at one of the four largest accounting firms, Ernst & Young, after graduation. Early in my career, I did not feel quite satisfied with my work as an auditor. I decided to give back to my community and got involved with a nonprofit called College Lingual, which focused on helping first-generation Americans attend and graduate from college. Eventually, I was pitched the idea for Integrate, which immediately resonated with me because Integrate provided all kids with the same help that I had from my teacher through software. In January 2016, I went to work full-time at Integrate with a mission of helping transform the education system by assisting students to become the best versions of themselves through cutting-edge technology. I have since raised $365,000 and have multiple paying school clients using my software.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Witt: We had to turn down a $1 million investment from an unsophisticated investor early in our career. We quickly learned to look for industry-specific angel investors rather than wealthy people for investment, and we learned about what terms the industry considers standard and deal breakers.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Celisca: We are working to make lesson planning an easier and more efficient process for teachers by mapping them to state standards and curriculum. This new project is uncharted territory, and it is highly complex, but the outcome could transform the transparency and quality of lessons taught.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?
Celisca: We spent five years researching and building a tool meant to address some of the largest systemic problems in modern education, which gave us a holistic perspective of the K-12 education technology space. We have worked with and interviewed countless teachers and administration from all over the United States about their challenges to find commonalities and have even partnered with other EdTech experts who have built and sold multiple education companies to validate our findings.
OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the U.S. education system?
Witt: Although our K-12 education consistently ranks amongst the top 20 countries in terms of student performance, our higher education ranks as one of the leading education systems globally. There is a ton of room for improvements in K-12 education, such as improving accessibility to resources, reducing burnout among educators, and changing how we prepare students for college or careers. At Integrate, we’re on a mission to make a high standard of education accessible to everyone because we believe education is the most powerful change-making tool. We know that when we work together with administrators, teachers, parents, and government officials, we can improve the U.S. education system to help future generations have a better world than how we found it.
Can you identify five areas of the U.S. education system that are going really great?
- We have the most one-to-one laptops for students, meaning everyone in the school was provided a laptop for daily use.
- We have the most amount of software used per school, which can lead to more data insights into how we can best grow our students.
- We have a large push for a more equitable and inclusive education system.
- We have teachers and administrators who are devoted to creating a productive learning environment.
- We have a strong dedication to professional development. In public schools nationwide, administrations focus on the importance of professional development for its teachers to continue to be students themselves.
Can you identify the five key areas of the U.S. education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
1. Building a growth mindset. The global economy continues to change rapidly, and we need to prepare students to be lifelong learners so they can adapt to the job market five years, 10 years, and 20 years from now.
2. Critical thinking. We need more tools and techniques that emphasize helping students identify an argument’s strengths and weaknesses and reject arguments they can’t support by quality evidence.
3. Make universal school lunch permanent. Many school districts waived fees for school lunch programs during the pandemic and provided meals for every student. This lunch program is a change that schools should adopt permanently. Students who have enough to eat perform better in school. Free or reduced lunch voucher programs create discriminatory conditions that hinder achievement and growth for students from more impoverished families.
4. Invest in after-school interest programs. When school lets out between 2 or 3 p.m. but parents need to work until or past 5 p.m., it challenges families to find childcare, and students miss out on opportunities to continue their education and growth. Investing in after-school programs in sports, in programs like FIRST Robotics, or book clubs can allow students to explore their passions in a way that they can’t in a classroom setting while simultaneously reducing the childcare burden on working parents
5. Debate. As we’ve seen in online discourse and sadly sometimes in our communities, the U.S. needs to help its citizens engage in healthy, productive debate. We need to teach debate structure, present arguments backed by evidence, and avoid logical fallacies in debate.
How is the U.S. doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Celisca: The recent push to engage young people in STEM has shown results. Programs like Code.org’s Hour of Code have reached millions of students in the U.S. and exposed them to critical concepts that could lead to careers in computer science. To continue this trend, we first need to involve parents. Much of early STEM education involves tinkering and experimentation, and the time and resources required to support this are best leveraged in the home, not in school. We also need to invest in after-school programs that help students connect their education to the community. The rise of maker spaces in K-12 education is a welcome sight. Lastly, continued investment in classroom technology can help teachers be efficient with their limited class time and provide insights for how best to engage students based on individual learning styles.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Witt: STEM-educated workers are critical to the development and launch of products all of us use daily. Diverse consumer populations use these products, so the people who make them need to be equally as diverse. The book “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez outlines dozens of ways that critical parts of society don’t adequately support women because the people who created them were all men.
How is the U.S. doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Witt: We believe this is less of a systemic education system problem and more cultural. There are undoubtedly multiple factors contributing to the gender gap in the STEM fields, but one of the most significant contributors is the lack of promoting female role models in STEM.
Here are a few ways in which we can increase female engagement in STEM:
- Adults, especially parents and guardians, need to stop spreading gender stereotypes that girls are better at subjects like English and social studies or boys are better at math and science.
- Administrators and teachers need to create extracurricular or after-school and summer STEM clubs for girls only, and parents need to sign them up or encourage their children to sign up.
- Increase awareness of careers in STEM by inviting speakers to share their experiences with your students or their families.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design, and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
Witt: While I’ve been excited to see a strong push for STEM education funding in the U.S., I worry that it is causing a devaluation of education in the arts. The inventions, technological advances, and breakthroughs that STEM enables can have unintended consequences on the environment, marginalized populations, or the world. Arts education allows students to see connections they might otherwise miss and avoid some of these consequences.
The University of Utah’s College of Humanities commissioned a poster several years ago that perfectly sums up the balance needed. “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.”
If you had the power to influence or change the entire U.S. educational infrastructure, what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
1. Work toward data-driven personalized learning. This is a future goal as our technology and understanding of education and the ability to collect and harness data evolve. It is well known that personalized learning helps students score the highest. With data to drive our understanding of student strengths and weaknesses, we should personalize work on the basis of students’ individual needs. Understanding student aptitudes can also lead to college and career path suggestions based on skills and interests.
2. More streamlined, integrated software solutions for schools. We initially built Integrate because the average school uses 10 different siloed managerial software to operate their school environment, which leads to data falling through the cracks and inefficiency, which leads to time waste.
3. We should be using data to drive what content/curriculum, learning apps, lesson plans, and learning methods we use based on what is most effective in improving student grades.
4. We should figure out how to properly quantity and track student SEL or social-emotional learning. Understanding how students’ emotional states are directly related to their performance can help us promote healthier and higher-performing schools.
5. Identifying inequity. With the ability to correlate demographic and performance data, we can see how different students are performing and why. Understanding the factors for inequity will allow schools to address it at the source.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Celisca: “Investment is a plan, not a product or procedure.” When schools want to make investments into new software, it should be thoroughly planned out and integrated rather than being frankensteined together.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Witt: Elon Musk because he is a brilliant innovator who has changed the world in multiple industries. We need more innovative energy in the education space and would love to collaborate with him to improve our education system.
Celisca: Robert Smith, the chairman of Vista Equity Partners. He owns 60% of the education market, and with such a stronghold on the space, I would be interested to learn how he got to where he is today.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Celisca: We are both happy to connect to anyone interested on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can find our company handles here: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram. Our personal Linkedin profiles can be found here: Kevin Celisca and Maxwell Witt.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!