Jobs, Zuckerberg, Omidyar invest $6.4M in edtech startup Ellevation

Teacher Class Hands

Some of the tech industry’s most prominent education investors are throwing their support behind Ellevation, a Boston startup that helps teachers who work with kids trying to learn English.

Ellevation, which sells Web-based software to help track the progress of students as they learn English, said Wednesday it had raised a $6.4 million in a new investment round.

The financing was led by the Emerson Collective, an investment and grant-making organization headed by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Other investors include Zuckerberg Education Ventures, an investment fund affiliated with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic company, and the Omidyar Network, headed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

It’s a notable endorsement for Ellevation, a nearly five-year-old company that employs about 50 people.

“We have been extremely lucky to raise capital from impact investors who care deeply about our mission and about the education of underserved students in this country,” Ellevation CEO and co-founder Jordan Meranus said.

The investment should help Ellevation grow beyond its current footprint of more than 450 school districts in 37 states, including Somerville Public Schools in Massachusetts and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina.

The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, said there were 4.7 million “English language learners” in K-12 schools in the US as of 2014, about 10 percent of the overall student population. The number of those students increased more than 60 percent over the previous decade, NEA said.

But students who aren’t native English speakers tend to perform worse in school than their native-speaking peers, a problem that the NEA has called “deeply rooted, pervasive, complex, and challenging.”

Ellevation’s software gives teachers a way to chart how well students are learning English over time and customize lesson plans to an individual student’s progress. The software also lets teachers share notes about students’ progress.

“Because you’ve got different teachers working with students across the school day, it’s very hard for them often to collaborate on the kinds of strategies and activities that may be working best,” Meranus said.

Ellevation charges school districts annual subscription fees for its software depending on how many teachers are using the system. Some of those districts pay less than $5,000 per year, while others have annual contracts of $100,000 or more, Meranus said.

Meranus said the lack of tools for English language learners and their teachers jumped out when he worked for the NewSchools Venture Fund, an education philanthropy that previously had an office in Boston.

“The more I spent time in school systems, the more it became clear that educators really lacked for innovation in software to help them do this work,” he said. “This was very obviously a huge need and a hole.”