Looking for a new career, Joe Nichols went back to school and found the inspiration for Prasolus, his high-tech, educational-enhancement enterprise.
School days conjure up many images: Lockers, text books, squeaky bleachers, the classic green chalkboard and dusty black erasers. And, of course, that ever-important report card.
In a society where businesses have embraced technology and can't function without the latest and greatest computers and operating systems, these images from school days can seem almost archaic, save for the report card.
Joe Nichols knows the feeling. Eighteen months ago, Nichols launched Prasolus, a kindergarten-through-12th-grade educational-enhancement enterprise to bring school districts into the technology age.
Prasolus quite simply seeks to bridge the generational gap between paper-based teachers and digital-based learners.
Students are issued a personal digital assistant-type device with a keyboard -- laptops also can be used -- and their lessons appear on the screen. The teacher can put as much -- or as little -- of the day's lesson as he or she wants on the device, and students can use it to take notes, do homework and take quizzes and exams. The devices operate using a Web-based program called "Eddy" that can be customized for the specific curriculum.
Once a child's school work is completed, teachers can grade the students, assess where the class stands on the material and pinpoint which children are having difficulty. Because it's digital, the grades and results are instant.
The Prasolus process does more than provide instant feedback to teachers: It engages the children. And to any educator, that is a holy grail for the classroom.
Does the process work? Nichols says yes.
Linda Gist, superintendent at Bonham Independent School District, agrees with him.
According to Gist and her teachers, the results of using the Prasolus process have been astounding. After two weeks of using it, one science teacher reported that only one student was absent on one day. Before Prasolus, "She was averaging three to four student absences per day in that class," Gist says.
Schools using the Prasolus model show higher attendance, more engaged students and fewer discipline problems, Nichols says.
In fact, he says, discipline referrals have dropped by as much as 95 percent in some Prasolus classrooms. Nichols also received one district report stating that attendance rose to 98 percent from 92 percent after Prasolus' arrival.
Moreover, children who were predicted to fail the TAKS test achieved success, something educators and school administrators attribute to the Prasolus process and the children's increased interest in the learning environment. Nichols is awaiting the official TAKS scores from this school year but is optimistic about the results.
Additionally, the Prasolus process can reduce paper-based activities by up to 90 percent, while increasing the rate of completion of assignments.
The idea for Prasolus came to Nichols in, of all places, a classroom.
After being in the health care industry for more than 13 years, Nichols decided it was time for a career change and went back to school. He was accepted into a doctoral program at Baylor University where he studied various concepts and organizations to improve learning, before stumbling upon research that showed an ever-widening gap between paper-based teaching and digital-based students.
Nichols knew from existing research that schools can be slow to embrace new teaching methods, but they all want children to do better. He also realized that trying to change teaching methods from the top down doesn't work; change has to start from inside the classroom.
After four years of course work and a dissertation, the idea for Prasolus had formed.
Nichols' professors proclaimed his methods interesting and worthy of awards, but cautioned him that the process would be a waste of time if implemented in only one school district. He needed to implement his idea on a much larger scale, start a company and be a consultant for the process, they told him.
So Nichols formed Prasolus using his own funds and with only one employee. Today, Prasolus has 12 employees and another 10 to 12 ancillary service providers.
Prasolus currently is operating in only three school districts, but Nichols expects that number to multiply rapidly. He hopes to add 10 more districts within the year, three of those by May, and hopes to increase to 30 or 40 districts in 2008.
In 2006, Prasolus brought in revenue of $575,000, but Nichols is predicting revenue of between $10 million and $15 million in 2007.
Prasolus is headquartered in Houston, and opened a Dallas office last year. Offices in Austin, San Antonio and the Texas Rio Grande Valley are slated to open in either late summer or early fall.
Expansion doesn't stop at the state border, though. Nichols has met with international educators and the Prasolus process will be applied to schools in both Mexico and Vietnam within the year. Nichols also is hard at work developing a franchise model so the Prasolus process can be taken to schools nationwide.
He also hopes to some day have students in Texas working with students in other countries, bringing education to a global level.
Top of the class
Prasolus' model for school districts is to introduce the process in waves. Gist, a former teacher, is pleased with how the Prasolus process has been implemented in her district. Bonham ISD, which has about 2,000 students on five campuses, began with four classrooms and grades three through eight. Math and science classes were the targeted subjects and the teachers had one Prasolus class period per day.
Gist says while only four classes are using the Prasolus system, they plan to add five more next year and grow from there.
"Ultimately, the goal is to have all the students working on it," Gist says.
She appreciates Nichols' model, which allows for growth over time. The devices initially cost about $400 per unit, and Nichols is working on ways to reduce the cost, Gist says, so that more can be implemented.
Gist has not heard one negative comment about the Prasolus method from anyone. "The teachers love it, but the children love it more," Gist says. She says learning to use the device is easy for today's tech-savvy children. "They just picked it up and ran with it," she says.
As Nichols travels to school conferences, he sometimes finds there are doubts about the devices, especially as far as young children are concerned.
People thought it wouldn't work in elementary schools, he says. "It works in elementary schools."
If it works at the elementary level, what about high school? "The high school kids like it too," Nichols says. Any child, he says, can use this process.
"This motivates the children," Gist says. "Everything children do outside of school involves technology." Video games, the Internet, MP3s, cellphones and iPods are what children know and use on a daily basis. "This gave them something that matched the world they know," she adds. "This makes learning fun for them."
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