Amanda DoAmaral taught AP history in Oakland, Cal, for five years, determined to show students of color they could not just sign up, but also do well. During that time, enrollment in AP World History at the school went from 17 students to over 100; the pass rate rose from 15% to more than 70%. “We didn’t have enough space for the kids who wanted to take it,” she says.
But DoAmaral had her eye on even bigger sights. She wanted to find a way to reach a lot more students. Now, that’s exactly what she’s doing with Fiveable, a Milwaukee-based startup she launched in 2018 that gives AP students, especially those who don’t have access to high-quality resources, what she calls “a social learning experience.” That includes streamed review sessions, plus study guides and an online community in which students can interact with each other.
As you might expect, the pandemic has accelerated adoption, she says. “Covid pushed everyone online overnight,” she says.
About 1.3 million (38.9%) of U.S. public high school graduates in the class of 2019 took at least one AP exam, according to the CollegeBoard. But that doesn’t mean they all had access to the same level of resources. In low-income areas, text books tend to be old and outdated, technology inadequate. Plus, according to DoAmaral, many schools don’t encourage Black and Hispanic students to enroll. Or if they do, then teachers don’t expect a lot.
In addition, “Students of color have low confidence levels when it comes to academic rigor, based on years of the way we’ve talked to them,” says DoAmaral. Growing up in a Boston suburb, she says she experienced that environment of lower expectations herself.
As a teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland, where she taught from 2012 to 2017, DoAmaral made a point of taking a different approach, determined, as she puts it, for “students to look at these challenges and say, I can be a part of it. This isn’t too hard for me.” To that end, she built a curriculum that was more project-based, allowing students to work in teams, and relied on material other than the regular textbook, which she felt was too focused on the white, male experience. In just a few years, she built up a track record of both increasing enrollment and better test scores.
Second, I almost never used the textbook and instead provided tons of supplementary materials so that they would engage with diverse content. The textbook was incredibly centered on the white, male experience, but that didn’t resonate with my students. They had to see themselves in the curriculum and the more I brought in stories about people/places that were marginalized, the more connected to the course the students were.
Eventually, DoAmaral became frustrated by the limited impact she was able to make at the school and district level. She ended up leaving and moving to Portland, Me. But about halfway through the next school year, she started hearing from former students who were asking for help. They feared they weren’t being adequately prepared for the test. So she started streaming seminars to help the kids out.
A Way to Scale
Then she realized she was onto something. “If my students needed this, I’ll bet other kids needed it, too,” DoAmaral says. So she opened up the sessions to more people. By spring of 2018, she ended up teaching about 2,500 students. DoAmaral had stumbled on a way to scale her approach.
That’s when she learned about Beta Boom, a new startup pre-seed fund and accelerator in Salt Lake City focused on entrepreneurs who were women, people of color or from off the beaten track. There she got a crash course in entrepreneurial and business basics. After that, she spent time at gener8tor, an accelerator program in Wisconsin.
The company’s services now come in three parts. There are streaming classes, both live and pre-recorded, on 36 AP subjects; each subject has anywhere from 8 to 12 streaming sessions. (DoAmaral isn’t the only instructor; she now has more than 50 teachers). Cost is $25 for 10 or more streams, plus a five-hour cram session, or $5 for one stream. The other two buckets are free: study guides and other materials, and a community space in which students from all over can interact and help each other out. Students are geographically spread out and diverse, “reflecting the makeup of the AP exam,” says DoAmaral.
Targeting Students Directly
As for the business model, DoAmaral chose to eschew marketing to districts, instead focusing on targeting students directly. That way, “Students at under-resourced schools can still access our material even if the school doesn’t sign up for it,” she says. Plus, DoAmaral finds that decision-making wheels turn slowly at schools, whereas students move much faster. She targets students via social media channels. “When they’re searching online, we make sure to be there,” she says.
The company also did a pre-seed and a seed round, raising a total of $4.2 million from venture capital firms and angels.
Then there’s the matter of the pandemic. The company’s all-online approach has come in handy and Covid has served to speed things up. “We were able to hit more milestones faster than we could have imagined,” she says. For example, the program now has close to 500,000 students a month, considerably more than she anticipated.
While AP is the focus for now, DoAmaral plans to expand the focus. Top of the list is helping with college application process. “We want to help students make sense of it, the way we do the APs,” she says.