Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Write Stuff: Wilmington startup looks to inspire teachers and help students

With 73 percent of the nation's 12th graders scoring below proficient in writing, UNCW asked one of its professors, a longtime classroom teacher and education advocate, to create a program that would help fix the problem. Uni-SPIRE was born.

Longtime school teacher and now retired UNCW Professor Debbie Powell works with graduate student Zach Krepps on Uni_SPIRE, a cloud-based tool to help teachers better teach writing skills to students. Almost 170 UNCW students worked with Powell on the project. Krepps is the technology manager. (Port City Daily photo / DAVID DEAN)
Longtime school teacher and now retired UNCW Professor Debbie Powell works with graduate student Zach Krepps on Uni_SPIRE, a cloud-based tool to help teachers better teach writing skills to students. Almost 170 UNCW students worked with Powell on the project. Krepps is the technology manager. (Port City Daily photo / DAVID DEAN)

WILMINGTON — Recent studies have been setting-off alarm bells regarding the state of writing education in U.S. schools. For example, 73 percent of eighth and 12th graders scored below proficient in writing; only 11 percent of college seniors write at proficient levels; and businesses spend $3.1 billion each year to retool these students’ writing skills as they enter the workforce. An innovative Wilmington startup powered by local college students is looking to change all that.

Uni-SPIRE is led by Debbie Powell, a recently retired University of North Carolina at Wilmington professor of Language and Literacy with 45 years in education. Developing a cloud-based tool called the Universal Writing Continuum (UWC) Version 2.0, Debbie and her team of UNCW students have created a unique, comprehensive solution for empowering K-12 writers while helping teachers improve their knowledge and skills.

“When any teacher sits with class of 20 or 200 they have papers to look at, make decisions about. Most of the time its for a grade, but we want teachers to look at papers to help their students become better writers,” Powell said.

Techie details aside, Uni-SPIRE’s UWC 2.0 gives teachers flexibility to track data and make decisions in evaluating a student’s writing and refocus instruction to maximize his or her growth.

The student can access written feedback from teachers to encourage revision and improvement, with access to their own portfolio sites storing their work throughout their K-12 experience.

Teachers can use student data within UWC’s searchable database to set goals for classes and students, take conference notes, create lesson plans, and develop ideas for engaging their students.

A long road

While some people find their calling late in life, Debbie Powell knew she wanted to be a teacher back in the fifth grade. The Wilmington resident of more than a decade started on her journey teaching baton twirling to 35 younger children in her school for 25 cents an hour. She followed that up with stints volunteering in classrooms in middle and high school; and eventually landed her first kindergarten classroom position as a sophomore in college back in Indiana.

“We want teachers to look at papers to help their students become better writers.”

According to Powell, “At that time, kindergarten attendance wasn’t mandatory and wasn’t provided in many Indiana public schools, so lower-income children often didn’t attend, giving them a late start to their education.”

Six area churches joined together to form a free kindergarten in the town of New Albany, and hired Powell as the teacher. The backstories of her students touched Powell; a young girl’s family of five lived in a two-room apartment with no running water or bathroom, and a young boy lived with his severely mentally disabled mother and sister.

“As a 19-year-old, I made a commitment that my career would be devoted to making my classroom a welcoming, safe, engaging place for children living in poverty,” said Powell.

Almost all of her teaching positions after that were in low-income rural or urban schools. While at these schools, Powell discovered that when children were provided with authentic learning experiences requiring critical thinking and problem-solving — integrating purposeful reading and writing — children learned.

Continuing her teaching career, Powell saw a focus on writing gradually decline. At the end of the 1990s, most states were still testing for writing, but it was expensiveto score the test with the need to hire teachers to come in over the summer to read student writing.

No Child Left Behind came to pass in 2001, and with it an excuse for school districts to abandon writing for reading and math.

“The irony,” Powell explained, “is when you teach reading and writing together, each can improve the other. Employers want employees who can both write and read and without this focus, it’s become a major problem with today’s workforce.”

Starting a startup

Debbie Powell, a longtime school teacher and now retired UNCW professor, has developed a cloud based system to help school teachers promote better writing skills through the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. (Port City Daily photo / Dave Dean)
Debbie Powell, a longtime school teacher and now retired UNCW professor, has developed a cloud based system to help school teachers promote better writing skills through the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. (Port City Daily photo / Dave Dean)

Six years ago, Powell was a full-time professor at UNCW and not thinking about starting a business. That’s when university officials came calling, convincing her to take some of her work and develop a tool to help teachers address the growing crisis in writing education.

Motivated by making a difference in schools, Powell took on the challenge and engaged a cadre of undergraduate and graduate students to handle the heavy lifting of building a complicated software program.

Working remotely and at the Uni-SPIRE offices at the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, all the development on UWC 2.0 has been done by 168 UNCW students, hailing from practically every college on campus.

The students have had the unique opportunity for applied learning, teaching each other, learning how to learn, and solving real-world problems. going beyond their UNCW coursework.

“I learn something new every day. I have never worked with these frameworks, programs, and programming languages before, and I never had to learn this kind of material on my own,” said graduate student Zach Krepps, technology manager of the Uni-SPIRE team.

“This has helped me write better programs for school, and I’m certain will help me obtain a better job come graduation time,” he said.

For recent graduate DeVante Pickering, his experience at Uni-SPIRE helped give him confidence in himself as a developer, as well as a leader. “It allowed me to be able to fit in at one of the largest companies in the world,” the Wells Fargo software developer said.

Both Pickering and Krepps were driven in their contributions not only for work experience, but in their belief in the tool’s potential to help students and teachers.

“Uni-Spire is important because it aims to tackle an important problem, helping educators educate. I believe a lot of issues in the world today can be traced to a lack of education, so anything that helps educators do their job is extremely important,” Pickering said.

As Uni-SPIRE enjoys its official, ready-for-primetime kickoff, Powell and her team are excited about building on feedback from a pilot program in New Hampshire to strengthen UWC 2.0 and increase its capacity for expansion.

Powell knows she can’t afford to hire a full sales staff right now, so she’s relying on networking to help take things to the next level.

“There’s so much potential to tackle other problems like critical thinking, teamwork, problem-solving that are not being taught or measured,” she said.

For more information on Powell’s program, visit www.uni-SPIRE.com.

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