Palo Alto startup founder takes lessons from tragic accident

Declara builds personalized pathways to learning

In 1984, Ramona Pierson was hit by a drunk driver, a near-fatal accident that left the then-22-year-old U.S. Marine in a coma for 18 months.

When she finally woke up, she was blind in both eyes and unable to walk, speak or remember what had happened to her.

The incredible story of her recovery — she eventually regained partial sight in one eye and went on to become an avid tandem biker, rock climber and alpine skier, as well as the founder of a successful Palo Alto-based education startup — has attracted the attention of numerous news outlets over the years.

But while Pierson, 51, is comfortable talking about the ordeals she's endured — including a multitude of surgeries and years of therapies — what interests her more are the lessons she's learned through that process. They are lessons that today motivate her work at Declara, an online social platform that develops personalized-learning paths for users.

Declara's philosophy and mission is deeply rooted in Pierson's personal wake-up call that a "one size fits all" education model does not work. In reflecting on her life post-accident, she talks about a world in America's not-so-recent past that was vastly unprepared for, or unaccustomed to, the needs of disabled people. She said restaurants would turn her and her guide dog away — or sit them in a less-visible section — and college teachers were at a loss as to how to accommodate her in the classroom. The now well-known American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not signed into law until six years after her accident, in 1990.

"When I think about college, I think I've learned more about being an advocate than I did being a student because there were so many things — I had to teach professors how to teach," she said.

"We have to educate our educators to really be able to teach to all the different styles of learners, not just the disabled, but even visually abled or capable students have different styles of learning. When we continue to create systems that are rooted in 'sage on the stage,' that doesn't work for everybody."

Pierson spent years in many different school systems, from attending The New School in New York City to get a master's in social research and political psychology to serving as Seattle Public Schools' chief technology officer. While in Seattle, she developed a collaborative learning platform — a forerunner of Declara — called The Source that pulled together student data like grades, attendance and teacher assessments and, for the first time, made it all accessible online for parents.

"All of a sudden, we made transparent what was going on and (were) watching how kids' performance improved," she said of The Source, which is still in use today.

Declara, founded in 2012, takes these early technologies to the next level. The company is a powerful technological mash-up of algorithms, semantic search, social interactions and other data analysis that results in a personalized, social learning platform.

Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), the largest teachers union in Latin America and Mexico, used Declara's platform to train its 1.6 million teachers for a national proficiency exam that all teachers are required to pass this year as part of sweeping educational reforms in Mexico.

Teachers can log into the Declara platform to access course modules they need to take to prepare for the test. It also connects them with a tutor — someone else within the SNTE union who mentors and evaluates them along the way. The tutor-mentors provide assessments and decide whether teachers can move forward to the next module.

The platform is also social, connecting users with other teachers taking the same courses at the same time in the hopes that they will discuss course material and ask each other questions. The platform can be accessed anywhere at any time with the goal of making learning as convenient as possible.

Pierson speaks highly of educational systems in other countries that are trying to turn traditional classroom dynamics on their head in this way, pushing teachers to be learners as much as students.

"What we try to do is really help people see themselves as learners, even if they're educators," she said. "We're focusing on the adults. We always start in countries with teacher learning, mainly because if you're going to affect a country's future, if you can affect how teachers learn and teach, you'll affect what's happening with the students."

Declara, only two years old, has users ranging from SNTE to Genentech. Last week, the company nabbed a fresh $9 million in funding, bringing its total Series A funding to $25 million. The company is preparing to open an office in Singapore, one of the cities whose education system Pierson admires.

"What's interesting is they've said (in Singapore) that teachers need to be facilitators and advocates and advisers in learning, and no longer the knowledge keepers. They're the curators of information," she said.

"So how do we move away from this," she said, grabbing a lined-notebook in which a Declara intern had been diligently taking notes at the Declara office, "as the purveyor of knowledge, the textbook, and help you actually find your knowledge through other people and collaborate and go and search the world for information and then be able to distill it and put a novel bend on it?"

Pierson also sees the company's services as a solution to the increasing "skill-to-labor mismatch" in the United States.

"We have this huge pool of unemployed people and a huge pool of people coming out of universities unprepared to take on a 21st-century job. That means the entire system is broken, and yet we keep shoving people into universities and they keep coming out," she said. "What kinds of people are we preparing for the jobs that are now available?"

Declara has taken its first cracks at fixing the system mostly in international arenas. The company has not done any work with the Palo Alto Unified School District but is in talks with Stanford University on a possible implementation, she said.

Pierson is clearly bent on expanding Declara just about everywhere, armed with a genuine belief that innovation can — and should — be applied to education.

"Declara really has come from the root of truly trying to understand all the different ways in which people learn best and all the different ways we can communicate information and expertise with each other in novel ways that probably would be better for the individual," she said. "We can't continue to try to stick a round peg through a square hole. We have to really identify the best pathways for people to learn."

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Like this comment
Posted by what?
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 23, 2014 at 10:42 am

OORAH! Marine! Well Done!

Like this comment
Posted by Judith Appleby
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 23, 2014 at 11:40 am

Hooray for you, Ramona. Everyone deserves a special education.

Like this comment
Posted by Enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 23, 2014 at 11:51 am

Inspiring, awesome lady!

Like this comment
Posted by So right
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2014 at 12:27 pm

I had a similar accident [portion removed] while I was a sophomore in college. Due to the. Usual problems this caused, I was placed on academic probation. Then, because do the slowness of the recovery, Stanford literally dropped me from their roster! Letters from doctors and physical therapists notwithstanding!

Thankfully, I was picked up immediately by Santa Clara Univeraity, which ended up being a more well-rounded education.

Years later, due to an Excessively long labor and delivery, I gave birth to a learning disabled child ( the long labor drastically lessened the amount of blood and oxygen the baby received), who had some mild brain damage. [Portion removed.]

We ended up prioritizing, moved to Palo Alto, and Voila! Our boy gets moved up one year immediately! This, and IEP adapted to his particular kind of learning problems, helped him succeed in school and get into a four-year college--something the teachers in the old neighborhood had told us to not even bother considering as a possibility!

IEP truly is individualized, and I suspect more people need it than get it. It is simply fact that everyone learns differently, and any physical or mental aberration in childhood, or even adulthood, can intensify and multiply the differences ( to say. Toning of genetics, prenatal care, etc)

Thanx to Ramona for bringing this to the headlines.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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