Westchester Words: Education, Ed-Tech, and Publishing

Executing the Westchester Education Services Vision

July 08, 2021 Season 1 Episode 17
Westchester Words: Education, Ed-Tech, and Publishing
Executing the Westchester Education Services Vision
Show Notes Transcript

Kevin J. Gray, President and Chief Content Officer, discusses the launch of the Westchester Education Services division and the successful strategies he has implemented to serve education publishers, ed-tech companies, and industry associations that require curriculum resources.

Nicole Tomassi:

Welcome to Westchester Words, Education Ed-Tech and Publishing. I'm Nicole Tomassi, and in this episode, I'll be speaking with Kevin J. Gray, President and Chief Content Officer of Westchester Education Services. In our previous episode, Paul J Crecca shared his vision about launching Westchester Education Services, and from the outset, Kevin has led the implementation of the strategies that have made the division successful in supporting the content development requirements of supplemental education publishers and ed-tech companies. Kevin, it's so nice to welcome you back to Westchester Words, this time as the guest rather than the host.

Kevin J. Gray:

Thanks, Nicole. I'm super thrilled to be here.

Nicole Tomassi:

I am too. So let's begin by having you talk a little bit about your professional background before you joined Westchester Education Services.

Kevin J. Gray:

Sure. So it actually starts before my professional background. Education runs pretty deep in my family. My dad was on the school board for, I don't even remember how many terms. Uh, my mom was a theater teacher for a number of years, so, so we had education in the blood and then after college, I spent some time substitute teaching and got a sense of what teachers faced, you know, in the classroom. And then I started at the Mazer Corporation about 25 years ago. I worked in the editorial department and I led , uh , social studies and language arts programs, and then was part of the transition to digital content during that time, and I was there for almost a decade. And so at that time, I developed a real foundational understanding of how to produce educational materials, both print and digital. And I got the chance to work with a lot of really smart folks, a lot of folks who we still work with, who I still work with now. And then after Mazer, I spent a few years at Academic Benchmarks, which is an ed-tech company focused on standards and standard alignment, but really, really, really was interested in, in editorial and content development. So I moved back into that space and worked for a couple of development houses before I landed here. Uh , and I'd also be remiss to not note that during the time at Mazer, I was also working at Stivers school for the arts teaching writing to seventh and eighth graders. So I really got a feel for not just how to develop the content, but also, you know , what are the day-to-day needs? What , what is it that teachers need when interacting with the students, what works and what doesn't

Nicole Tomassi:

So it kind of helped you have a complete understanding of what the materials need to start off with so that at the end, the students are really fully learning everything that's in those materials.

Kevin J. Gray:

Yep, absolutely. And what's useful and what's not. And that's really where I gained a huge appreciation for supplemental materials because that's what I found time and time again, that I was , I was going back to and using and it allowed a lot of flexibility in approach and really helped me create solutions that work really well for my group of students.

Nicole Tomassi:

Kevin, when you were approached about leading Westchester K-12 Publishing Services, which later rebranded as Westchester Education Services in January of 2020, what about the idea made you think that this could be a successful venture?

Kevin J. Gray:

So as I mentioned, I'd worked for a number of development houses previously, but it felt like the approach. It didn't always take into account the needs of teachers and students. Um, as Paul alluded to the level of service and the approach had really changed after 2008. And so when he and I started talking about coming on board here and building this out, I was really excited about the emphasis on supplemental materials. It felt like that was an area of oversight , uh , with some of the houses I'd worked in. And I was also really excited about this high touch , very US-based approach. It was a major plus to me that Paul had gotten Marie Brown to sign on. I hadn't worked with her, but her reputation for quality was really well-known . And I was really excited at the opportunity of working with her. And then, you know , one thing that's really different about Westchester is we're employee owned and that really aligned well with my core values and being able to work in a, in a place where everybody , uh , working in the materials had a stake in the success of the company.

Nicole Tomassi:

Now in the beginning, Westchester made a conscious decision to focus on the core subject areas. Can you talk a little bit about how as time went on the division has since branched out into additional subject areas, including English language teaching, social-emotional learning, culturally responsive education, and more recently career and technical education?

Kevin J. Gray:

Absolutely. So, you know, we, we grew in the foundational areas. We started the foundational areas, but as we grew, we were listening to what our customers needed and expanding out there, but also really, you know , scanning the horizon and trying to listen to what our customers end users were asking for. So the teachers, the parents, the students, what were we hearing in the market that we thought our customers were going to need to be able to address? And so we saw there were a lot of underserved markets, especially around bilingual, ELL and ELT students. We also saw a rise in understanding about ideas like SEL and CRE, which, which aren't new, but they've been taking on more prevalence in the education space and for good reason. Those two areas in particular really work well to address the needs of the whole students and of all students and those align really nicely with Westchester's core values. So it was relatively easy to bring those service areas on. And then again, more recently you're sort of looking out and saying, okay, what , what are students needing? What are teachers needing? Where are there gaps in the, in the ecosystem? And we're seeing that there's really a call for high quality career and technical materials, especially supplemental materials. There's a lot of core texts in those areas, but we're finding the teachers or local districts or professional organizations are building a lot of the supplemental material and they're looking for help to do so . So it felt like a real alignment of , of opportunity for us.

Nicole Tomassi:

And interestingly, t he, the subject areas or the, or the things such as social-emotional learning, culturally responsive education CTE, all of these have really kind of come to the forefront during the course of the pandemic, which of course had profound impacts across all of the education landscape. Can you share some examples about how Westchester worked with education publishers and ed-tech companies during that time as they needed to shift their product and delivery platforms sometimes practically overnight?

Kevin J. Gray:

Yeah. I mean, Paul mentioned the, the real shift to digital delivery. That had been in the works for awhile, but it was certainly accelerated and we were in a good position for that because we had been doing , uh , you know, I kind of talk about our work being platform-agnostic. Print is a platform, digital is a platform and we work well in both. So , uh , really being able to help publishers who didn't have as large of an online presence build out their online presence and then some new and creative , um, you know, things the publishers were doing. One of my favorite stories is that we helped Carnegie learning with a very ingenious tool they created. Their, their program was very textbook driven and they w they wanted to make sure that they were still supporting their students, particularly students who were working at home and, and, you know, struggling through math problems. And so they developed a solution that would allow students to use SMS text messages, to be able to get hints and support and some scaffolding for the math problem . So the student would text details about the grade, the book, the page, and the problem number, and the system would, would deliver back hints. It was our team working in tandem with Carnegie to , to develop those, those hints. So that was pretty exciting, you know, and also not just with the pandemic, but with all the changes that happened last year and all the things that were leading up to the changes that happened last year, we launched our culturally responsive education review service. So publishers and ed tech companies realize that their materials may not necessarily be meeting the needs of their students. Uh , and this is particularly true of historically historically marginalized backgrounds. So we worked with a number of market leaders to not only review and help them adjust their backlist materials, but also to help guide content development in a way that avoids adding in problematic approaches of the past.

Nicole Tomassi:

You know, this was something that we covered recently during the EdWeek Market Brief Virtual Summit. Um , and Sam spoke a lot to how that is being addressed in the market. And speaking of the EdWeek Market Brief Virtual Summit. you and I participated in that as well last week, and a lot of the panelists, whether they were working in school districts or , uh , for companies that are supporting students and teachers are looking forward to the 2021-2022 school year, and the kinds of content and strategies that'll be needed to help students progress in a more holistic way. How can Westchester partner with publishers and ed tech companies in during this, I guess, emergent phase?

Kevin J. Gray:

Sure. So we're already doing some of this, particularly in making adjustments to content, so it's culturally responsive. We're also seeing more calls for embedding, social-emotional learning into, into programs, and we've invested in training our staff , uh, around both around CRE and , uh, SEL , uh, and building that out. Uh, you know, we're also working to build out new content that highlights voices of those previously marginalized groups. Our customers are seeing in addition, a demand for new resources or additional resources as Paul noted, there was a , a lull in the market for a while . Uh, and now there's a sort of pent up demand that seems to be breaking. You know, now that we're, we kind of have a better picture of what school funding is going to look like, and it looks like that's , uh , stabilized. And, you know, in that market brief summit last week, they talked about , um, schools being very optimistic about budget increases for next year, which we weren't sure of a year ago. And so a lot of the publishers are taking advantage of that. Ed tech companies are taking advantage of that, and our team can really help serve as an extension of those of their internal development teams. So in a lot of ways, what we end up doing is helping our customers respond to a greater variety of market needs beyond those that they'd be able to do with , uh, with just their internal resources. That's not new, but we're seeing a lot of call for that now, as there is a sort of a surge of pent up demand for new material,

Nicole Tomassi:

And unlike as, as I had discussed with Paul, you know, unlike the previous recession and pullback , there is more federal support for these kinds of initiatives that we just didn't see coming out of the 2008, nine crisis. So that's sure to help nurture things along.

Kevin J. Gray:

Yeah, that's right. I mean, I mean, when we were sitting at this point last year, we didn't know what was going to happen. We didn't know if, if the schools were going to bear the brunt of, of local tax , uh, decreases , um, and I'm really was happy to see that there was such an investment in , in education. And, you know, I think the pandemic, unlike the recession, education was front and center in this pandemic, as people are trying to figure out how do we educate kids in this new model? And , and in that change, realizing there were a lot of things that weren't maybe working the way they should have. And so there's a lot of investment in, in education. It's a , it's actually fairly exciting to be part of that.

Nicole Tomassi:

Yeah, I think that's true. And also, I think it just gave the opportunity, especially again, with, you know, with more of those financial supports to do so. It gave, it gave school districts an opportunity to say, how can we do better coming out of this? How can we support students where they are and how they learn best? So it is going to be an interesting space to watch over the coming years. In another sign of continued progress. I know you're pretty excited about this. You and Dave Bailis, you're going to be attending the ASU GSV summit this August. So tell me, what are you most looking forward to about going to one of the first in-person events for the K-12 education space and almost a year and a half?

Kevin J. Gray:

Well, it's been a year and a half since I've flown on a plane. So that's pretty exciting in and of itself, but also this conference, the ASU conference is a great conference, and I know it'll probably be somewhat , uh , dial back a in terms of attendees, but I still expect there to be some really great energy there. And it's going to be, it's going to be wonderful to be able to meet and talk with folks who, you know, we've been meeting with them virtually, but there's just something about meeting in person that fast forwards and energizes conversations and, you know , conferences like ASU GSV also act as incubators for innovation and discussion, which I mean, makes sense, right? You get a lot of smart people in a , in a space and we're all trying to, you know, scratch at similar problems. And so you get some really cool outcomes that are , that can be done , uh , have been done over the last 18 months virtually, but, but not with the energy and the excitement that you get , uh , in person. So I , I'm just, I'm really looking forward to it.

Nicole Tomassi:

Now I am too, even though I'm not going to be there in person. So be my eyes and ears and report back. Maybe we'll do a podcast episode after that, you know, kind of to wrap up on what you saw and heard and what it's like to be out in the real world again. Um, so that's, that's a really positive note to end this conversation on Kevin. Thank you so much for joining me today. I've had the pleasure of working with you from just prior to the launch of Westchester education services, and it's been exciting to see how the division has grown and also just seeing how everyone on the team has such a passion and dedication to the mission of developing the best content for all learners.

Kevin J. Gray:

Yeah. Thank you, Nicole. And you're right, I mean, this is a really, really dedicated team and I'm so proud of what the team has accomplished. I'm so fortunate to work with so many smart and talented and creative people, folks who really own what they're working on and really want to bring the best for our customers and ultimately for the students. So it's been a really fun four years, and I'm just looking forward to all the ways that we'll be able to help the education community in the, in the future.

Nicole Tomassi:

To learn more about how Westchester education services can help your company with your product development requirements, complete the short form on the contact us page of the Westchester education services website at westchestereducationservices.com. And we'll get in touch with you. Thank you for listening to this episode of Westchester words, follow us on your favorite streaming platform to be notified about new episodes as they become available, or to listen to previous episodes that you may have missed. You can also find all of the episodes plus additional content that's been shared by some of our guests at the podcast page of our website. We also love hearing from you. So feel free to send us an [email protected] to share your thoughts or comments about today's discussion, as well as tell us what content you'd like to hear Westchester cover for future episodes. Speaking of future episodes, I hope you'll be able to join us for the next episode of Westchester words. One , I'll be talking with Dave Bailis, Senior Director of Operations for Westchester Education Services. We'll be continuing the conversation that began with Paul Crecca and the previous episode and Kevin today until then stay safe, be well and stay tuned.