Two Seymour teachers never dreamed they would travel across the country to share and pitch their idea of how to improve reading skills in students.

Or that they would develop a software program giving teachers a different way to collect and use reading data.

But for the past four years, such has been the reality for Ryan Culbreth and Clay Schepman, who are the brains and founders of ReadEngage.

The web-based program generates immediate data about students’ reading strengths and weaknesses and allows teachers to address mistakes at the time they are made instead of having to wait until an assignment is turned in, graded and returned.

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“You think of students’ learning as a journey,” Culbreth said. “A lot of time, with tests now, you just get that end result, so what this does, it’s called a formative assessment. It allows a teacher to pinpoint where students make a mistake so they can fix it immediately.”

With ReadEngage, teachers are able to use their own reading materials by uploading them into the online platform and then creating assignments, such as identifying parts of speech, sentence structure, using context clues and many others.

Culbreth has taught language arts at Seymour Middle School since 2004, while Schepman, his close friend and colleague, is a social studies teacher at the school. Both graduated from Ball State University.

“I wanted Ryan to help me with reading strategies in my social studies class,” Schepman said. “So we started working together, and that’s really when we started looking for data.”

When he decided to go into education, Culbreth said he knew the most important and powerful lesson he could teach his students was the ability to read. Not just being able to read words but really understanding what the words mean, he said.

“We set off to find truly valuable reading data that showed us more than just a student missed number 5 but got 6 and 7 right on a test, but we couldn’t find that data,” Culbreth said.

Due to public education’s focus on performance-based testing, teachers today are limited to how far they can go with teaching reading skills, Culbreth said.

“As a reading teacher, I can teach my students reading strategies, I can let them pick the books they want to read to help them be engaged, I can do everything possible until I get that book in their hands, and then I have to rely on them to do it,” Culbreth said.

“It was frustrating. So we started looking for ways to show how students are reading throughout a text,” he added. “Good readers see the words on the page, but they are also automatically understanding sentence structure and vocabulary, and we do this without even thinking about it.”

But struggling readers or those who haven’t practiced enough don’t have that ability, Culbreth said.

“They just look at the words on the page to see if they can glean information from it,” he said. “That was our biggest problem — how do we get them to engage?”

The answer they came up with was ReadEngage, which allows educators to focus on reading comprehension and gives them the ability to virtually group students of different reading levels anonymously, including English language learners, special education and high ability.

“Imagine being able to see the exact moment that comprehension begins to break down and being able to help when it matters most,” Culbreth said. “Imagine you or your child’s teacher being able to know immediately that they get it and can move on without fear of leaving someone behind.”

They first presented their idea to professors from Ball State. One of those professors also runs a development studio.

It’s then they were told the cost of their venture would be more than $400,000.

“We couldn’t get to that point,” Culbreth said. “It was just too much money.”

But after hearing about an education start up weekend in Washington, D.C., they decided to try again with the hopes of finding a designer that would sign on to the project for less money.

After pitching their idea to several groups, they didn’t leave with anything concrete, but the experience connected them with a data guru, national education leaders and technology specialists.

They linked with one of the companies they had met on their trip, Washington, D.C.-based Notion Theory, and became more confident ReadEngage would happen.

“They built it,” Culbreth said. “They built us a viable product in four weeks, and it was less than 5 percent of what the other designers were telling us the cost would be. It was under $10,000 at that time.”

That was in 2014.

Since then, they have piloted ReadEngage at Scottsburg Middle School and have received positive feedback from students and teachers, who were using the software daily, Culbreth said.

“It was proof of concept,” he said. “They were getting value from our product. It shows what happens when you put open, good software in the hands of great teachers.”

Culbreth and Schepman have traveled to Washington, D.C., twice and San Diego to present ReadEngage at conferences and to potential investors. They’ve also applied for a patent for their concept.

It’s one thing to come up with an idea, but to produce an instructional tool and get it into the hands of students and teachers everywhere, the two have invested more time and money than either really had to give, they said.

Because of their jobs, they have had to work on the project outside of school hours and during the summers and to use their own equipment. Because they are both married with three kids each, it was a lot to ask of their families, they said.

Now they are extending their fundraising to launch ReadEngage past friends and family to the community and anyone interested in seeing students become more successful in the classroom.

“We want to give it to students free because we want people to use it,” Schepman said.

“But we want it to be useful technology for a lot of people, and we have incurred a lot of cost for that,” Culbreth added.

Earlier this month, they set up a GoFundMe account with a goal of raising nearly $21,000. After eight days, they had raised around $600.

“That’s $600 more than I imagined,” Culbreth said.

They hope to use the money to launch ReadEngage in schools and other educational settings this August, but Culbreth and Schepman know it won’t be easy.

“It’s hard to raise money being a startup in the Midwest, especially focused in education,” Culbreth said. “But we know people don’t mind giving to something they believe in.”

At a glance

To make a donation to help fund ReadEngage, visit gofundme.com/readengage.

For information about the ReadEngage program, created by Seymour Middle School teachers Ryan Culbreth and Clay Schepman, visit readengage.me/home.

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.