“Giving a Voice to Special Education Kids” – Interview with Clay Whitehead in The San Francisco Business Times

PresenceLearning Clay Whitehead
Clay Whitehead, Co-CEO of PresenceLearning

As someone who needed extra support learning to read as a child, Clay Whitehead knows firsthand how important it is for special education students to get the additional services to which they are legally entitled.

That is one reason why Whitehead is so passionate about PresenceLearning, the startup he cofounded that uses video-conferencing to connect special education students across the country with speech-language therapists, who are in chronically short supply despite legal mandates, particularly in less populated regions.

“It’s a huge market, and it’s one that we love because we’re helping out with a real need. That’s what gets us fired up in the morning,” said Whitehead, who founded San Francisco-based PresenceLearning in 2009 with co-CEO Jack Lynch. The two met while they were getting M.B.A.’s at Stanford University and briefly worked at different Internet game companies before going into business together. Lynch also has strong feelings about the company’s mission, partly because he has a cousin with Autism, Whitehead said.

Whitehead gets excited when he talks about the emotional, social and cognitive benefits a struggling student can get with proper therapy, and how PresenceLearning is saving schools money and helping therapists spend more time with kids and less time traveling.

As it turns out, Whitehead and Lynch have also identified a large business opportunity.

Special education students account for 13 percent of the national public school population, but 20 percent of spending — or $110 billion a year, Whitehead said. There are 6.5 million special education students nationally, meanwhile, and only about 60,000 speech-language pathologists working in schools, with between 5,000 and 7,000 vacant speech therapist positions, he said.

PresenceLearning, which has 25 employees and 300 independent therapists under contract nationally, is on a more than $4.5 million run rate this year and expects more than double that next year. Whitehead said he expects to hire another half dozen people in January and to add several hundred therapists to the company’s network of contractors over the school year.

The company has raised $6 million in venture capital and is looking to raise another round to fuel growth and support its expanding ambitions. In addition to speech and language therapy, Whitehead said the company now provides occupational therapy to help students with fine motor skills like hand-eye coordination. It is preparing to go into counseling for behavioral issues for special ed students as well, particularly for kids with autism.

Becker said she used to spend large amounts of time driving between schools to meet with students in person.

Word about PresenceLearning has spread quickly, and the company this year will conduct 120,000 sessions of therapy for special education students in 22 states, as well as provide instructional materials and tools for government-mandated tracking of student progress.

In addition to schools contracting with PresenceLearning, parents are increasingly coming to the company directly, often wanting to pay services fro themselves, if necessary.

Michael McLaughlin, superintendent of the John Sweet Unified School District in Contra Costa County, said that until he started using PresenceLearning just over three years ago, he was paying too much and getting poor service.

The 1,800 student district, which covers the cities of Rodeo, Crockett, Hercules and part of Martinez, has a total budget of $15 million, of which $2 million this year will go to special education services for between 60-70 students, down from a recent high of $3 million.

In the past, special education students rarely if ever transitioned back into regular education, but that has changed because of PresenceLearning, with just over half a dozen kids exiting so far, McLaughlin said.

“In the education field, it’s rate to have something like this that has such big impact so quickly,” he said.

Patrick Hoge covers technology for the San Francisco Business Times