The EAA Exposed: An investigative report

Page 5 of 5

MAY 2013:

From: Brian Chandler: [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: District Interested in Student-centered Learning and Buzz/Gage

Asked by the ACLU if she ever helped sell product, Esselman Responded: "My job is not to sell any vendor's products. However, I have spoken to districts, state departments of education, foundations and non-profits about student-centered learning. I share the same information with all groups publicly when I speak about the vision, the tools we have developed and use, and the implementation/professional development required to make the shift."

Hi Mary,

We have a district in Hawaii that is starting a one-to-one laptop program and will likely be piloting it with a couple of their schools this fall. We have a call scheduled with them and I think it would be great if you could be on the call to help us discuss student-centered learning and Buzz/Gage. Would you be willing to do this?

Esselman, according to subsequent emails, participated on the call. Covington joined in as well. Also worth noting, this is the first reference in the FOIA documents to Buzz being linked to a product called GAGE. This is from a July 2013 press release: "GAGE is based upon the Buzz application first implemented a year ago with the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) in Detroit, Michigan." According to SINET's Cory Linton, "There is only one product. It was called Buzz, and still is in EAA. Because it turned out that Buzz could not be trademarked, we changed the name to Gage. However, to avoid confusion in EAA the name has stayed Buzz inside of EAA only. There was discussion around changing it in EAA, but it was decided not to."

From: Laura Monks [SINET 'Teaching and Learning Specialist" Assigned to the EAA]

To: [Unknown Recipient/s]

I now have three reports of things disappearing from courses in BrainHoney and the odd thing is that it seems to happen every Sunday night. ... I don't know what is causing this but we need to get this figured out ASAP ... these teachers are afraid to put anything into the course because things keep disappearing. Also, when the items disappear the progress for the students disappear as well so students are getting frustrated.

Along with using the EAA's students and teachers to identify problems with Buzz, the companies also relied upon teachers to generate ideas for new features that could be added to future updates, making them part of the software development process.

JULY 2013:

From: Sam Wilkinson [SINET Project Manager]

To: Mary Esselman [and multiple others]

Hi all, Thank you for the meeting this morning. It is great to see things progressing. I have put together a spreadsheet containing most of the fixes we would like to see in Buzz. It has three pages. ...

Next week, I will be visiting the EAA in Detroit. This is a great opportunity to get feedback from teachers. ... Please let me know if you have a specific question for the teachers/students, or if you think there is a specific conversation that should involve a teacher. During this trip, I will also work with the teachers to refine the "Big Items" that are still ambiguously defined.

Again, thank you for your time and work. Have a great weekend!

From: Chet Linton

To: Mary Esselman

Hi Mary,

Great seeing you and thanks for your great participation at SIIS [School Improvement Innovation Summit] this year. We greatly value you and our relationship with the EAA.

From: Mary Esselman

To: Brian Chandler [SINET]

Re: Agilix

Needless to say I am extremely disappointed. Most of the items have been on the list for almost 12 months – 18 months for the reports and 36 months for the reports if you add the fact that they also did not get finished in Kansas City. I understand that everyone want the product to go beyond the EAA but the problems with the interface in many cases developers mindset not client vision) have been on the fix list since last summer and before and the product is not viable at scale without them – copy feature, reports, content curating, library, etc. Those were always features in the mock ups and the initial SOW – many tied to issues that initially surfaced in Kansas City...

Individual success plan for students for the latter half of the 2013-14 school year. If we use the same process as this year by the time we get some focus on this we will have to once again wait for developer times and may not get slotted until January or June. The money is in place so I would like the time reserved NOW....

I would like Agilix to see my language.

The above email provides the first clue the relationship between the EAA and Agilix is becoming strained...


From: Nathan Spencer [Science Instructional Coach at Pershing High School]

To: Laura Monks [SINET]


We have a parapro, Mrs. Lyle, that is really helping take charge of the environmental science class left vacant by Mr. Catabiano. We are planning a unit that will be put in place during the first week of November. She will need access to a Buzz account. I will help her put the content on, but our students have been doing "busy work" for almost the whole year now.

From Duane Call [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

Sorry I've been so out of touch the past several months – though don't think you and the EAA aren't top priority – it's nearly all I discuss, promote and focus on. I've just had to make sure SINET is owning the project, getting familiar and able to support and drive it so I can focus on driving sales that drive more money to perfecting your model.


From: Samuel Wilkinson [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Hi Mary,

Here is a quick summary of what was discussed between Agilix and the group of EAA teachers:

• Agilix asked the teachers to walk them through a day in the life of a teacher and a student

• The teachers talked about different habits using Buzz – some teachers upload small amounts of content daily, others upload large amounts weekly, etc.

• Brendan showed several bugs to Agilix (all of which were already known by the Agilix support team)

• The teachers talked about how tedious it is to author courses using BrainHoney/Buzz

• The teachers pointed out several flaws with the "Assign Task" tool. The teacher cannot keep track of what has already been assigned, nor can they remove assigned tasks.

• Overall the discussion was focused on software bugs, rather than new features.

From: Duane Call

To: Mary Esselman


We'd like to get more of our team out to visit your schools [for a second visit] so they can have a firsthand experience of how Buzz is being used, where it's working and where it can be improved. We want them to see it in the hands of the end customer so they can think more intelligently when they develop.

BTW – you and your team owned iNACOL [International Association for K-12 Online Learning symposium] – endless positive feedback. Nice work.

After 14 months of use by EAA teachers and students, Mary Esselman received a harsh assessment of the software she had so enthusiastically helped promote for use by other educators.

From: Brian Chandler [School Improvement Network]

To: Mary Esselman

... Agilix mentioned to us that they had spoken about potentially making [another] visit on 12/9. I'm not thrilled about this, but they are insisting and we are trying to be cooperative. They feel like it will help their developers see the bigger picture, which is probably accurate, and if this allows us to complete the final Phase 3 items more effectively, then maybe it is worth it. I am going to see if I can find some budget for Sam and I to make the trip with them as well. Does this date still work for you. We also told them you will not have any time to meet with them when you are here [in Utah] the week of Thanksgiving, as we have too much to do.

This brings me to the develop schedule. First, I told them you were very unhappy about their impromptu meeting with your teachers. I told them it was distractive, and did not help us accomplish the goals we are currently trying to accomplish, and that they shouldn't have done this without your approval. They claimed that the intention of the meeting was actually to allow their developers to see the iNACOL presentation put on by your teachers. I told them that regardless of their intentions, it was their fault for allowing the discussion to digress into a bugs discussion, which did not benefit anyone. I also spoke to them about [the] prototype, and they were very embarrassed by this. I told them we need to specifically focus on Phase 3 item right now and nothing else. They agreed to do this.

In terms of the development schedule, we have spent countless hours going back and forth with them [Agilix] to determine how we can solve the remaining items on the schedule. We have reiterated to them again and again they have done a terrible job meeting schedules and expectations. We have had a series of meetings to determine how to complete the Phase 3 items. In the end, they have finally admitted the current version of Buzz is little more than a hack that really can't be extended much further without a significant rewrite. As promised, I told them I needed a solid schedule from them that I could share with you;

1) Phase 2 – Phase 2 is obviously long past due. However, Austin [where an Agilix office is located) continues to try to blame you and your team for the delay. Phase 2 should be completed and deployed this week.

2) Phase 3 has morphed into a new process. First, Agilix Austin will no longer be involved in development. Second, for this phase, they have committed to doing nothing more than what is required to complete Phase 3 items to make the product scalable and extensible.

I know this schedule is very disappointing. Sam and I feel the same way. Unfortunately, even if we spun our own development at this point, by the time our team got up to speed, I don't think we would be any further along than their teams will be by March. My other fear is that Kentucky will want Buzz/GAGE on the ground before March. Agilix is manually building another instance of Buzz//GAGE that we can deploy in Kentucky. I know that training Kentucky on the current version is not satisfactory to you (nor is it satisfactory to your needs at the EAA); however, I hope that you can be patient with us and help us make it work if necessary. We are planning to start or own development on BrainHoney and Buzz/GAGE both based on the March version and in parallel (hopefully starting in January or February), which will give us much more freedom on future direction of the product, but we are currently stuck between a rock and a hard place.

SINET executive Cory Linton told the ACLU that it is not his company's "official position" that Buzz is a "hack" program. The person who made that statement, he said, was not a SINET executive.

Along with expressing concern, her first reaction is that two important phone calls need to be made.

From: Mary Esselman

To: Brian Chandler

We need to discuss today. Having spent all this time and $250,000 on it to cite it as a hack is hugely concerning as I am setting up a call with governor and Chet. Also what is the KY version?

Chet, presumably is Chet linton, CEO of SINET. The governor of Michigan is Rick Snyder.

From: Brian Chandler

To: Mary Esselman

Please let me know what time you are available to speak. I have about an hour right now ...

I apologize if I was unclear in my previous e-mail. The Kentucky version would be exactly the same as the EAA version with whatever fixes we have competed by the time the want us to deploy it. My point is that I know you are unhappy with the current version, but I'm afraid we will not have all of the fixes that you and I desire in place by the time we may have to deploy it.

But, it was hoped brighter days awaited...

From: Agilix

To: Mary Esselman [and multiple other recipients]

Subject: Final status meeting!

Hi all,

Sam and Phillip and I had a good final status meeting today to close out our fall projects for the EAA and SINET. You all have been great to work with, and I appreciate everyone's efforts to envision, design, develop, and launch such powerful improvements to the Buzz platform for the students, teachers, & administrators of the EAA! This has been a very rewarding project, and I'm really glad to have been a part of it as we moved from hand-drawn concepts all the way through today's final acceptance of what has been deployed.

Mary, Phillip, Same and I talked about support processes going forward, and our time will work hard to continue the positive momentum for EAA and SINET.

From: Nicholas Olson [Southeastern High School Teacher]

To: Laura Monks

Good evening,

I just logged onto Buzz and my classes have disappeared.

From: Christian Weibell [Agilix]

To: Mary Esselman

[Our upcoming] onsite visit is a key component of our product focus for the next 24 months and beyond, as we update and enhance Buzz. Our team is committed to delivering the very best student-centered, data-informed, teacher-led, personalized learning solution for the blended environment as our number one strategic focus. Because of this, I am brining key members of our development team on site to the EAA to witness SCL firsthand, to help them catch the vision, to fuel their passion, and to have real use case scenarios to draw from during product development. I would like to maximize their exposure to as many classrooms, teachers, and students as possible.

Despite telling the ACLU that it was not her job to sell product, Mary Esselman was encouraged to learn aspects of the specific sales program employed by SINET.

From: Brian Chandler [SINET]

To: Mary Esselman; Kenneth Grover

Subject: SCL DNAS Worksheet

Hi Mary and Kenneth,

Please let me explain a little further with regards to the DNAS sheet that Chris Stott sent over. DNAS is a sales methodology that has been endorsed by our sales leadership team (there is a book associated with this called The DNA Selling Method, which I have read). From this, they have created an outline used by our salespeople ... the outline is actually quite simple in my opinion. I would like to create a first draft version for SCL, most particularly for DeKalb and Kentucky in case it might come in handy for the different groups we will be presenting to I those two areas.

Chandler goes on to outline specific parts of the worksheet he'd like Esselman and Grover to think about and provide feedback on. It is unclear who Grover works for.

From: Briana Kelly [a k-1 teacher at Law Elementary]

To: Laura Monks

I have some concerns about the growth of my class in reading comprehension and writing. These concerns were echoed by my fellow PLC members at yesterday's meeting as well, so I thought I would ask for help. I have looked over my Performance Series [Test] goals for my classes and I realized that my ELA [English Language Arts] block has been almost exclusively dedicated to phonics and phonological awareness. ... I know we are not allowed to do read a-louds or writer's workshop in the SCL model, but I am very concerned that I am not covering key skills my students need in order to make growth on Performance Series [Tests] and be prepared for second grade. Do you have any suggestions for how to cover all aspects of Ela within the SCL model? Are there examples from other schools? Is there a "most effective and efficient" organization model for SCL in ELA lower elementary? ... Thank you for your help.

From: Laura Monks

To: Briana Kelly

I hope that the misconception of teaching mainly phonics is not coming from how it is set up in Buzz. Trust me the Compass content in Buzz is being re-configured and hopefully next year will be a more balanced program.

From: Lisa Cole [EAA Teacher]

To: Laura Monks [SINET]

Subject: Buzz

OMG!! I am sooo frustrated with BUZZ. Ok, I am back to the same issues as before, students are able to login to buzz, but the tabs are empty. Yes, we are on google. My students can't do the assignment because it does not show up on their page, but I can't find the assignment in the syllabus to remove it from my grade book. Is there something going on in Buzz right now? Help me Laura!!

From: Laura Monks

To: Lisa Cole

Subject: RE: Buzz

Hi Lisa, I am currently working in a new position for School Improvement Network and am asking teachers to send their tech issues on Buzz to Buzz help. So that Buzz help can start logging what is going on with teachers in order to make this a better product.

Hopefully they will be able to help you!


From Kaarina Roberto [Documentary Filmmaker for SINET]

To: Mary Esselman

Hi Mary,

I was wondering if you could see if it would be fine with Doc if we follow him home from the office next Tuesday evening. ...

By the way, I was just looking at that segment of you going home from the office and it is great. Also, I wanted to mention how much I was admiring your awesome art and décor and how it speaks to your immense creativity.

The following email (which has been edited for clarity) from SINET's Brian Chandler to Mary Esselman deals with several important issues. Esselman's responses appear in bold.

From: Brian Chandler

To: Mary Esselman

Subject: follow Up Items

Hi Mary, I called and left you a voicemail and texted you this afternoon and texted you just so you know I'm not screening you. ;-)

I suspect things are still tense at the EAA. I haven't heard an update, but would love to hear how things are going. There are actually ... items I need to follow with you on, with some new being very critical. I'm on a flight right now so I can't talk, but I could speak later this afternoon when I get back. The following are the items, with some being of an extremely urgent nature at this point (I will label them by urgency):

Extremely Urgent

• I wanted to tell you that if users have been having intermittent access to Buzz over the past couple of days it is because Agilix has had a Denial of Service attack on their servers. They have been working around the clock to get it resolved and should have it fixed soon.

Can I get updates each day until it is fixed?

Somewhat Urgent

• With some of these implementations potentially starting soon, I would like to solidify a contract with you so we can get your help, particularly with the Kentucky districts. However, I still haven't heard from you on your rates or your availability.

I will speak to Dr. Covington on this tomorrow when we return to work. The timing was inappropriate over the last several weeks with all of these issues we were having. It will be a combination of me and coaches.

Esselman informed the ACLU that $5000 was paid to the EAA for two days she spent working in Kentucky at the behest of SINET.

• I am still in great need of any content or competitor pricing you may have to help us in our negotiations and also to nail down some final pricing.

I have pulled the contract book and will have Jesse pull and email tomorrow.

• I wanted to know if you would be open to rebranding Buzz to GAGE. The primary reason being is because it is causing confusion as we are introducing it to now districts. However, it is also causing us some technical headaches having to keep the Buzz branding intact. The impact would be minimal – mostly just a logo and the login screen. (The March release will represent a much larger impact to your users.)

Not sure what to say on this one. A bit awkward for us as it is midyear and it would have been a lot better if we had had a conversation before it was promoted as Gage in terms of timing, etc. In addition we are providing funding for development as Buzz this year. I'll have to review with Dr. Covington.

On June 16, EAA Chancellor John Covington resigned amid scandal after it was revealed that the district had racked up $240,000 in credit card charges on travel and other items in less than two years. Coving said that he was leaving to take care of his ailing mother.

"Dr. Covington embraced the tremendous challenge of building such a school district. His student-centered approach, with individualized learning plans, longer school days and longer school years allowed children to make great strides," Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement released after Covington resigned. "With passion, he built a solid foundation for the work of the EAA to continue and thrive, helping thousands of our young people now and into the future."

On June 30, a press release touted the availability of a new and improved version of GAGE. The release, in part, read:

"School Improvement Network, the leader in educator effectiveness systems, today announced the company's cloud based personalized learning solution GAGE is now scalable across any school or system. GAGE provides everything needed to transform a traditional school or district into a personalized learning environment, and gives districts the ability to provide personalized, mastery based learning along with real-time professional development resources for educators combined into a single system."

"The GAGE personalized learning program is available to select school districts this fall for the 2014-2015 school year. "District administrators interested in being considered for inclusion in this program should contact the School Improvement Network at [email protected]."

Asked what the current status of Buzz is, EAA spokesman Mario Morrow said, "Everything is under review. It is a new day for the EAA."

Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.