Deering graduate teacher teams up to create ‘miraculous’ communication app
Aidan Blum Levine is only 19, but his first introduction to coding was so long ago that he can’t even remember.
In early elementary school, he used basic coding to create his own games, then moved on to websites. By the time he graduated from Deering High School last spring, he had developed several web-based applications, including one created with his computer science teacher that is now used in local schools to improve communication between teachers, students and the parents.
This app, ReachMyTeach, could expand to more schools thanks to a significant financial investment from Faria Education Group, a company that supports education systems and services in schools in 155 countries. Jeffrey Borland, the Deering teacher who created the app with Levine, said they are unable to disclose the amount of this investment because it is confidential.
Levine’s ability to create a game-changing app came as no surprise to people who worked with him and saw his passion for coding.
“I’m in awe of him,” Borland said.
Levine, now a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts, before moving to Portland 10 years ago. He said he’s always loved coding and making electronics, but the coding part wasn’t easy at first.
“I thought coding was cool and I tried to learn it for five years, but I didn’t do anything until it finally clicked in my head,” he said. . “It took me a little while to really get to the point where I was passionate, but I’m glad I persevered.”
Levine’s passion for computing grew as he attended fun summer camps at Open Bench Project, a shared learning/working space in Portland, shortly after moving to the city. During these camps, he built an arcade cabinet and worked with others on a Rube Goldberg machine, a chain-reaction contraption that accomplishes a single task in an indirect or overly complicated way.
For the past few years, Levine has helped teach these camps to young children who share his passion. Kids gravitate to Levine, who is curious, ready to dig into projects and is always learning, said Jake Ryan, founder and director of Open Bench.
“He is kind and generous with his time. He’s a great kid to have around the shop,” Ryan said.
Borland, Professor Deering, first taught Levine in an AP statistics class when Levine was in eighth grade. The teacher immediately recognized his student’s programming skills and over the next five years helped him connect with college professors. Borland also encouraged him to tackle projects to improve his skills.
“I think what I do best in this world is programming. Aidan does the tricks around me,” said Borland, who works as a freelance computer scientist. one like him for all my years as a teacher. He’s on a different level, but he’s humble about it.
Borland may have immediately recognized Levine’s talent, but Levine said he had “a pretty steep learning curve” when learning how to develop web applications.
“I had tried to make it for long stretches and had a lot of bad ones,” he said. “With each, I would find something else to learn.”
In high school, Levine created Winditions, a website that features user-collected conditions for winter sports. When the pandemic hit and her sister was trying to adjust to the remote college, Levine created an app called “Oops! I forgot!” which syncs Google Classroom data, alarms, calendars, and reminders into one platform to help students stay organized.
Late last winter, Borland was thinking of ways to improve the way staff at the Portland school communicate with students and parents, especially when dealing with families where English is not the main language spoken at home. He approached Levine to help with the project, and within three weeks, ReachMyTeach was born.
The web app is relatively simple and works similar to Gmail. It allows users to text or email a student or parent, multiple people, or an entire class. Messages are automatically translated into the family’s original language if it’s not English. Parents can respond in the language of their choice.
ReachMyTeach is now used in Portland Public Schools and South Portland Middle and High Schools.
“It’s a complete game-changer in terms of communicating with families,” said Rebecca Stern, principal at Memorial Middle School in South Portland.
Stern said the “miraculous program” drastically reduces the process of contacting parents. This has been particularly helpful this year, as schools in South Portland are taking in a large number of English-learning students, many of whom have arrived as asylum seekers from African countries. Many of their families don’t speak English, but can easily text teachers about their children, she said.
Kelly Thornhill sees these same benefits at East End Community School in Portland, where she is vice-principal. At a time when there’s a lot on teachers’ plates, the app makes it easier and more efficient to communicate with parents, she said. She thinks it works so well for Portland schools because it was designed by a local student and teacher.
“It’s really designed for our students and our families,” she says.
The app’s launch in Portland schools last fall was especially helpful for school nurses like Lizzie Nalli at Deering. Having the ability to quickly message parents drastically reduced the time she spent texting while tracing contacts and reminding students about pool tests.
Levine and Borland regularly talk with staff about how the app works and make adjustments, like adding read receipts and other features teachers have requested.
“It’s just amazing because they’re so responsive and developing the software. All of a sudden they changed it and there’s another thing that makes it even better,” Nalli said. “I have never used a program whose software developers I knew and they are continually improving it.”
With the Faria partnership in place, Levine and Borland expect to be able to continue to improve the app and expand its use to more schools in the United States and other countries. The company will help with aspects of app development that Levine and Borland are less experienced with, including marketing.
Levine, who lives on the MIT campus, said his current goal is to polish the app and launch it at other schools. He plans to return to Open Bench this summer to help with camps and, at some point, has to decide on a major.
“I’m a little undecided. I’ve done a lot of IT stuff, so that would be the easiest route,” he said. “But I’m not sure I want to do this as a career. I enjoy it as a hobby.