How Noble Schools built an app to keep 12,500 students engaged during a pandemic

Allie Beazell
Allie Beazell

Nov 13, 2020

According to the United States Census Bureau, 93% of households with school-age children are participating in some form of distance learning right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. With this massive shift in how classroom education works, schools are desperate for tools to help them with this massive undertaking.

Many schools turned to software like Zoom and Google Classroom for day-to-day learning, but they also needed tools for remote attendance logging, student well-being tracking, and contact tracing. Since most schools in the US were shut down starting in March, teachers and school administrators only had a few months to prepare for the upcoming 2020–2021 school year that began in August.

Noble Schools, a network of charter schools in the Chicago area, is the first education company to use Retool as a solution to the challenges involved in distance learning. With 18 campuses and over 12,500 students, there’s a lot to manage even in a normal school year. Bring in the COVID-19 pandemic and . . . oof. Fortunately, Moon Lee, Chief Data and Innovation Officer at Noble Schools, was up for the challenge.

With a background in tech startups and a passion for working at socially impactful companies, Moon was the perfect person to bring Retool into the education space. Here’s how Noble Schools built internal tools to address their needs before the school year started.

Noble Schools needed distance learning tools in before the start of the school year

With the pandemic shuttering schools for the foreseeable future, Noble Schools recognized that they needed tools to supplement the online learning systems they already had in place via Google Classroom and Zoom. “During this remote learning and schooling period [...] we discovered that we would need some additional systems, not just for learning,” Moon said. Learning tools worked great for facilitating education, but they needed a way to track how their students were doing — academically, physically, and emotionally.

Eventually, Noble Schools decided they needed a tool that would do the three following things:

  • Take remote attendance
  • Conduct wellness checks
  • Track barriers to distance learning

Moon, who joined Noble Schools in October 2019, quickly jumped on finding good resources for building out tools over the summer. Their current tech stack was built on Google Cloud services and Python. Moon has a highly technical background from working in and founding startups for years before joining Noble Schools, so he first considered building a tool on top of Google Cloud in Django. Quickly, he realized he wouldn’t be able to build out the custom tooling they needed before the school year started again in August. “I’m one person with this very small team,” Moon said, “and I need to build stuff very quickly for the start of school in a space of, let’s say, a month.”

Next, Moon looked at some pre-built solutions, including an open-source tool built by another school, but it was limited to 10,000 students, which wouldn’t work for Noble Schools. Next, he considered using a student information system that housed student records, but customizing the tool for their use cases was cumbersome. They needed something highly customizable yet easy to use. Finally, Moon found Retool by Googling “low code” or “no code” tools. After watching the demo, Moon said, “I immediately saw what I could do with the tool and just how powerful it was.”

Moon ended up using Retool to build a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), a tool used within education systems to track learning and the overall educational wellbeing of students.

An MTSS tool keeps students on track

The MTSS tool that Moon built is fairly complex and integrates with a couple of other systems within Noble Schools to provide data for dashboards and reports. Educators use the data compiled in the MTSS to track how well their students are adapting to remote learning during the pandemic and see what (if any) barriers their students are facing. The goal of the tool is to identify areas where a student might be struggling and provide resources for educators to intervene.

They needed a way to track how their students were doing — educationally, physically, and emotionally.

The MTSS that Moon made with Retool is used not only to track attendance but also as a report generating tool that tracks barriers to learning and overall performance to assist teachers in identifying students who need extra help. There are five barriers that the MTSS focuses on: operational, mental, physical, family, and other. A family barrier might be that someone in the family is sick, and the student needs to help take care of them. An operational barrier may be that the computer is broken or there is an internet outage.

One of the most critical functions of the MTSS is to calculate a “tier level” per student. If a student is at “Tier 1,” they’re doing great (have no barriers, good attendance, good grades, etc.). If a student is at “Tier 3,” they’re in need of intervention.

While all this sounds useful, you might be wondering how it all actually works. Let’s dive in.

How the MTSS at Noble schools works

The MTSS has two main flows: the morning flow and the evening flow. The morning flow is responsible for sending out questionnaires and collecting data. The evening flow is responsible for crunching numbers and compiling reports.

The morning flow

Every morning, an email is sent via Mailgun to each one of the 12,500 students that includes a link to a Google Form. Each of the 18 campuses has its own Google Form to keep data separated by school location. The Google Form asks each student to check a box to indicate if they’re going to attend school that day or not and asks them to indicate if they’re experiencing any of the five barriers.

Submitted forms are processed into a Google Sheet. Then, every 15 minutes, Fivetran (an ETL solution) sweeps the Google Sheet data into Noble School’s BigQuery data warehouse. Retool natively integrates with BigQuery, so once the data is in, reports are generated and displayed in Retool. Campus staff all have accounts in Retool, so they’re able to monitor attendance in real time as responses come in and check up on barrier reports to see if their students need any extra help.

The evening flow

Every evening, the MTSS has automation programmed that sweeps all data, crunches numbers, and calculates overall attendance for the day. Then, it calculates the MTSS tier for each student, using factors like GPA, assignment completion rate, discipline logs, etc. This data is then displayed in the Retool MTSS dashboard.

Users of the tool can filter by grade, advisor, barrier status, or attendance.

It’s also possible to view a student list organized by tier.

This is useful if you want to quickly find students who are Tier 3 (in need of some extra help). You can even add notes to a student’s details to tell other campus staff what you have done to follow up.

Finally, the MTSS is also plugged into the Zoom API, which allows campus staff to see data about the students’ Zoom sessions. Users can view a histogram of students’ “duration” activity over the past week.

“Retool allowed Noble to not only create a set of innovative student support tools on an accelerated timeline, but also allowed us to easily make rapid changes to these apps in real-time as we identified additional needs,” Moon said. “These development capabilities have enabled my team to assist our teachers and staff in providing the best student experience possible during an extremely challenging time.”

Building software tools with Retool for any industry

Most Retool customers use Retool as a way to build internal tools for their companies — generally in the SaaS, finance, or online retail space. Noble Schools was the first tool built with Retool in the education space, and it’s an A+.

Education generally tends to be underfunded and outdated, especially when it comes to technology. “The educational space is plagued by inferior tools that do not work well and are not very powerful or sophisticated,” says Moon. This shouldn’t be the case because education is crucial for our success as humans.

We’re always excited to see what our customers build with Retool. While we will continue to build up our presence in the tech industry, we would love to become a cornerstone of tools used for the greater good of humanity, like in education.

Interested in seeing if Retool could be the right solution for your educational tool woes? Check out a demo today.


Allie Beazell
Allie Beazell
Nov 13, 2020