The Parachute Team. Photo credit: Harvard Innovation Lab/Evgenia Eliseeva.

This is a First Look: It’s the first time any news outlet or blog has covered this startup. You can read more First Looks here. (We do this a lot.)

My elementary-school heart used to jump for joy whenever I walked into a classroom and saw we had a substitute teacher. Because that meant it was movie time.

Now that I’m a no-nonsense and no-fun adult, I can look back knowing those movie days did nothing to further my education. And because of Parachute – a Harvard iLab startup that’s using 2016 to develop an on-demand marketplace for high-quality substitute teachers – precious learning time won’t be wasted for future generations.

“What’s the point of having adults in the room if students aren’t truly learning?”

Substitute situations shouldn’t waste time

Sarah Cherry Rice, Parachute founder and doctorate student at Harvard Graduate School of Education, has worked at almost every level of the education system. After more than 10 years of teaching and consulting work in the education realm, she picked up on some problems areas universally afflicting schools. A major one lay with substitute teachers.

“One thing I just noticed as I was in and out of schools … is that I would see folks sitting in the back of the classrooms checking their phones, or I’d see students watching movies,” Rice began. “It seemed totally inefficient; what’s the point of having adults in the room if students aren’t truly learning?”

“Over time, I realized there were substitute teachers,” she continued. “So I started wondering, ‘Wow, how often do students have substitute teachers?’”

After digging deeper, Rice discovered that throughout a student’s academic career, substitute teachers come up quite frequently. According to her, over an educational lifetime, a student will spend at least 6 months with a substitute. And, for children in more urban schools, that time increases even more.

Rice told me, “I was just thinking there’s got to be a different way where students don’t sit in a classroom, watch movies and have an entire day of instruction lost, especially in schools where students are already falling behind. It seems like such a waste.”

Her PhD was the green light to start Parachute

As soon as Rice found out she would be starting her PhD at Harvard this past fall, she seriously began to come up with a solution. Initially, she just wanted to see whether she could recruit members of the community with different specialties to step in and serve as substitutes (after ample background checks, of course). So, for example, students could learn economics from a banker who’s filling in for their teacher.

“We didn’t just want to fill the shortage,” Rice elaborated. “We wanted to find people within the community who have talents to share … We wanted to actually bring enrichment with our focus on the arts and sciences.”

Rice found that there were plenty of local people with flexible schedules who’d be willing to give their time to substitute teach classes. Parachute has the manpower to create the marketplace the founder envisions and now the technology is being built up to support on-demand substitute requests. Rice wants to fill openings with little to no advanced warning.

So if a teacher calls out at six in the morning, Parachute will leverage GPS technology to find qualified substitutes nearby who can take over a class within an hour’s notice. She explained that she hopes to make Parachute “The Uber for Substitute Teachers.”

While getting the on-demand functionalities up and running are Parachute’s 2016 goals, the venture is looking to go even bigger in the future. The startup, which is a SXSWedu finalist that will be pitching next month, is aiming to tackle larger obstacles with substitute teaching.

For starters, Parachute is looking long-term to address issues that come up when teachers take maternity leave. With the vast majority of teachers being women, schools often struggle to find quality teachers to take over classrooms for 6 weeks at a time, so Parachute hopes to help once it gets its footing with the current marketplace its building.

Additionally, the venture wants to make substitute teachers available to fill any roles needed. If afterschool or before-school programs are shorthanded, Parachute wants to be there to provide quality back-up from the community. And the same goes for any weekend educational programs.

“Schools can be so worried about dealing with a shortage that they aren’t always focused on the quality of learning students are getting from substitute teachers … We’re trying to reimagine what a substitute teacher looks like,” Rice asserted.

Image via Sarah Cherry Rice.