Born in Barea, Ohio, Diana Heldfond was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD early in her life. The last diagnosis came when she was in high school, and she was privileged to reap the benefits associated with early intervention and access to specialists and other resources. After graduating from high school, Heldfond attended Georgetown College in Kentucky, where she earned a finance degree.
Despite her learning difficulties, Heldfond thinks she’s exceeded expectations, telling me in an interview held over a video conference late last month that she felt she “did quite well in the end.” While in Georgetown, she started a technology company that would predict her current one. Heldfond is currently chief executive at Parallel Learning, an education startup focused on helping students with learning disabilities to succeed in the classroom and beyond. On its website, the company promises they can give students the tools to “unlock your brain’s potential” and “get world-class results without confusion or outrageous costs.” Parallel is aimed at K-12 students, with some older students as well.
For Heldfond and Parallel, the need is clear: 1 in 5, or 20%, of the population suffers from some kind of learning disability. Moreover, the support Heldfond received during her study career is not the norm for everyone. Not all students have access to the wealth of resources they had, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve attention. They need the resources that are easily accessible.
Parallel was a way for Heldfond to share its privilege by democratizing it.
“I was very motivated by this mission [founding the company] to eventually make my own reality more of a reality for more students across America,” she said.
The creation of Parallel happened to coincide with the pandemic’s reliance on distance learning for instruction. Heldfond explained that she and her team became acutely aware of the challenges virtual learning can pose for students and staff — this is especially true for many in special education, whose entire learning model normally thrives on direct, physical interaction. “I think it’s fair to say that special ed students in particular were disproportionately affected, [in the sense] that teachers are frantically trying to figure out how to book general education classrooms online,” Heldfond said. [and transition it] online.”
Parallel has been in business for two years now, during which time the company has built what Heldfond described as a “development ecosystem of providers” that deliver services entirely virtually. These providers serve students with many learning disabilities, as well as offer executive function coaching. That said, Heldfond was crystal clear in highlighting Parallel does not provide autism-focused services such as applied behavioral analysis, popularly known as ABA. Parallel focuses on what Heldfond calls their ‘five core services’: assessment, executive function coaching, speech and language therapy, behavioral therapy and skills-based tutoring. The value proposition is also high, as Heldfond said families can spend thousands of dollars purchasing such services for their children; many are on waiting lists for months, sometimes six to eight. With Parallel, Heldfond said, families have the opportunity to “mix and match” services in an effort to “build a care team around their child’s unique needs so that we can ensure they are successful, both in the classroom.” like in real life.”
Of course, technology is the foundation on which Parallel (and others) build their business. There can be no substitute for in-person instruction at many levels, especially with students with more severe disabilities enrolled in special day classes, but the Internet brings a plethora of benefits. According to Heldfond, the key to success is translation. It is imperative to identify the parts of the educational experience that have the best analogs in the online domain. In addition, it is equally important to strive for results that would otherwise be impossible in more traditional environments. With technology, it’s easier to collect data and create more complete, fact-based plans for students; these can be compared to peers of students in Parallel’s network. The familial aspect is the “clinical baseline” which Heldfond said acts as the basic structure for the whole experience. The baseline lays the track on which a historical timeline is plotted; it follows students from the very beginning throughout the school and beyond.
All of these Parallel products are delivered through the company’s proprietary platform. Heldfond cited the tele-assessments as an example and told me that her team worked with some of the largest test publishers to build an infrastructure that would allow Parallel to host the one-to-one interaction between clinician and student, while simultaneously providing access had to extensive assessment tools such as the Woodcock-Johnson. The technological components of Parallel’s services ultimately benefit students and families, as the startup’s tech brings efficiencies. The faster and smoother an assessment takes place and the faster the results are packaged nicely and shared with families in a digestible format.
“I really think our virtual services and the fact that we’re a telehealth platform really allows us to do a lot of really innovative things to improve the quality of education compared to a traditional clinic environment,” Heldfond said.
She added: “In our unique industry, in many cases it comes down to virtual or nothing as there is literally no physical physical provider that can help all the students who ultimately need these services. [It goes back] to our core task, which is to ensure that as many students as possible who need these resources have access to them. I feel like virtual really is the most obvious solution. And I know it’s something that’s incredibly important to a lot of other people on our team, like Dr. wright, [Jordan Wright, Parallel’s chief clinical offer]-the main reason he’s done all the research, in an effort to equate the standards of virtual testing and in-person testing, is precisely to increase the accessibility of our resources.”
In terms of feedback, Parallel has been a savior for parents seeking help.
“Many families navigating this world [online education] are spread for the first time, they are stressed [and] looking for answers and don’t know where to start. I think that’s one of the most powerful parts of the parallel platform,” Heldfond told me. “And the way we ultimately deliver our services is that because we’re taking the full kids approach, and we have so many services under our umbrella and so many incredible providers, we can really be a first point of first solution for families, [and] helping them navigate their child’s unique needs and help them find the right provider within our network to help them truly thrive. [We] think that value proposition for families is incredibly beneficial.”
Heldfond added that the feedback is positive, and she is excited about Parallel’s future in terms of new products. There is a lot of work in the pipeline for the company, including building relationships with larger clients such as school districts. She admitted there is “a long way to go” to achieve their goals, but their progress is encouraging. In the long term, it is Heldfond’s sincere hope to see Parallel cement itself in the industry as the place to be for high-quality development services.