When Janet Johnson ’80 became a mother, she decided to leave her job
with the Raleigh, North Carolina, school system to stay home with her
son, John. Twelve years later, she is still a stay-at-home mom -- but she
also runs EDSTAR, a business that creates data collection and analysis tools for public schools and other organizations and evaluates grant-funded programs. She also makes professional opportunities available to other mothers like herself.
With a few exceptions, EDSTAR employees are stay-at-home moms who work during their children’s naptime or school hours or after bedtime. Johnson’s company manages 50 projects at a time, making it essential for her employees to multitask, manage chaos, and work largely unsupervised. “All the skills necessary to be a stay-at-home mom are the skills needed in this structure,” says Johnson.
Johnson networks for employees on the Little League field or at school meetings. She found graphic artist Debra Turner when they were both volunteering in their children’s school. “Working with Janet makes it possible to do something that’s stimulating and productive without compromising my commitment to parenting,” Turner says.
Unlike similarly sized companies, EDSTAR does not operate within a traditional office hierarchy. Every time she signs a contract, Johnson assembles a project team of statisticians, data analysts, writers, and graphics specialists from more than 20 regular staffers and contractors. Team members work from home and set their own hours, communicating by e-mail and conference calls. Some of the staff have never met: a writer in Atlanta works closely with another in Missouri, and two employees are in Illinois.
Maintaining a company culture can be difficult under these circumstances. Without an office to go to each day, EDSTAR employees lack opportunities to share common experiences or to commiserate when problems occur.
To fill that gap, Johnson began recognizing employee achievements and milestones by awarding beads that her staff can add to charm bracelets. A cloisonné “pretty face” bead is a reward for attending conferences and meetings on behalf of EDSTAR, and a handwoven silver “team player” bead is given to employees who sacrifice individuality for the benefit of the group. There is even a “mistake” bead, because, Johnson says, she wants people to own up to mistakes rather than hiding them. Mistakes happen occasionally because the work is intense and challenging, says Johnson. But her staff is up to it. “Everyone working here was successful in their profession,” Johnson says.
With a Ph.D. in math education, an M.S. in statistics, and a B.A. in math, Johnson credits her Knox education for giving her the ability to communicate clearly with various audiences and to appreciate the value of the diverse fields in which EDSTAR works.
One of those fields is school counseling. EDSTAR specializes in helping public school counseling departments learn how to use data to determine which students should be targeted for services and which services are effective. Last year, more than five years after Johnson’s first project in this area, the American School Counseling Association called for reforms, including the use of data to target at-risk students and track and report outcomes. Thanks to their relationship with EDSTAR, a number of school systems in North Carolina are well ahead of this reform curve.
The company also works with universities and non-educational organizations, but Johnson gets particular satisfaction out of arming public schools with tools to improve practices in and out of the classroom. After all, Johnson says, “We have children ourselves. We want the schools to work. We want to help make things work.”