How Hannah Dallman ’17 brings families together with her innovative literacy app

Hannah Dallman speaking on stage
Hannah Dallman ’17 presenting her award-winning pitch at the Second Annual Teach for America Shark Tank Oklahoma City contest in 2019

Hannah Dallman ’17 fondly remembers listening to her parents tell bedtime stories when she was a young girl. Since both her parents were in the Navy and her father was deployed for months at a time, she moved from school to school, but nightly stories with her mom—and her dad, when he was home—provided a consistent comfort.

“When I was a child, my parents read bedtime stories to me and my brother, and it became the foundation of my childhood,” Dallman recalled.

As she grew up, Dallman learned that the bedtime stories held meaning beyond the books themselves—including her favorite, Guess How Much I Love You.

“Books were so important to me—[they were] a way to build a relationship with my parents,” she said.

Dallman, an alumna of Teach for America (TFA), a nonprofit battling inequity in education, created an innovative app prototype project in 2019 that makes bedtime stories accessible to children with an incarcerated parent. This project, Reading Aloud Oklahoma City—also known as REAL OKC—acted upon her desire to improve children’s literacy and familial bonds.

“Reading aloud books would not only help children’s literacy, but it would be a safe way for parents and guardians to interact with their children,” Dallman said.

The inspiration: Community work and international education

Prior to joining Teach for America, Dallman fed her passion for continuous learning and community-building at Gettysburg College. She acquired a leadership certificate from the Garthwait Leadership Center, and worked on her foreign language skills in the classroom—skills that have since enabled her to communicate with bilingual students and their families in Oklahoma.

“From Gettysburg, I learned that the relationships I built helped create a community that helped me be successful,” Dallman said. “My Gettysburg education and experience led me to prioritize public service, value relationships, and build community.”

Dallman, an Africana Studies major, also studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, in the spring of 2016, which earned her a spot as a finalist for the Institute for the International Education of Students’ Global Citizen of the Year. The experience helped her land an internship with an e-learning company and inspired her senior thesis topic on the merits of mobile education.

Hannah Dallman standing in front of trees and foliage
Hannah Dallman ’17

After applying for Teach for America during the spring of her senior year, Dallman was selected to teach as a corps member at a Title I charter school on the southside of Oklahoma City, Okla.

“As an educational studies minor, I was intrigued about the mission and purpose of TFA,” she said. “It is a vigorous application and interview process. Gettysburg prepared me for Teach for America, starting with the campus recruiter.”

In her Teach for America role, Dallman began to notice a student, whose parent was in prison, struggling with his behavior and schoolwork.

“Over the course of the year, I saw how much of an impact his father’s absence had on him, and his fourth-grade portfolio became an extensive collection of his learning as well as his socio-emotional wellbeing,” Dallman said.

A fellow Teach for America staff member encouraged Dallman to channel her desire to help the student into an innovative project that could reap widespread, tangible benefits.

Providing family support and building children’s literacy

Dallman wanted to design a digital app that tackles children’s literacy and connects some of what the National Institute of Corrections estimates to be 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent in the United States with their parents. REAL OKC now provides that opportunity for families. This app features a video library of pre-recorded bedtime stories, read by incarcerated family members.

“Over half of children with a parent in prison are under the age of 10, which is a crucial age for children’s literacy development,” Dallman explained. “Families also face barriers to visitation, including distance to the facility, transportation costs, or unsuitable environments for children to visit.”

The app also helps families access resources, from non-profit organizations to government assistance programs.

“Nationally, Oklahoma ranks in the bottom three states for per pupil expenditure in education, yet [it is one of the top] in incarceration rates,” she said. “Oklahoma City has many organizations, but families are not always aware of their services.”

Hannah Dallman presenting her App prototype on stage
Hannah Dallman ’17 showcasing her award-winning app prototype to the “sharks” at the Second Annual Teach for America Shark Tank Oklahoma City contest in 2019.

Statewide recognition opens doors

Dallman’s work on REAL OKC took off in November of 2019 when she won the Second Annual Teach for America Shark Tank Oklahoma City contest. This competition is similar to the Shark Tank television show, but focuses on innovative ideas that address educational inequities.

With guidance from mentors, Dallman prepared a pitch presentation and underwent a question-and-answer session in front of a panel of four judges and 200 attendees—and she won a deal with the “sharks.” She earned a $10,000 funding award for her app—a prize that increased to $15,000 with an additional fund pledged by the owners of the event’s venue, The Yale Theater.

Shortly after winning, Dallman became an entrepreneur in residence at StitchCrew, a company that propels growth in startups based in the Midwest like REAL OKC. This opportunity allowed her to shadow other entrepreneurs in the prototype stage.

Hannah Dallman holding a very large check on stage
(From left) Alex Cameron, Tom Lumpkin, Gloria Torres, Hannah Dallman ’17, Martha Burger, Tommy Yi, and Art Serna at the Second Annual Teach for America Shark Tank Oklahoma City contest in 2019.

The path forward during a pandemic

While REAL OKC is still in a secure website phase, Dallman plans to transition to a web-based app, eventually working with an investor and a developer to ideate her vision in the virtual pandemic environment.

“I am committed to adapting my goals to this post-COVID environment and successfully implementing this on a small scale in my current location and see where that leads,” Dallman said.

Dallman now works as an online teacher at Epic One-on-One Charter School, a free PreK-12 public school focused on non-traditional education with web-based, self-paced instruction. Combining this experience with pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Boston University beginning in the fall of 2021, she will be able to build upon her work with REAL OKC.

“I am hoping that my transition to virtual education, increasing familiarity with platforms across the virtual sector, and a new lens of social work will benefit my project in numerous ways,” said Dallman.

Learn how Gettysburg College inspires entrepreneurial thinking on campus.

By Phoebe Doscher ’22
Photos courtesy of Hannah Dallman ’17
Posted: 03/29/21