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Re-Opening Public Schools with a Focus on Service: A Framework

The COVID-19 pandemic presented schools with a host of unprecedented challenges, particularly for underserved students and communities.

Teachers were asked to deliver content intended for traditional classrooms in virtual and hybrid settings. Students were asked to log-on from home, or in special locations outside of school. Parents were asked to play the role of instructional aides. Administrators, meanwhile, were charged with keeping a patchwork system running and providing equitable access (which wasn’t easy before) — a dizzying and stress-inducing amount of change, and it occurred, literally, overnight.

If there is a silver lining in all of this, it’s that the pandemic forced schools into a phase of necessary and, some might say, long-overdue digital transformation. While administrators begin the process of re-opening physical buildings, and testing plans to keep students safe in the inevitable return to the classroom, no one thinks it reasonable — or even a good idea — for schools to snap back to the way things were. 

From Education Week:

“There’s no going back now,” said Pedro Martinez, superintendent of the 49,000-student public school system in San Antonio, Texas, where voters recently approved a $90 million bond to pay for new technology – including cameras and microphones that will be used to broadcast teachers working from their classrooms into the homes of thousands of students learning remotely across the city.

“I think the right mix is the reverse of what we have now,” said Pedro Martinez, superintendent of San Antonio ISD. “My ideal is when we can have 70 percent of students in-person and 30 percent remote.”

No way around it: The digital revolution in public schools is here to stay. How that revolution looks will depend on your district, and its needs. Regardless, administrators — and technology directors in particular — will be leaned on to build the foundation on top of which this new brand of education will seamlessly work and evolve.

This is their moment — and it isn’t just about learning either. Underpinning all of this is a central rail of complex and interoperable networks that promote collaboration and communication, both inside and outside of school, enables users to report problems and concerns (remotely when needed), and ensures departments operate securely and efficiently, wherever and whenever employees and families sign on to work or learn. 

It’s not enough to have a helpdesk, or a simple ticketing solution. Service management is no longer just an IT function. At K12 Insight, we spent two decades working exclusively with K-12 schools and married that learning with a proven 40-plus-year framework to produce a system of customer and service management to drive operational efficiencies, engender trust, and improve outcomes, inside and outside the classroom.

What follows is an outline of the exact framework we’ve used in partnering with more than 500 school districts nationwide. Our ask is simply that you read it. We hope you find the information useful on your digital transformation journey. If, at any time, you want to learn more about our approach, or some of the work we’re doing with other districts to build trust through a focus on service management, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’d love to hear from you. Our contact information is below.    

#1 Start with omni-channel inputs 

Translation: Make sure your stakeholders can find you through channels that are convenient to them.

This is a big deal, especially in light of rising concerns about equity. Take a hard look at your current infrastructure. Put yourself in parents’ and community members’ shoes for a day. Think about the complexity of your communication tools. 

Do you have an app?
If so, do all parents know how to effectively use it?
What if they don’t speak English?
Or have internet access from home? 

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an app. Apps are good. What it says is that you should have multiple channels, including an app, so that parents feel comfortable and have a reliable option that works for them, and in their context. Think easy and comfortable, not intimidating.

Consider setting aside a designated call number for customer service. Advertise that number around town — on billboards, in parking lots, on ball fields — so that parents and community members know how to reach you with questions. Put in place a system, so that that number always connects, no matter what, and calls never get dropped or lost.

Never make people you care about wait in a queue, or endure an endlessly ringing phone. If a parent calls you and it’s after hours, or you’re not around, make sure they can leave a message. Even if it’s eight o’clock at night and schools are closed. Set the expectation that you’ll respond in a set amount of time to every message (say within 48 hours) and issue a guarantee. Make sure they know that you’ll always connect them with the right person, so they get what they’re looking for. 

In addition to a phone system, make sure people can text you. Not personally. Set up a system, with the same number, that works either way. Not everyone has a smartphone with a data plan. But the ones who do love it for the convenience.

The team at Austin ISD did this recently — to some amazing results. 

“We can’t control how our customers want to engage. But by providing multiple ways to reach out to their school or the district, we make it easy for them to stay connected and have a voice.”
Darla Caughey, administrative supervisor in charge of customer service. 

The introduction of texting in AISD dramatically streamlined back-to-school processes during the pandemic, including with:

  • Curbside registration and
  • Device distribution

Plus, it gave community members, especially Spanish-speaking families, another way to reach out that was comfortable and didn’t require getting on the phone and talking to people.

Read about it here.

#2 Don’t form a proverbial ‘line around the block’

“I like standing in line,” said no one ever.

We touched on this once already. Because it’s so important. If you manage a medium or large school district, you serve thousands of students and staff. That translates to tens of thousands of parents and community members. Depending on what’s happening that day — maybe you’re conducting testing, promoting a bond, you’ve got bad weather, or there’s some kind of unpredictable emergency that’s happened — thousands of people could reach out to you in a single day.

You can’t possibly pick up the phone that many times, or send that many replies from your school-issued email account. It’s impossible. But you don’t want to build a long queue either. Because that’s how people get frustrated. When people get frustrated, rumors start. All it takes is one inflammatory tweet to throw your entire day off course. 

If you’re forwarding messages to people because you’re drowning in correspondence, the only thing you’re guaranteeing is that someone’s concern is now sitting lost in someone else’s inbox. It’s the definition of email hell and no one likes it.

Imagine you had a centralized system where every incoming phone call and email and text message, even social post, was collected and instantly distributed to the right person in your organization to guarantee an accurate and timely response. No more forwarding messages, or taking notes on Post-Its. Just seamless efficiency. That’s what a 21st-century system of K-12 service management looks and feels like — and it requires a commitment from the top down. This is your opportunity to make a positive change in your district’s operations, one that people might not see, but will almost certainly feel when they engage with your schools.

#3 Support better workflows for staff

Not every problem is easily solvable. A lot of times, questions pass through multiple people and departments before an answer is found. That’s the power of workflows. IT leaders have a technical way of thinking about this sort of thing that includes processes like data integration and systems interoperability. These pieces are critical. But you don’t need a 10-part flowchart to understand how this works or talk to your team about it.

Think of any non-technical staff member — an instructional aide, or teacher’s helper, for example. If a question comes in to this person, he or she should be easily and immediately able to collaborate with multiple people within a department or across departments to find the answer and present a solution. Maybe they also decide to alert the building principal or a group of people tackling a similar problem elsewhere in the organization. All of this should happen instantly, with no prerequisite of deep technical expertise or understanding.

This is where a commitment to service management pays huge dividends for school operations. If I send out a response to a parent and the parent replies, “Thanks, but I don’t think this fully answers my question,” there should be a workflow that kicks in to ensure another follow-up and close the loop. If I ask you to rate your experience working with the school district, and you tell me I did a poor job, or that you still need help, I don’t want that information to flow into some data bank and sit there; I want an alert to sound. Something that says, “Hey, this came in. It indicates someone might be unhappy. Take a look and let’s figure out why.” We address that concern and move on. Everyone’s happy — and no one is flocking on social media to complain or spread misinformation.

Take it a step further. 

If a child contacts you in need of social-emotional or mental help, you don’t want that task to sit undetected at the bottom of a principal’s pile. It needs to rise instantly to the top of that list. In addition to the principal, you might want to alert others that there is an issue that demands urgent attention. This is the power of workflows.

#4 Save time through intelligent automation

Thanks to the pandemic, parents and community members have more questions than ever. Schools are swimming in emails and phone messages about social distancing, device management, learning loss, transportation, masks, building safety. The list goes on.

The good news? 

Many of those questions are similar and predictable. Often, it’s the same questions asked by different people. 

With service management and a little nod to intelligent learning, or AI, you can save your staff a ton of duplicative effort — not to mention time and stress.

I’m not talking about creating a search function on your website. Everyone has those and no one particularly enjoys scrolling through pages of results to not find what they are looking for. A better solution? Consider standing up an intelligent chatbot on your school or district website.

Not only do these tools accurately answer more than 70 percent of questions. They learn and get smarter over time. And they’re available 24-7. If you’re rolling your eyes because you swore off chatbots after that time you tried to contact your cable provider online, no one would blame you.

But the technology has come a long way — and is almost certainly worth a second look. Especially if you haven’t yet seen one of these designed specifically for use in schools.

In addition to helping ensure that stakeholders get access to information quickly, and saving staff time in helping them find it, a well-built and intelligent chatbot gives you a window into the types of things your community cares about. Think of it like a dashboard that can instantly highlight hot-button issues, so you can talk about those things in a public forum with community members  and put that information front and center for people to find.

If you want to learn more about what a chatbot might look like in a school environment, or see one in action, this video is five minutes well spent.

#5 Create a full feedback loop

As a school leader, you live under the assumption that everyone around you is doing their job well. Most of them are. But even the best among us benefit from feedback.

A service management mindset includes asking parents, students and staff to rate their experiences and engage in constructive conversations about how to continuously improve. In the business world, a great example of this can be found in ride-sharing rivals Uber and Lyft. The companies famously ask drivers to rate passengers and passengers to rate drivers. They’ve successfully used that feedback loop to create a global system of quality control.

This kind of thing often makes people uneasy at first. No one likes the idea of someone looking over their shoulder, least of all teachers. But that’s not what this is. It’s not punitive. It’s about using feedback from users to discover what’s working and not across the enterprise, and making smart decisions based on that input. Done right, a continuous feedback loop makes stakeholders happier because it creates a more consistent and satisfying school experience and it makes employees happier by relieving stress, knowing they have access to the information and data they need to effectively serve students and families. 

#6 Develop a clear dashboard (in real time)

As a leader, nothing is worse than being the last one in on a problem, or feeling like you’re last on the scene.

Time is one resource we could all use more of.

Now, imagine you had a reliable way to quickly identify risk, or trending topics in your district, and get out in front of those headlines before they hit the local news or the morning paper?

With the right approach to service management, it’s possible to build a heatmap that shows exactly what your community is talking about in real-time.

Take a look at the image below. This is a real word-cloud and trending topics dashboard being used right now by one of our school district partners. Administrators can look at the data and even click on the words to see actual messages from parents and other community members. And it’s all possible thanks to a tested and robust system for K-12 service management.

k12 Services Management

#7 Don’t overlook the importance of training and support for your team

No one disputes the importance of professional development. But it’s tempting for schools to focus these investments almost exclusively on teaching and learning. 

Continuous professional development in the area of classrooms is key. But if your team doesn’t also focus on developing the soft skills to build relationships with students and families their work is certain to suffer.

Things like body language and how you talk to people are just as, if not more, important than the content you share or lessons you teach, whether learning online or in-person.

A robust framework for service management in schools not only installs proven processes and systems to better serve families, it provides the necessary training that teachers and staff need to effectively do their jobs and consistently and confidently build trust with stakeholders.

At K12 Insight, we recently developed a fully online course for teachers and staff to help them apply a service mindset to their work. Check out the short video below to see how it works.


#8 Don’t just measure it. Calibrate it.

Whenever you’re considering investing in a new system for your school or district, a natural question is always how to measure the impact of that investment.

But a standard form of measurement doesn’t work for schools. There are cyclical events and challenges that crop up throughout any given year.  If you’re not fully immersed in that world, it’s difficult to anticipate those challenges and what they mean.

Be advised: The intensity of your service management efforts are going to ramp up at critical times, such as when you’re promoting a bond or levy, conducting a superintendent search, doing annual testing, or, in the case of 2021, trying to reopen schools in throes of a global pandemic.

Before you create a plan to measure the impact of your service management efforts, make sure you calibrate those metrics in anticipation of specific events. 

Not only will you want to establish a good response time for your district, you’ll want a way to reliably benchmark those metrics against similar districts in your region or state.

At K12 Insight, our system of service management is informed by metrics from more than 500 participating school districts, allowing you to benchmark response times and compare customer service scores and trending topics by season.

Not surprisingly, the questions and inbound concerns ramp up in April and peak during the back-to-school months. Come May, if you don’t have a system in place to deal with these concerns, it’ll likely be too late. Given the challenges of the last several months, the need for service management is greater than ever.

Done right, you can use a process for service management to both improve the quality and function of your school district operations, and get the data and information you need to build trust with your community.

Take the next step
toward a culture of service management

We hope you found this framework useful. If you’re ready to improve the school experience through a commitment to customer and service management, or if you want to learn more about what other districts are doing, sign up today for a free 20-minute consult with a member of our team.