Using REACH for Vacation Travel Planning

My colleagues and I in the deans’ office have been dissatisfied in recent years with the way in which we collect vacation travel plans from our students, and our inability to organize those plans usefully once we receive them. We are just about to throw in the towel and outsource the whole thing, but we thought we’d try an experiment for our last major vacation of the year (spring break) and use REACH as our travel planning hub. (You can read my previous post about REACH here.)

Our old system requires parents to login to the school’s parent portal and fill out a form that is linked to our database. The form then populates an Excel spreadsheet that is very detailed and sortable. However, the hurdles that this system asks parents to jump over, such as remembering their login info and completing a very extensive form, lead to low compliance. Many parents just email us instead, or call, and then we are stuck entering all of the information into the form, or more often we just house information in multiple places, which leads to mistakes. We need to pass this information along to the car service we use to shuttle students to the nearby train station and three major airports, and errors can be costly and lead to urgent crises.

REACH puts the onus on the students to fill out their vacation leave request. (Our school used to make the students fill out a paper form back in the day, so this isn’t without precedent for us.) They need to get all of the pertinent info from their parents, including flight data and so forth, and then submit it for electronic approval by their parents, host (if there is one), and finally the deans. Now that REACH has a well-designed mobile app, nearly all of our boarders have the ability to fill out their vacation travel info from their phone at any time. You can imagine how much more accessible this system is than asking parents to sit down at a laptop and navigate to a web site, login, and then follow several links to a form. REACH easily generates an Excel spreadsheet, too, so there is no loss of spreadsheet-ability, but our old form had a lot more columns for specific info. In particular, with REACH students put their flight info into the “Notes” field, so it is doesn’t get broken out in detail in Excel as it would using our old form.

That concern aside, we are much, much closer to 100% compliance using REACH, and that’s an enormous improvement over the system we’ve been using for the last few years.

Moreover, I see many opportunities to improve upon this first attempt. When we first started using REACH, Brian Murray (the company’s Director for North America) showed me how to format the leave type for this purpose, but I forgot some of the good advice he gave me. So I correctly created a specific “Spring Break 2018” leave type, and I created the correct work flow for the “actors” (people who need to give approval), but I didn’t pay attention to the transportation categories. I should have custom built just two options for students: “school provided ground transportation” and “family provided ground transportation.” Instead, the kids selected from the crazy quilt of options we normally give them (GS Van, Uber/Taxi, Car – parent driver, Car – other, Public Transportation, etc.). This meant that I had to send about 30 follow-up emails to students who chose transportation options that required me to be psychic in order to know whether they wanted us to book them a limo or if they were trying to say that another student’s parent was driving them. That really wasn’t such a headache, and I’ll get it right next time.

One aspect of REACH that our old system can’t duplicate is that it provides greater visibility to the students’ dorm parents (“hall teachers” in our school’s parlance). Those important adults can see the students’ leave requests, although many of them haven’t fully figured out REACH yet. (You could rephrase that to say, “The school hasn’t provided them the training they need,” and that blame falls on my shoulders.) But they are certainly able to see whether a student has left campus or not, which used to be rather chaotic and opaque before we started using REACH. We agreed earlier in the year to a solid workflow in which students have their dorm rooms checked for cleanliness by a dorm parent, who gives them a paper check-out ticket. The student brings that ticket to the deans’ office, and we SISO them out on REACH when they are actually leaving campus. (SISO stands for “sign-in/sign-out,” if you aren’t hip to the lingo.) Every adult on campus who logs into REACH can see who is still here and who has departed, and vice-versa at the end of each vacation.

There is even a little room for humor in this process, which makes it fun for the deans and dorm folks. I create custom locations for each vacation to which students are SISOed when they go on leave. Thanksgiving was “Turkey Time,” winter break was “Tinsel Town,” and our upcoming spring break will be “Cherry Blossom Wonderland.” You even get to assign each location in REACH a color of your choice, so I get to have seasonal fun with that, too.

After spring break my fellow deans and I will reevaluate how things went and decide if we are going to use REACH for vacation travel planning next year. As of this writing, I am leaning towards dedicating a year to working with it and improving upon what we’ve accomplished. We should reap productivity gains as returning students develop experience with the system and come to understand what is expected of them. As more adults on campus gain proficiency with REACH, they should come to enjoy the window it grants them into the work we do in the deans’ office, and they’ll be better able to care for their advisees and dorm charges.

I’ll try to write a post-spring-break breakdown of how things went. Stay tuned.


Coping with #Parkland

I normally avoid putting my political views out on the web too forcefully because I want my students to feel safe to express their own opinions without worrying about my disagreement. But the #Parkland shooting transcends politics for those of us who teach. Our most fundamental duty is to protect our students, and watching our politicians squirm as they seek to cater to the NRA is just a gruesome spectacle of cowardice.

I’ve spoken out twice in the last 48 hours, first in the Twittersphere last night in an #isedchat dedicated to our reactions to this most recent school shooting, and then this afternoon when I accompanied a contingent of eleven students to a protest outside the offices of a local GOP Congressman, Brian Fitzpatrick.

I’m deeply grateful to Bill Ivey (@bivey) and #isedchat for hosting a cathartic opportunity for independent school educators to share their reactions to the Parkland shooting and its aftermath; which, if you have been hiding under a rock, has featured an incredible response in the form of student voice. I can’t speak as eloquently or powerfully as the student survivors, but I can say unequivocally: I’m not interested in carrying a gun to work. I didn’t choose to work at a Quaker school because I wanted to be a gunslinger; I work at a Quaker school to be a promoter of peace.

Here’s one of my tweets from the chat that seemed to resonate most strongly:

As for today’s IRL protest, student leaders at my school did all the real work; I just got tasked with providing adult chaperones. My passionate and politically active colleagues quickly provided more bodies than we needed to walk with eleven students to the parking lot across from our school, where a weekly protest forms outside Brian Fitzpatrick’s office. After standing in the rain with about thirty other protesters for an hour, we took the protest up four flights of stairs to the congressman’s office, flouting the five-guests-at-a-time policy of the space. There is an occupancy sign in the tiny antechamber of the suite that declares that only five people may be there. So we engaged in a little civil disobedience, which began to fluster the poor junior staffer who had to deal with us. Congressman Fitzpatrick’s chief of staff, Mike Conallen, politely emerged to engage with the protesters in the hall outside of the office suite, thus rescuing the junior staff and getting us out of the office.

Mr. Conallen was generous with his time, and wanted us to hear that “every option” regarding gun control is on the table as far as the Congressman is concerned. Neither I nor the other protesters took much solace in this news, as the GOP leadership appears to have no desire to displease the NRA and stop their gravy train, and the only idea they’ve expressed so far is to arm teachers like me. In the last 24 hours, news has come out that an armed sheriff’s deputy at the school on the day of the shooting hid behind a concrete column outside the school and did not run inside to confront the shooter. Furthermore, we have learned that the FBI was tipped off a month before the attack that the shooter possessed an arsenal of firearms and was a ticking time bomb. The degree to which politicians have let down our children is scandalous, and since trained law enforcement professionals don’t seem able to deal with school shooters carrying assault rifles, imagining that teachers will have more luck is preposterous.

Since Twitter is my jam, I too have observed a change in the tone of the response to this most recent school shooting. It feels different this time. These student protesters aren’t going away. They’ve ridiculed Marco Rubio on CNN, and people in power are beginning to wake up and recalibrate their positions. We are seeing big businesses distance themselves from the NRA, so I think the unassailable NRA glacier is beginning to crack.

The midterms are coming!


On the New 529 Rules

The folks at the Carney Sandoe blog published a post today summarizing what we know about the changes in the tax code that will permit families to pay K-12 independent school tuition using funds drawn from 529 plans. Funds from 529s were heretofore restricted to higher ed expenditures, so this is a significant change. I learned something new from the CSA post, namely that certain individual states have write their own regulations that forbid this expansion of 529 expenditures; New York and Illinois for example. (Yes, this is a politicized red state/blue state matter, but the CSA blog post eschews that angle.)

A lot has been written about all of the problems with this change to 529s, and I won’t repeat it all here. (See Ron Lieber in the NYTimes, here.) While the pundits and analysts agree that this change is mostly a windfall for the wealthy, I haven’t seen enough written about the damage it may do to middle class families trying to save for college.

When I opened a 529 two years ago after the birth of my son, the rules of the game were clear: the money I accrued in the account wouldn’t be touched until he began college. I made calculations regarding how much I would need to save per year based on assumed rates of return on investment and inflation in college tuition. Now that math is under assault.

If my wife and I choose to send our son to independent school at any point in his K-12 years, that school may make financial aid calculations based on an expectation that we will draw upon the funds in our 529 to pay their tuition bill. The more successfully we save for our son’s college education, the more bloated and enticing a pinata our 529 will become for that independent school! Will this force middle class families to abandon the idea of sending their kids to independent schools? The change in the tax code appears on the surface to be a life raft for independent schools that are currently struggling to meet their revenue targets, but what if it has the opposite effect and reduces their admissions funnels?

There simply isn’t enough money to go around in middle class families’ budgets to fund a 529 that will be drawn upon for K-12 and higher ed expenses. College is mostly unaffordable for middle class families now, but the one thing that disciplined savers have going for them is the power of the tax-sheltered compounding inside the 529 that can, if they are lucky, exceed the growth rate of college tuition by a few percentage points over the course of two decades of saving. That will, if one doesn’t bungle one’s asset allocation and get stung by bad timing in the economic cycle, close some of the gap and help one pay for college. If money is being leeched out by K-12 tuition along the way, it won’t be invested long enough to allow the market to do its thing. Yes, it makes sense for anyone making K-12 tuition payments to cycle that cash through the 529, even if just for the minimum amount of time required to get the tax benefit. I worry that financially unsophisticated families without tax advisers won’t be able to handle the extra complexity this brings to their lives, which returns us to the conclusion that this change in the tax code is really just going to benefit the wealthy.


Addendum to “Initial Strategic Planning Thoughts”

I ended my last post about our strategic planning process with a concern that we might overreact to the perceived threats to our students that come from addictive mobile devices and social media. My argument was that this problem is tactical, not strategic, and that the tech companies and government regulators will address it. Sure enough, the big business news today is that a well-known activist hedge fund (Jana Partners) and others are applying pressure on Apple to improve parental controls so that parents can limit screen time and protect their children online. And Apple didn’t wait long to issue a response; they say improved parental controls are already in the works and on the way. Therefore, I’m sticking to my argument: our strategic plan shouldn’t overreact to fears about technology at the expense of innovative curricular/pedagogical goals.

Initial Strategic Planning Thoughts

We began our strategic planning process today with a brainstorming session for the full faculty and staff. I thought it would be valuable to capture my thoughts on my blog before we get too much farther down the road and my initial, personal reactions lose their freshness. It will be fun to look back at the final strategic plan (next year?) and see how much of it corresponds to my initial ideas.

We were prompted to keep our thinking at the 10,000 ft. level in our morning group brainstorming sessions. Candidly, I agree with Susan Cain that brainstorming doesn’t work — especially group brainstorming — but I enjoyed listening to my thoughtful colleagues’ visions regarding the school they’d like us to become.

A metaphor that our facilitator was asked to share with us before we began: We are going to make a masterpiece, and today’s activity is equivalent to gathering the paint. I have problems with this metaphor because it suggests that, once the strategic plan is complete, and once the school changes to become the school described in that plan, the masterpiece is finished and the school will cease to need to evolve. Clearly, schools in the 21st century need to practice deftness and embrace ongoing change. They need permanent adaptability to rise to the challenge of what Rita Gunther McGrath has called “the end of competitive advantage.”

Despite that objection, the three queries that guided our brainstorming were appropriately broad to generate open-minded thinking and good conversation. Again, my thoughts below are mine alone. I am not publishing my colleagues’ opinions without their consent.

Query 1: What do we think students will need to be prepared for the 21st century?

My honest answer to this question is: I have no idea, and I’m skeptical of people who assert that they do with any confidence. I agree with the Thomas-Friedman-esque argument that American workers need to move up the value chain and plan for the type of careers that AI and robots won’t be able to do. (Our school has many international students, so I’m not just addressing America here. Anyone hoping to have a secure, “first world” career should probably be heeding this advice.) An emphasis on critical thinking skills and creativity should be at the center of an education with this goal in mind.

Given the rapid pace of change, trying to design a curriculum in which the content is an accurate guess at the specific knowledge and skills that will be in demand in 30 years is a futile exercise. The middle school computer programming classes that were forced on me in 1985 taught me skills that were useless before I had graduated from high school. In this context, a broad-based curriculum for generalists strikes me as sensible as any. I admit my bias: I went to a college (Columbia) with a wonderful core curriculum.

Query 2: What would an ideal school for the 21st century be, both in and out of class?

Ken Robinson’s famous TED Talk from 2007 is well known to every educator in the English speaking world, but too little has been done to actually respond to his critique of the industrial era/factory model of schooling. I think an ideal school should dispense with the ringing bells and forced march through short class periods. Some parts of the day might still benefit from a tight structure, but students need more open ended time to work on creative projects, follow their passions, and get into a flow state.

Grant Lichtman’s ideas are still bouncing around my brain after the preconference session I attended at TABS. (See my previous post, here.) Lichtman argues that the future of connected computing will lead to a “cognitosphere,” and that schools should be preparing for a future in which their value will come from their status as a “node” that generates original academic content. While I’m not so sure that this whole cognitosphere thing is going to come to pass, I like the direction in which we would be led if we wished to become a such node. I imagine that we would need to build learning experiences for students that were authentic and involved deep dives, not just superficial content coverage.

Query 3: What pedagogy or pedagogies would the ideal school use? 

While my responses to the first two prompts were on the vague side, I have much more concrete thoughts about Query 3. The ideal school should feature an emphasis on project based learning, explicitly address non-cognitive skills, and integrate technology such that it is both ubiquitous and invisible. If we aren’t willing to embrace PBL across the curriculum, I’d be happy to see a school-wide “genius hour” (a.k.a. 20% time) initiative to unleash students’ passions and creativity.

An ideal secondary school would also be one that is not backwards-designed from the college admissions process. That might mean doing away with grades, GPAs, and AP/IB classes. Obviously, William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep continues to resonate with me.

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After our morning of brainstorming, the groups all reported back over a communal lunch. Those themes are not my intellectual property to publish here, but I would like to address one that matters to me a great deal: digital citizenship. I agree completely with the need for us to integrate the teaching of digital citizenship skills more broadly across the curriculum, but I worry that the drumbeat I heard about this during the report-back session is an example of non-strategic thinking. Yes, we (by which I mean all adults attempting to raise children these days) have quite a headache on our hands as we react to the intrusions of mobile tech and social media, and all the bad behavior that has come with them. But this is an immediate problem that isn’t likely to be this bad for much longer. Tech companies are building better parental controls, the government is going to write new regulations, etc. I hope our strategic plan doesn’t just react to childish behavior on Instagram and Snapchat. We need longer-range thinking.

TABS Takeaways

I returned from the TABS Annual Conference in Boston two days ago, and I’m still ruminating on it. TABS is the professional association of boarding schools, and my school typically sends a cohort to the conference every three years. Therefore, the last time I attended was in 2014. (You can read about that experience, which was defined by our participation in the street protests, here.) I wasn’t sure that I wanted to attend this year, since I’m a Connected Educator and believe that the best professional development happens on Twitter, but then I learned that Grant Lichtman was leading an all-day preconference workshop, and I knew I had to go.

Grant Lichtman‘s thinking on school change and the forces threatening independent schools was a key ingredient in my work on the Adaptability Project two years ago, and a recent video I had seen of him talking about where our industry will be in 25 years really grabbed my attention. (A lot of my affection for Lichtman’s work is confirmation bias: I have similar, pessimistic ideas about what the future holds for independent schools.) Lichtman argues that in 25 years, independent schools will fall into one of three categories:

  1. Doing great as a result of insulation from market forces due to financial independence, reputation, brand, etc. (e.g. schools with $1 billion endowments today.)
  2.  Surviving because of distinctive programming that sets them apart.
  3. On life support/dying/dead.

Schools that know that they aren’t in the first category (and among boarding schools, there are only about a dozen that should feel confident that they are) should take heed! We must start laying the strategic groundwork to be among the schools in the second category, or else discover (too late) that we are in the third.

Lichtman also puts forward some techno-futurist prognostications that I am not sure that I buy. He argues that we are moving towards a future version of the internet called the cognitosphere, and we should be preparing for that shift by changing our mindsets as schools in the direction of information creation. I haven’t spoken to the experts that Lichtman has spoken to that lead him to this conclusion, so I don’t feel qualified to offer much analysis. But Lichtman stressed the importance of A.I. and V.R. in the school landscape of the future, and I’m the dude who created a chatbot for his office about 15 months ago. We should be doing more to work with A.I. and V.R. technology as it exists right now.

Lichtman’s prescription for rising to the challenges of the future is strategic planning using a design thinking process, stressing a time horizon much longer than the usual five years. My school is about to launch its strategic process in earnest, so this was a very useful session for me.

The other session that resonated with me was led by Greg Martin of the Perkiomen School. Martin was sharing his PhD research regarding the “triple threat” faculty model used by boarding schools. In brief, our schools ask many employees to teach academic classes, coach one or more sports, and do dorm duty caring for the students at night and on weekends. As Martin explained in the session he led, we have collectively felt like this model has been under threat of extinction for decades (back to the 1980s at least), but actual boarding school people continue to have faith in the model and believe that it is sustainable. Martin had senior administrators from three schools (Peddie, Perkiomen, and Holderness) serving as a panel to share their experiences/views on the topic, and all three were wonderful to listen to. What I really loved was Martin and the panel’s takeaway: Our schools should be trumpeting the triple threat model as something that makes us distinctive and generates value, not retreating/apologizing for it. I left the session reminded of the ways in which I am fortunate to work where I do. We have already made a number of adjustments over the years to maintain the triple threat model but to also give flexibility to our faculty to account for their age/family need/talents, etc.


GMO Posters from my students

My IB Theory of Knowledge students have been studying the debate regarding the safety of GMO foods. The purpose of this unit isn’t actually for them to become experts on GMOs, or for me to convince them that GMOs are or are not safe. The GMO topic is just an entry point to discuss the ways in which the biological sciences (an “Area of Knowledge” or “AOK” in IB lingo) construct knowledge and establish facts.

Today I asked them to create digital posters that summarize their current opinion on GMOs and include a nod to the epistemological aspect of our coursework. (Some students fulfilled the second requirement a little better than others.) This is a fairly shallow assignment for a class such as TOK, but before you write it off completely, recall that summarizing and designing are verbs associated with the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (“create”). Moreover, the posters satirically respond to the politically charged nature of the GMO debate using a medium popular in social media discourse.

You’ll note that most of the digital posters were made with either Adobe Spark or PowerPoint; I recommended those two options at the start of the activity. The posters made with Adobe Spark are automatically imbued with that slick, designed-by-a-social-media-pro feel due to their built in templates, but the students who chose PowerPoint did so because they are very proficient with it, and their posters are sometimes even better (from a design standpoint) than the ones made with Spark.

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