Tag Archives: boarding school

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.

Advertisements

Embracing eSISO

This spring a project I’ve been imagining for four years is finally coming to fruition: our school has moved to an electronic sign-in/sign-out (SISO) system for our boarding students. After generations of tracking students’ departures from campus using carbon paper cards and a clipboard, we are, bit by bit, moving onto an online platform built for this purpose by a company called Reach Boarding.

Reach is one of the two players in this very-nichy industry (SISO software for boarding schools). We demoed the system of their main competitor, Boardingware, last year, and made the decision to go with Reach. Though we are only a few months into this new world of eSISO, so far I’ve been very pleased.

There are a lot of problems that software of this nature can solve for us. We won’t have to spend hours manually checking students’ standing permissions and collating paper cards. Reach sends requests for permission directly to parents via auto-generated emails. Then it holds those permissions and organizes leave requests for you, presenting data on several different, visually intuitive dashboards. Unlike our paper system, which is archived in filing cabinets and mostly useless from a data-analysis standpoint, Reach will allow our deans’ office to easily analyze SISO data and learn from trends in student behavior.

There are many more potential gains that eSISO will offer us. Right now, students sign in and out for study hall in their dorms, the library, and the deans’ office, depending on where they are planning to study. There are clipboards for that purpose in all three locations. Of course the paper on those clipboards isn’t telepathic, and the clipboards don’t talk to one another, so locating a given student during study hall can require multiple phone calls. With Reach, a student can check-in to a given location using the app, and then any adult with credentials to login to the system can see where they are during study hall. We expect to eventually get our Student Health and Wellness Center on Reach, and we expect to run permissions for college visits through Reach, too. Though it may take a year to get all of the workflows sorted and build consensus at our Quaker school that this is how we want to handle all of these tasks, once that is done we will be saving ourselves a lot of time and hassle.

Our school is a particularly challenging one in terms of moving from paper to eSISO. Many boarding schools are composed of almost entirely boarding students with just a tiny population of day students. And many of those schools are located in the middle of nowhere. Our school is 55% boarding/45% day, and we are in the middle of a dense suburb that is 40 minutes from Philadelphia and 90 minutes from New York. As a result, we have an enormous variety of campus-leaves that our students request to make. We have boarders spending the night at day student houses, day students spending the night in the dorm, students making day trips on foot to the shopping center across the street, students being driven to destinations by their parents, students being driven by other students, and on and on. Reach can handle all of those different leave types, but building those workflows takes time, and replacing the paper system with an electronic one causes lots of small changes that some people find unwelcome or confusing.

Imagine what it was like to drop your child off at boarding school in the year 1900. There was no ubiquitous electronic communication, so you kept in touch with your child via snail mail. If the school wanted to take your child on a field trip, they were in loco parentis, and they just did it. You found out about it when your son or daughter came home for the Christmas holiday. Not surprisingly, boarding schools have mostly worked on a system of standing permissions. Parents fill out of a form telling the school what their child can and can’t do, and if they need a special permission, you get the parent on the phone. ESISO moves the industry away from standing permissions and into a world in which parents must click that they approve of their child’s plans each and every time they want to leave campus. (Well, only for riskier leave types. We don’t ask for parental permission when students walk off campus to local destinations.) Reach makes it easy for parents to keep track of what their children are doing while away at school, and it gives them the ability to approve or not approve their child’s plans each and every time. Early feedback from parents since we started rolling out Reach has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of them were tired of our antiquated carbon paper system, so anything that replaced it would have made them happy. But a number of parents have shared with me that they specifically like the way in which Reach allows them to know more about what their kids are up to, and they find the email interface easy to use.

Reach isn’t perfect, so not everything has been a bed of roses. The mobile apps need work to become more intuitive, and some students are having login problems. Reach doesn’t really know what to do with day students, so they are treated like boarders with their dorm being “day student.” Despite these and other cavils, I’m overwhelmingly enthused about what Reach is providing to our deans’ office, and I know that the company is working to improve the platform all the time. I can’t wait to see where we are a year from now when we’ve truly deployed Reach fully across the school.

Digital Distractions vs. Substances

For the last few weeks the article “Are teenagers replacing drugs with smartphones” from the NYTimes has been lingering in my mind. Written by Matt Richtel and published on 3.13.17, the article explores the theory that substance abuse has declined among teenage students over the last decade because the time they would have used to experiment with drugs has been squeezed out by all the time they are spending on their mobile devices. While the article admits that there have been no conclusive studies done yet to support the theory, it certainly seems plausible — even likely — to me and my colleagues. I brought the article to a recent deans staff meeting for discussion, and our subjective, anecdotal evidence makes us feel like the theory must be true.

The news that substance abuse is down, in some categories roughly 10%, among teens, should of course be greeted with joy. But the idea that substances are being crowded out by a new addiction, mobile devices, makes one wonder if the cure isn’t worse than the disease. I bring a pro-tech bias to my work as an educator, but I also worry that addiction to mobile devices may end up being a more widespread and insidious social ill than nicotine, alcohol, and other substances were in the 20th century. Will deaths caused by distracted driving eventually exceed those caused by drunk driving? (Not if cars are all self-driving in the near future.) Will addiction to social media and mobile gaming lead to a generation of zombies more sleepless and in need of their fix than addicts during the crack epidemic? (Not if parents and boarding school faculty like me equip children with tools and habits to help them unplug at night and during community time.)

I’m focused on asking myself what a dean of students at a boarding school should do if we grant that the thesis is correct. The problem with addressing this mobile-device addiction is that our use of these devices switches back and forth hundreds of times each day among different modes of use. One minute we are using our devices for important work, the next minute we are checking our feeds, the next minute we are responding to a text from a family member, and the next minute we are pulled back into that new game we really love. Teachers can’t possibly know how a student is using their device at any moment, and the temptation to overreact is strong.

Where is all this heading? Speaking only for myself, I think we need greater clarity in our school-wide policies as to what sort of mobile device use is acceptable in which contexts. We must carve out community spaces and times in which no use is permitted at all. Boarding schools need to think about sleep issues as well. (I’m influenced here by Jonathan Crary’s haunting book 24/7.) A small number of teenage boarding students are able to unplug from their devices at night without prompting or assistance from adults, but most cannot. True to the Swiss army knife aspect of smartphones, most teens now use their device as their alarm clock, which means that if you confiscate their phone to help them get undistracted sleep, you’ve increased the likelihood that they’ll be late to class! Wristwatches and old-fashioned alarm clocks are not very popular among today’s teens.

The most worrying factoid from Richtel’s article is that the drop in substance use seen in young people ages 12-18 is not showing up among college students. Those college students are using substances as much as ever. How do we understand this data? Will substance use among college-aged people drop as the current 12-18 year-olds age, or are we seeing something much more troubling? If use has dropped so significantly among middle school and high school kids, but not among college students, that means that we are seeing more college students than ever who left for college having never experimented with or abused substances but who begin to do so after leaving home. This strikes me as a terrifying prospect. Colleges simply do not provide the careful attention to student well-being and safety net that secondary schools do. Therefore, high school teachers must continue to educate their students about the perils of substances even if the data suggests that fewer and fewer of our kids are actually at risk while under our care. We educate not just for the present, but mostly for the future.