Tag Archives: boarding school

Embracing eSISO

This┬áspring 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.