Post-pandemic insight from the product management director for a school software company.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Successive generations of their technology have evolved to align with the ever-changing needs of K-12 school districts; part of Misty Reinhardt’s job as the Director of Product Management for Scribbles Software is to keep that evolution going.
Misty has spent more than a decade in edtech and loves working with customers to improve their work experience and make the lives of their staff and families easier.
Scribbles Software is a leading provider of K-12 records and enrollment software. The company has helped more than 10,000 K-12 schools and districts with its online student records management, enrollment systems, choice programs, lottery management, and reporting.
‘…while we know there is still a digital divide when it comes to internet access, there is also a digital divide when it comes to having access to technology tools that focus on printing. It’s an important question of access.’
As the company partners with K-12 educational communities to enhance, streamline, and simplify their student records processes to strengthen family engagement, this forward-leaning organization has added new districts daily. Here we talk with a fast-growing firm to discover their post-pandemic approach, challenges they see, school pain points, security, access, declining enrollments—and solutions to retention; a very interesting survey, and the purpose of edtech, after all.
The pandemic brought to light how difficult enrollment and choice programs are to manage when a district is using a paper-based system. What kind of challenges did districts face around records-processing and records-management during the pandemic and do these challenges exist today?
Misty: During the pandemic, the need for remote records management and processing services for staff and families quickly became apparent. For many districts, the records request process has traditionally involved a student, alumni, or family member visiting a school or district office in person, or faxing in a request. When schools closed, and as many families transitioned to learning and working remotely during the pandemic, in-person services were no longer a good option. Plus, most families lacked fax machines at home. This made finding online solutions crucial in order for districts to securely and efficiently process these requests.
Likewise for records staff. Early in the pandemic, many offices transitioned to working from home, or working in-person on a rotation. If a district only had paper- or microfiche-based records, they had to have someone in the office in order to process requests and with the limited number of people in the office, it meant there was a much longer processing time to fulfill a request. For those districts where records management was already online, they were able to, for the most part, seamlessly transition their staff to be able to handle records processing tasks from home in a secure way.
While districts have transitioned back to operating in-person, those districts already managing records online before or those that switched to online records processing as a result of the pandemic are now able to operate in an easier, faster, and more secure way than their counterparts who are using paper- or microfiche-based systems, which means better access and service for students and families.
What challenges does a paper-based system present for families as they’re navigating the enrollment process or seeking records from their child’s school? How did the pandemic exacerbate these challenges?
Many districts have an in-person or fax-based enrollment or records request process, which requires families to have access to transportation, take off from work, potentially find childcare, have access to a fax machine/printer/scanner/copier, and more. When the pandemic hit, paper-based districts couldn’t ask families to meet in-person. We also have research that shows a significant portion of households, especially those with limited income, lack access to fax machines/printers/scanners/copiers in their homes. This means the districts had limited ways of connecting with families or exchanging documents with them. This could very well have been a contributing factor in the decreased enrollment we saw across public districts.
Tell us a little about some of the programs you offer. How do they help address some of the challenges noted above?
Let’s start with enrollment. It can be really tough for a parent or guardian to travel to a school or district office to enroll their child, and they might not have access to the technology needed to print or copy an enrollment document. If they have multiple children, they are often filling out paperwork repeatedly. Staff at districts and charter schools of any size struggle with the massive amount of paper and time the enrollment process requires. Offering specialty programs, which might require auditions or interviews, and a choice programs lottery adds to this complexity.
Our platform brings the entire process online for both families and staff. Families can easily access a dashboard they can log into from any device, including their smartphone, to see the status of their application. Those with multiple children benefit from having just one dashboard for the whole family. Districts can easily manage applications with just a few clicks, and can even put advanced logic (for instance, prioritizing siblings of current students, or military families) and lotteries in place for specialty programs, so everyone has equitable access when applying to programs. Plus, when families provide important student information with their application, it goes into a secure platform where it is only accessed by authorized staff. In a paper-based model a teacher, counselor, or nurse had to check out a manila folder one at a time.
The Scribbles records platform provides similar benefits relating to records requests. Online records management makes it easier and faster for staff to respond to requests, which is especially important for college applications and employer verifications.
While many districts switched to an online records management system during the pandemic, some still haven’t. What are some of their biggest pain points when using paper-based systems, and what are some best practices and issues to consider when moving to an online system?
The biggest pain-points we hear from district leaders making the transition from paper to digital are: incomplete or lost records, the staff time it takes to find onsite records, having to make a special trips offsite to a warehouse to obtain alumni records, transitioning records across schools/grades as students matriculate, and the ever-increasing space that print-based records take up as districts expand. We’ve heard some crazy stories like having to turn staff bathrooms into records closets because of the lack of space! There is also a fear of losing records to catastrophic events like fires or floods.
When considering moving to an online system, a lot of variables need to be considered. From a technology perspective, what other systems does a records management platform need to integrate with? Typical options might be the SIS or an enrollment platform. Who needs access to the platform, and what kind of access do they need? It’s more than the records staff– teachers, counselors, nurses, McKinney-Vento staff, and others all need access to student records to serve students. What kind of training or resources are needed for staff? For families? Staff and families may have different comfort levels with technology and require different levels of training. Families, students, and alumni will also need to be made aware of the changes. This can be done on the school or district website, through signage in physical office space, or through marketing campaigns.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that the process of digitizing records can be a challenge no matter what, so remembering the “why” behind the project and finding trusted technology and scanning partners is crucial.
Let’s talk about security and access. School districts want records to be secure, but also easily accessible for the students, families and staff who need them. How does a district strike the right balance?
Having a secure platform that allows for the configuration of multiple types of user access is key. If I am an administrator who has a student with records that need to remain secure and private, but those records need to be accessed by nursing or McKinney-Vento staff, I can use a software platform to give certain users or groups of users access to the records they need in order to do their jobs – which is to support the students. I can also restrict users from seeing certain types of records. This way everyone can easily see the information they need to see, but are blocked from seeing the information that is not applicable to their role or department.
WHILE WE’RE ON the topic of access, I understand your company has conducted a survey about what families want when it comes to digital access. Can you share a bit about this project?
Misty: Of course! Our survey was a nationally representative study of Americans’ experiences with school systems.
‘Our survey was a nationally representative study of Americans’ experiences with school systems.’
We gathered a lot of data, but seven very clear trends emerged:
Overall, more families across the country lack access to paper-based technologies like printers, scanners, etc. and have access to digital technology like mobile phones.
Families with a lower household income are less likely to have access to paper-based technologies like printers, scanners, envelopes, checkbooks, etc. at home. They are more likely to have to pay for these resources. This means while a document for a middle or upper-middle class family is easier for them to print, printing may be cost prohibitive for a family with less income when you add in transportation costs, costs to print, etc.
Older generations have more access to paper-based technology like printers, scanners, etc. Current students, recent alumni, and young parents are all less likely to be able to access these technologies. On a related note, an interesting article was released by the Wall Street Journal that shared how Gen Z doesn’t know how to use office technology! School systems need to think about this when they are asking these folks to fax, scan, or make a copy.
Paper-based processes lead to negative perceptions of school systems.
People expect payments to be online. Sixty five percent of people surveyed said they would like to pay for tuition or school-related fees through an online option. Also of note, 45% of Gen Z respondents weren’t sure they would know how to write a check if asked!
English-speaking people tend to have more access to paper-based technologies. People who do not speak English not only tend to have less access, they also tend to get more frustrated when they have to use technology they are not accustomed to. Everyone has access to mobile devices, though.
Respondents in different locales (suburban, urban, rural) presented different perspectives on paper vs. digital technologies. For instance, those who live in suburban locales were more likely to have access to all technologies at home (fax, printer, computer, etc.). Those in rural locales were more likely to feel surprised if education and government institutions allowed digital completion of transactions without having to print documents, mail a check, or meet in person. And those in urban locales were more likely to report that relying on paper-based transactions is a thing of the past, and lack confidence in education and government institutions because paper-based processes continue to be used.
Overall, while we know there is still a digital divide when it comes to internet access, there is also a digital divide when it comes to having access to technology tools that focus on printing. It’s an important question of access.
Since Covid, some school districts have experienced declines in enrollment. In your conversations with districts, what are they saying about why this is happening? What are some things districts can do to retain students?
So many variables go into enrollment decline, but I can speak to trends we see in districts that are maintaining students. One thing they offer is specialty programs or in-district charter schools to give students and families several choices when it comes to students’ education. Something else I think districts need to consider is where students are going when they leave a district. Many districts don’t or can’t track this right now. With digital systems, transfers of records can be conducted online district-to-district or district-to-school, so that data can be reported. For instance, a district with a sudden enrollment decline can learn through data that swaths of their students aren’t choosing another local option, they might be moving out of state. If they can see that their families are choosing local alternatives, they can either try to keep them by promoting a similar in-district program, or create a program that seems to be popular if it doesn’t already exist. This is also important when tracking student whereabouts, which can negatively impact graduation rates if not properly reported.
One of the things you mentioned your company does is to support school districts in managing their choice programs and lotteries. Can you share some examples of how school districts are using your technology for this purpose?
We know that managing choice programs or a lottery can be incredibly tedious for both families and staff. It’s a lot of paperwork to prepare, track, process, and file. We’ve also heard a lot of stories about lotteries being conducted live or recorded, bingo balls being used for placements, or staff having to spend countless hours building spreadsheets or forms to meet the logic requirements of their lottery. Our platform can be configured to meet the needs of a mass lottery across multiple sites and programs, or a simpler lottery for a handful of specialty programs or schools. Our software recently helped a district process over 30,000 applications in 20 minutes. This previously would have taken them weeks to process.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about education technology or digital access?
It’s important to remember that education technology and digital access aren’t just important buzzwords for student engagement in the classroom. Departments across a school or district can benefit from back-office technology and workflow automation. Taking advantage of this technology can make staff members’ jobs easier, and also helps the school or district better support their students and families.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org