Testing Ideas to Improve the Parent Experience of Boston Public Schools

When our Harvard student team set out to make the parent and guardian experience with Boston Public Schools better, we weren’t sure what to focus on. We went out and found parents and guardians across Boston to hear their stories. We observed call centers and welcome centers to see families interacting with staff. We asked tons and tons of questions.

 Chris explains his thinking about what we’ve learned so far.

Chris explains his thinking about what we’ve learned so far.

We’re still asking questions, but this week we started to find some answers, too.

Based on our research, our team came up with a couple ideas we want to pursue, from a “Smart Search” that makes online self-service easier, to a “Smart Internal Directory” that helps Boston Public Schools employees get you your answer faster.

For parents, getting questions answered too often depends on if you know the right person to call. But what happens when you don’t know who to call? We also heard how frustrating it is to get bounced around from one person to another, and have to tell your story over and over. On the staff side, we heard that parents often call in with questions that aren’t answerable.

What if instead of saying “that’s not my department, let me transfer you to the main line for the right department,” staff could quickly look up answers? What if staff could transfer you not just to the right department, but to the exact right person? What if they could get that answer or transfer exactly right, even if they’d never heard of your issue before? And what if each new person you talked to could see what steps you’d already taken?

 Our team debates ideas to improve BPS customer experience

Our team debates ideas to improve BPS customer experience

We imagined a system where a staffer starts typing in a short summary of your issue as soon as you’re on the phone. The Smart Directory would then start offering information, including forms and web pages that helped past callers with similar issues, as well as name and contact information for people within Boston Public Schools who have relevant expertise. As a result, parents and guardians get answers, or at least the right person to speak with, quickly and smoothly.

Ayna Agarwal, Chris Kuang, Ben McGuire, John La Rue, Molly Thomas

Talking with Parents

We are a student team at Harvard working with the Boston Public Schools to understand and improve the parent experience—yet none of us have children!

To understand how parents experience the Boston Public Schools (BPS), we needed to do a little fieldwork. We went out into Boston to talk with parents in their neighborhoods.

 John speaking with a BPS parent

John speaking with a BPS parent

Our initial research included:

  • John walking the streets in Dorchester, where he grew up, on a frigid February day—starting at the bus stop he used to take to school near Codman Square library, followed by stops in convenience stores and laundromats near Ashmont Station.

  • Molly calling parents who had previously contacted Carolyn MacNeil, the BPS ombudsperson.

  • Ayna and Ben attending the Boston Schools Committee meeting in Roxbury, canvassing parents on the streets of Allston, and speaking with parents who attend Harvard Kennedy School.

  • Chris stopping by the Josiah Quincy school in Chinatown and talking with parents waiting to pick up kids at the end of the school day.

We quickly found that parents and guardians care deeply about the public schools. One grandmother stood in the freezing cold for twenty-five minutes to talk about her son being bullied. Many parents wept as they expressed their frustrations. Their stories reminded us that when a kid boards a school bus, their parents’ hearts go with them.

 A snapshot of our research methods

A snapshot of our research methods

We talked to twenty-five parents, some for over an hour. Some parents reported their initial worries turned into love of their local school and teachers. Other parents felt pretty good about their school, until they hit a problem.

We heard about fourth-graders who suddenly fear math, middle school students with disappearing homework, and parents trying to get their child’s medical needs recognized in high school. Some parents had already resolved their concerns, but many talked about big life changes they had considered—homeschooling, charter schooling, or even moving the whole family—just to switch schools.

Parents who felt their principal wasn’t listening to their concerns often decided “I have to go over their head.” For our team, that’s an important learning: Parents aren’t starting out bringing every problem to the BPS administration. They’re going first to the school, then escalating.  By the time they first get to a BPS employee, they are often already frustrated.

Parents want to reach someone who will listen, and address their concerns. Both parts are important!

Ayna Agarwal, Chris Kuang, Ben McGuire, John La Rue, Molly Thomas

Sweating the Small Stuff: Why Boston Public Schools should treat its parents like customers

When people think of schools, they probably think of teachers, students, tests, and homework. People rarely think about parents  — but they should. For parents, it can be an emotional experience to entrust their child to the care of others. A good parent experience builds trust, while bad experiences often leave parents anxious and upset.

The Challenge

On Friday February 2nd, a team of 3 Boston Public Schools (BPS) district officials presented us with a challenge:

How can BPS ensure equitable, quality service to all of its parents?

An emphasis on parent service may seem out of place in a public school system, but it can have a direct effect on the level and equity of students’ academic achievement. In an educational setting, good service towards parents help secure transportation and special education accommodations for their children, ensures that families have equitable access to district services, and strengthens relationships across silos, keeping employees engaged and reducing costly turnover, freeing up resources for classroom teachers.

On any given day, effective customer service may be the difference between successful tag-teams and endless phone tag. And over the course of a child’s education, it can be the difference between loving your school system and feeling like it drives you crazy.

The Process

As outsiders to Boston Public Schools, we recognize the importance of practicing empathy and building an intimate understanding of the issues that parents and other BPS customers face through user interviews and focus groups.

Equally important will be understanding the people and processes that guide BPS. We plan to learn about the system as it currently exists by speaking with district officials, administrators, and school leaders, reading secondary research, and analyzing administrative data to probe for weaknesses and areas for potential improvement.

The Course

We have come to this project through the Harvard Kennedy School course on Technology and Innovation in Government, taught by Professor Nick Sinai. Five cross-disciplinary teams will conduct user research and use design thinking to address pressing public sector problems for clients in the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Boston Public Schools, and the City of Boston.

The Team

The Boston Public Schools team is composed of four Harvard Kennedy School graduate students and one Harvard College sophomore. We bring a diverse set of experiences and skills to this project, but common among us is our passion for equitable, high quality systems of education.

  • Ayna Agarwal is a Masters student at the Harvard Kennedy School, focusing on deploying technology and innovation to improve the public sector. She is the Co-Founder of she++, a global movement that aims to increase diversity in the technology sector. She began her career in the Silicon Valley, where she worked with various start-ups and growth-stage technology firms. Most recently she was at Palantir Technologies.

  • Chris Kuang is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Applied Math and Economics. He channels his passions in civic engagement and public policy in his work as co-founder and Director of Coding it Forward, a grassroots nonprofit that empowers students to use their technology skills to create social impact. His previous education experience includes advocating for students as the first-ever student representative to the Winchester (MA) School Committee and working with K-6 students.

  • Ben McGuire is a Masters student at the Kennedy School with professional background in education research, political organizing, and data analytics. Ben's work in education has included best practice research on cybersecurity and data analytics in higher education as well as closing the achievement gap and improving career and technical education in public K-12 districts.

  • John La Rue is a Dorchester native and a Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration candidate. He worked for the Obama ‘08 campaign across six states and in Nevada state politics through 2010. Since 2010, he has lived in Washington D.C. and worked as a speechwriter at the Office of Personnel Management and the U.S. Department of Energy.

  • Molly Thomas is a second year Masters in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. Molly began her career as a middle school English Language Arts teacher through Teach For America. She has also worked for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, DC Public Schools, and the Department of Education. A Massachusetts native, Molly is a lifelong Boston sports fan

Ayna Agarwal, Chris Kuang, Ben McGuire, John La Rue, Molly Thomas