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