What It Means to be a Connected K–12 School
The definition of “a connected school” could be many different things. Each description, at its core, stems from the answer to this one question: Does your school function at its optimal level?
To honestly say yes to this question, your school must connect efficiently and effectively everywhere that matters—from software functionality to parent communication, teacher and student processes, and financial management. Getting to that “yes” is challenging for most schools. While Blackbaud’s K–12 school solutions can connect your school from a software functionality perspective, that is just one box checked on a long list of things schools need to accomplish to call themselves a connected school. Here is what I have found to be the top five action items to get your school closer to that yes.
1. Avoid software silos
A common problem all schools face is finding the right software for every area of their school. The two most common pitfalls schools face are:
- “This software will give me everything I need for my department/class/office.”
- “A total school software solution must do everything our school needs.”
Why are these pitfalls?
The first scenario only helps one department/class/office. If you select software without considering all other parts of your school, there is a high probability that the software won’t fully integrate with other solutions you are using. Instead of having one source of truth for school and student information, someone on your team will have the responsibility of manually aggregating data from reports that come from disparate systems. This could lead to conflicting data and create unnecessary work for busy staff.
The second scenario is setting yourself up for disappointment. Expecting one software solution to do everything the school needs and to do it the best way possible is unrealistic. In reality, software that touts solving all your school’s problems may mean some functionality proves to be subpar. This leaves a school to succeed in some areas and flounder in others, creating barriers for the end user.
The way to avoid these pitfalls is simple. Find the integrated software solution that comes as close to doing it all as possible. Find one that connects strong enrollment, student information, learning management, tuition, financial aid, fundraising, and accounting solutions so that data can flow seamlessly between the systems. Integrated solutions provide great functionality to improve efficiency and process.
2. Ensure your software plays well with others
One essential feature you should require from your school’s primary software provider is a great partner network for individual yet complex items like lunch ordering, summer camps, visitor management, and payroll. These are areas where specialized software excels at providing a great end-user experience and the functionality a school needs to manage its day-to-day operations. When a software provider has an extensive network of partners, you can be confident they have done the work to build critical integrations that allow data to pass through the systems, like single sign-on, class rostering, profile updates, etc. These integrations mean more efficient tracking and maintenance of the data the specialized software collects.
You also want your primary software provider to have an open API, an Application Programming Interface made publicly available to software developers. This allows other software to securely communicate with your primary solution for financial reporting, attendance, gift tracking, assignment data, and more. An open API gives your school the flexibility to merge and connect data between different solutions outside a partner network and the freedom to work with specialized software providers as needed.
3. Work towards a single source of truth
Another common problem schools face with a disconnected school environment is multiple sources of conflicting data and various systems used to communicate with their families and staff. This can be incredibly frustrating for families who want one place to find all the information they need from a school. It can also create confusion regarding which system school staff can trust to have the most accurate information.
The goal of any school should be a Student Information System that houses what we call the “single source of truth” for a family. A single source of truth means that communications come from one place, no matter which school department is involved. The family should be able to easily find assignments, class and sports schedules, attendance records, and other essential information. Ideally, that one login would also be where they can pay tuition, make donations to the school, and collaborate with other families on extracurricular activities.
Having one area where families update their preferred contact information and methods means more successful message delivery from the school every time. When the systems are connected and speaking to each other, changes from families shine through. The business office, college advisors, camp program coordinators, development officers, and teachers will not have to rummage to find accurate data. It will be in one location, enabling targeted communication with your school families.
On that same note, putting links, documents, events, news, videos, classes, teams, groups, grades, etc., in one centralized location provides a better experience for your families, faculty, and staff. They will not have to search and will know every time—and every year—where they need to go to obtain the information they need. Here are some example scenarios:
- “I want to buy a new school sweatshirt.”
- “I need to see how my child is doing in class.”
- “I need to change the camp session for which my child is registered.”
- “I want to donate to the school’s technology enrichment program.”
These may seem like little things, but providing aggregated information at their fingertips can enhance the family experience, increase student retention, and boost fundraising.
4. Evaluate cross-functional process flow
Another pitfall schools fall into is when every grade level, class, division, and department thinks their processes and systems are working fine. While that may be true for that one area, and they are doing great work, how does their work impact the next class, the next grade level, or other departments? It is critical to stop and take the time to evaluate the cross-functionality of all school areas.
From this perspective, a connected school means the best workflow for students moving through the school and the best workflow of processes between the different departments. The admissions team could have a smooth process, but the business office might need to do quite a few manual steps to make contract billing work, causing them overtime and headaches every year. In this instance, is the process genuinely smooth? Does your school have a good cross-functional process flow if one office must work harder for another to run smoothly? When a child moves to middle school, if the teachers must work harder to explain technology uses to the children, is the lower school process working well?
Not all processes can be perfect. A school is a living organism that requires a lot of care and consideration. To make that work, there must be give-and-take from every area of the school to benefit the students, families, faculty, and staff. It takes significant effort to provide for students and families, and everyone in a school goes above and beyond. In a connected school, processes must be continuously evaluated and modified for the best outcome for the greater good. That may mean the greater good of your graduates, the greater good of your finances, etc. The point is that a greater good must be reached, even if that means compromising a good process in one area for a larger and better approach impacting multiple departments.
Blackbaud has more than 40 years of experience working with K–12 schools, and our team has developed a proven strategy to reach that greater good conversation. We start with a discovery phase by asking what the most significant areas of concern are, such as tuition collections, low donations, etc., and discuss those department processes. How are you managing contracts and automatic payments? How easy is that for families? Where are you putting your donation forms? How many campaigns do you have? Why? We help schools back into the minor issues in each area that impact the whole. At that point, it starts to become easier to see answers. Common threads we’ve found in this discovery process include the following:
- School systems that aren’t user-friendly for families
- Contract data that doesn’t flow seamlessly to the business office
- Out-of-date contact information for current families
- Inaccurate donor information in advancement office systems
Schools face many challenges when their systems are disconnected. Evaluating each process helps find where small changes can be made among different areas to impact the entire school.
5. Consider both flexibility and structure
I cannot tell you how many times, at my schools, I got a list a mile long of things a particular grade level or department would need when evaluating a new system or new process. Each had their list of needs and wants, and high on those lists were usually those words: flexibility and customizability. Both are important when looking at processes and systems to connect a school more efficiently, as no two schools operate precisely the same way. Departments must be flexible to do the work; software must be customizable to manage the work. Flexibility and customizability significantly impact what faculty can do for the school and what students and their families get from it.
Here is what I call the kicker, though: being too flexible and customizable doesn’t always equal a more connected school. The more flexible you make a process, the more room for error. The more customizable you make a system, the more complex you make it to understand and the easier it breaks when the software needs to be updated. I shy away from the word “customizable” because the more custom you make a system, the more unique it becomes, making it harder to evaluate, report on, understand, and maintain.
For instance, I have had schools ask if a parent portal view for grades, transcripts, and even class pages was customizable or flexible. And in these instances, I ask this question: Are you trying to make it easier for families to understand and find information? 99% of the time, they are. Then I counter with: Why would you want to make each view, each class page different? Wouldn’t that mean the student or family would have difficulty locating grades, assignments, and documents between their other classes, groups, or grade levels?
Sometimes people focus so much on making things flexible that they forget that ease of use of a process or software usually comes with standard criteria. We want students to do things in a structured way, which is how we teach them. The same should be applied to any process or software system.
Structure is not a bad thing. Structure is essential when you want a process or software to be adopted easily and quickly. If every teacher did things differently and every department, too, you would be back to square one. That moves you away from being a connected school. The idea is to find a balance between flexibility and structure. Don’t let your mind run away with all the flexible and customizable opportunities, as they may not lead you in the best direction for your school and your families.
A Connected School is an Empowered Community
Education is a human-centric endeavor, and connecting K–12 school software systems is ultimately an investment in the teachers, staff, students, and families who make up your school community. A connected school is one in which processes flow naturally, data flows seamlessly between software systems, and the entire school community is empowered with valuable communication tools, accurate information, and a unified experience.
For more tips on researching, selecting, and implementing software solutions, check out our K–12 School SIS and LMS Transition Toolkit. You’ll find a software buyer’s guide, a vendor comparison scorecard, and other helpful information from thought leaders throughout education.