How Austin ISD uses technology to manage a 10x increase in questions during back-to-school

Leveraging the texting feature within a broader communications platform helped the district efficiently respond to a deluge of questions.
Darla Caughey is the Associate Director of Customer Service, Employee Recognition, and Support at Austin Independent School District in Texas.

We’re entering another school year of uncertainty and adjustment due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, yet — in many ways — this year is no different than last. Just like 2020, there’s an endless array of questions, concerns, and suggestions from our community as we return to school.

In talking with my education colleagues, the challenge is clear: School districts across the country are fielding, on average, triple the number of questions and concerns.

The influx of back-to-school inquiries can easily become unwieldy — especially in Austin ISD, where we have around 74,000 students, over 16,000 teachers and staff, and 130 schools. During last year’s back-to-school season, for example, Austin ISD managed a 10-times increase in inbound communications. Everyone from students and parents to teachers and principals had critical input to share or questions that needed to be answered.

Keeping the lines of communication open between our families and schools has always been one of our top priorities. Families have an array of choices for education and, by ensuring a positive customer experience at Austin ISD, we can retain our students, families and funding.

Managing a remarkable uptick in inbound communications is no small feat and I’m proud of our staff for collaborating to ensure our community has the answers they need — even when school buildings were closed. We didn’t achieve this alone. At Austin ISD, we use Let’s Talk! — a platform by K12 Insight that streamlines inbound communications.

Let’s Talk! improves staff productivity by automatically routing inquiries to the appropriate team or department and removing communication silos across Austin ISD. The unified system gives our staff a central location to collaborate — even when we made the shift to a virtual work-from-home environment — which eliminates competing or duplicative responses. We even have in-platform response templates for frequently asked questions and workflows that make it even faster for us to respond to our community.

Information silos are common within school districts, but not at Austin ISD. We know trapped information doesn’t help anyone, especially not when teachers and staff are working overtime to respond to parents’ questions and concerns.

We’ve also made strides in equity — improving accessibility, increasing engagement, and building trusting relationships across our diverse communities. Nearly 30 percent of our students are English Language Learners. To ensure their families — as well as the entire community — are comfortable communicating with us, our Let’s Talk! form is translated into Arabic, Spanish, Vietnamese, Burmese, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, Dari and Pashto.

It’s also important to remember not every family has access to technology or reliable Internet, and it’s important to meet families where they are at. Last summer, we introduced the ability for community members to reach out to Austin ISD or any of our schools via text message using the Let’s Talk! texting feature.

The addition of texting has dramatically streamlined key processes — such as laptop and device distribution during back-to-school — while providing families with another way to reach out that is both comfortable and familiar. Plus, our staff can still collaborate within Let’s Talk! to deliver a single, timely text message response.

There is no doubt your school community has questions — and lots of them. It’s critical that students, families, teachers, staff, and your greater community have an easy way to reach out and get a timely response while ensuring already overwhelmed staff are not bogged down in replies. By using the best technology available, Austin ISD is effectively connecting with and reassuring our school community while improving our high standards of customer service.

Darla Caughey is the Associate Director of Customer Service, Employee Recognition, and Support at Austin Independent School District in Texas. She previously served as Austin ISD’s Social and Emotional Learning Specialist and as an art educator.

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