How ScribChoice helped two districts enhance their lottery management by going digital.
When it comes to school choice programs, successfully implementing a new lottery system in place of an old one can be arduous, but it doesn’t have to be the case. Scribbles Senior Project Manager Tommy Stroozas interviewed two leaders in public school choice– Karima Wesselhoft of Prince William County Public Schools and Christine Davis, formerly of Brevard Public Schools and currently a member of the Scribbles Project Management Team. In this interview, we’ll hear from these two key players about implementing school choice software, what differences they observed between their former processes and Scribbles, and how the pandemic played a part in making a transition to digital processes.
Tommy Stroozas: Hey everyone! Karima, thanks for joining Christine and I today. You and I have spoken a lot about these topics; to get started, could you describe briefly what you were doing in your former lottery management process and what problems you were trying to solve by moving to our platform?
KW: Thank you for having me. We have 40 programs in our division and, what I call PK or pre-Karima, they had various application systems. Ten years ago, they were doing paper, and eight years they were doing an online database. How we got here is when I came on in 2020 during the pandemic, we were about a week into our program going live, and we had a database breach. So [to manage applications], I had to build forms with very extensive branching in a week. Then I had to get kids to apply, and it was a true test of my abilities.
This system worked fine for a year as a stop-gap measure, but it was not sustainable. It was not accessible, and there was no [guarantee] that we could keep that data secure. Each time someone went into the system and pressed the delete button or the back button, we would lose data. So we needed something that was more robust that was more capable than what we were doing. It needed to be safe enough that we could centralize all of our applications to make it equitable for all of our families. We also needed to make it easy to check year after year because we were having a few compliance issues as well. So that is how we found Scribbles.
TS: I remember one of the first few conversations we had was about the stop-gap that you built. It was good for the volume that you guys are doing, but it's definitely good that we are moving over to our platform.
So because you did things a certain way, and then you had a stop-gap year, and then you came to our platform, there were three different processes for parents over several years. How did you guys help prepare your families for Scribbles versus the old platform?
KW: I would say we got lucky in that we rode on the wave of Covid and virtual learning. There were some good things that came out of Covid. We started holding virtual sessions, and prior to going to your platform, we held three division-wide, one a year, so we did a middle school one and then one Eastern high school and one Western high school. If you missed it, you missed it. So we chose a centralized location, Zoom, and we did all of our information sessions through Zoom, and we walked our families through the application process in the general information session. I will say for us, one of the key pieces was we communicated a lot. We communicated often and used all of our communication devices.
KW: We use Canvas, we use email, we use all of our communication devices, and we did volume. We made sure there was no opportunity to miss the session. So last year, between October 7 and February 1, we did 55 information sessions for families, and it was a lot, so we were exhausted. The good news is there wasn't a single family we missed. There were families that claimed they were missed, but they weren't missed. We were able to record the sessions and post them online, and we used the last couple of weeks to embed three hours a day for family support so everyone could jump in whenever they were available.
We also took them into a break room so they could share the screen that they were seeing, and we were able to address their individual issues. Oftentimes, the issues were very simple, but when you can't see their screen, it can be very hard to help them over the phone. So that was our tactic, offer a lot of support and give them one-on-one support.
TS: That's awesome. That is something that you guys did a lot, and we should probably take some tips from you in regard to that because what you guys did was very above and beyond what I would even expect. It's really commendable how you guys handled that. In that regard, how did your families react to the new process and to all the sessions, being online and especially during the Covid period? How was the change received, and what were their thoughts?
KW: A lot of our families said they appreciated that we took the time. They gave the best feedback from the one-on-one sessions. There were families that were like oh, I was clicking this button wrong, and no matter what I did, I couldn't get there. They loved being able to sit down and talk to us one on one. So this year, we have already built that in for our sessions so that we are not jumbled at the end right before they apply.
Being able to do it virtually was very important because we have families with transportation issues. Because we are a very long county, we go from east of 95 to west of 66 in Northern Virginia, transportation was key.
Feedback from my office was awesome because families who missed any of the sessions and asked to know more about all the programs only needed to be directed to where all the information had been posted. Some parents still had questions even after watching the video, which was totally fine. The posted data really addressed a lot of our family's needs. They were very excited and supportive. Most families would apologize if they missed any information, but it gave us an opportunity to drive traffic toward our website.
Some families have even emailed to find out when the website is going up, and we've informed them that it will be up tomorrow and word of mouth spreads, so everyone knows what to expect.
TS: That is definitely a good thing. I want to contrast that question and take it to Christine because she went live with these processes years prior to you while she was with Brevard Public Schools. There was no Zoom at that point; this was 2012.
Christine: Yes, something way back then
TS: In contrast with Karima's side, do you recall how your families reacted to the processes way back in 2012 or 2013? Was it a different reaction?
Christine: The families were really positive in our county. Like Karima’s county, we are very long and narrow as well here in Florida. We have 86 schools doing applications and lottery, so it was very hard; that is why we came to Scribbles. My administrative secretary had a nervous breakdown because of trying to shuffle all that paperwork and doing all that by hand. Needless to say, we went to an electronic platform, and we were able to roll it out a little differently. We did not roll it out whole district-wide with 86 schools. We rolled it out with ten schools that we called choice schools. You could only get into them through a lottery process meeting certain entrance criteria. So we did more of a slow rollout with our families.
By the second year, word of mouth got around that we're doing this, and we added our secondary schools because they had career and technical education programs to apply for. Then the third year, we added our elementary schools for our open enrollment processes. So each year we would advertise more. At the same time, there really weren’t cell phones. Facebook, or Twitter. We did word of mouth, and we put it on our district's website. We also printed flyers that we sent home as we rolled out different schools. Nowadays, you have QR codes you could give to parents that Scribbles can set up for you, and they can scan it and go right to your page. They don't even have to know the website.
So at the time we did it a little bit different with less tech, but it worked out really well. We had a lot of positive feedback from families. We had an information night and things like that, and we actually set up at each school and had someone at the school be available to help the parents. You know, even today, you have grandparents raising children, and they don't know the technology.
In Florida, we are a very multicultural population, so now Scribbles has the Google translator going into over 132 different languages. Back then, it was just a few. We had Spanish, Chinese, and Mandarin interpreters because those were our higher populations. But now it's all online, so it's a little bit different.
TS: Yeah, they're probably used to it by now.
Christine: Brevard has been using it for more than 10 years. Once they know it's coming, the best thing [I could recommend is to] try to be consistent with your timelines and platforms. Because your parents know, and if all of a sudden I switched from secondary applying in October to elementary school applying in October, you're going to miss those families. We get used to our timelines, our schedules, and what comes around each year.
TS: That's all from the word-of-mouth aspect right there. That's actually good. I want to ask Karima as well, word of mouth is a big deal, right? I mean, I'm a parent. I talk to other parents in the neighborhood, and that's how we find out stuff. So based on word of mouth, do you think that you're going to have a lot of changes this year, perhaps based on feedback from parents? Are there changes we are making to the process feedback based on the parents' side?
KW: No, I think we are not going to have very many changes. The families understand and appreciate it. I will tell you probably the biggest plus is that they like being able to go back in and look at their decision over and over again. And we have those families that want to check every single day just to check, and we tell them we're not going to be there yet. So process-wise, we probably won't change. We are adding a couple more programs and we're clarifying some wording.
We have a couple of families who have expressed some concerns, so to give a little more background on what we are doing, we have a couple of schools that fall into the true lottery and that only have X number of seats to give. Most of the feedback is from those families, but they're where all of our feedback always comes from, and really, they're more concerned with how they can have more seats at School A, and I can't create seats, so I didn't consider that. They will also frequently want to know some procedural things like where they sit on the waitlist, or why their division doesn't release where they sit on the waitlist, although other divisions do.
TS: So we got it right the first time?
KW: Right, a lot of emails back and forth, but it was worth it.
TS: That’s great! How did your internal program managers react to the new process versus the old?
KW: Relationships go a long way, so I would always start there. We started talking to Scribbles once our computers crashed, so it was really easy for us. I started telling coordinators right away look, I'm building this by hand; the plane is in the air, and the wing is not quite on yet, so we are using super glue as we go. So they were ready and very supportive of anything to make me feel better. Once we knew what we were looking at and knew how we were going to address all of the pieces, they were a hundred percent on board. Even though they knew all the capabilities, we had not quite achieved it yet because we had not completed the building process, but they were fully on board and prepared. Also, for us, it meant that a lot of the work that used to fall on them now fell on my office.
Any time you're taking things off of people's plates, they love you. We now run their lotteries for them. We make all the offers for them by doing everything centrally. In our student management system, we have a little spot where we say what program they're in. The previous protocol was that the school had to do that. And so when you take that level of work off people's plates, they don't complain about very much.
Karima Wesselhoft is the Supervisor of Advanced Academics and Specialty Programs for Prince William County Schools. In her role, she supports the Division with the creation, implementation, and compliance around Advanced Academics courses (AP, IB, and AICE) as well as interest-based Specialty Programs. Prior to this position, Karima served as a high school assistant principal, a program coordinator, and a teacher at both the middle school and high school levels. She is so excited about her work and is excited to share her experiences.
Dr. Christine A. Davis’ career in education spans more than 25 years. She has worked at every level of the organization, from an elementary and secondary educator to a school technology director to a district-level administrator and superintendent senior cabinet member. She has worked with such groups as the Central Florida School Boards Coalition, the National Large City Schools Superintendents Organization, the Florida Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Davis also served as an examiner for the Florida Sterling Council, evaluating the performance excellence of school districts across Florida. She has been recognized for Excellence in Communications and Public Engagement by the Sunshine State Public Relations Association (SUNSPRA) and National Association for Public Relations (NSPRA). Davis graduated from The Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor’s degree in Education and Nova Southeastern University with a master’s degree in Education, an educational specialist’s degree in Educational Technology, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Organizational Management. She lives in Merritt Island, Florida, with her husband and daughter.
Tommy Stroozas is a 15-year veteran of the EdTech industry, having worked to help build Scribbles Software from a small, locally ran startup to a nationally recognized, leading K12 Software Solutions platform. For the past 5+ years, Tommy has concentrated on creating equitable opportunities for families across the country via our School Choice platform, and has implemented a wide range of processes and programs toward the realization of that goal. Tommy lives in Mooresville, NC, with his wife Penny, their four "wild" children, and of course, two loveable rescue dogs.
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