School District’s ‘Let’s Talk’ Program Impresses in First Month

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A new software program being piloted by the South Orange-Maplewood School District is showing impressive results in its first month, but the program has only been rolled out to central staff at this point.

“Let’s Talk” allows parents, guardians, students and others to submit questions, concerns, suggestions, comments and more to district staff with a guaranteed response time within two days. District Director of Strategic Communications Suzanne Turner noted that the average time to complete and close a dialogue in the first month of Let’s Talk was 1.1 business days. (See Turner’s presentation below.)

For now, dialogues are being routed to central administrative staff. Should the district continue past the pilot, dialogues could eventually be routed directly to teachers. However, Superintendent Dr. John Ramos said that rolling out the software would be a process and the next staffers to receive dialogues would be building leaders — or principals.

“If the Board of Educaition agrees, the next phase is to meet with building administrators, said Ramos, who added that he didn’t “want to jam [the program] down anyone’s throat” but wanted building leaders to “hear the utility of this.” Ramos noted that, while it does take time to respond to the questions, “I believe investing that time saves me time. Some of our principals might understand that right away. Others might be less sure because of the enormity of everything they have to do.”

The Board of Education approved a free 90-day trial for Let’s Talk at its August Board of Education meeting. Should the district decide to continue the program at the end of the trial, the cost would be $11,000 for the remainder of school year.

At Monday night’s meeting Turner presented highlights of the program’s first month to Board members, noting that the planned Education Summit and the new W.I.N. period in the middle schools were major topics for dialogues in the first month of Let’s Talk.

The number one recipient of dialogues was Ramos, who answered 14% of messages in the first month.

Turner read some of the comments left by users about the program, including, “Thank you so much for responding so promptly to my concern.” Another commenter noted that the district “replied promptly, with empathy and action. Excellent!”

There were some mild criticisms as well: “Response was timely but impersonal and generic. I appreciate the forum, however, and am encouraged about changes.”

One review was absolutely glowing: “I am extremely impressed by the response of Let’s Talk. I felt that the appropriate people heard my concerns and acted upon them.”

“You couldn’t have paid someone for a better response!” said Turner.

Board members seemed cautiously optimistic:

Elizabeth Baker wanted to know if students had been made aware of the tool. Turner said that students hadn’t been directly targeted in the marketing of the tool, but said Baker’s comment was a “great suggestion.”

Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad raised the concern about buy-in from administrators before moving beyond the pilot: “I would want some assurance that the population of administrators are going to wholeheartedly leverage the tool because otherwise … the investment is not worth it.”

Baker also commented that the district needed “to reinforce that good communication in all forms is central to the work we do.”

Board Second Vice President Johanna Wright questioned the value of the program: “If we just held people accountable, we wouldn’t need Let’s Talk or anything else.”

Ramos responded: “It’s about execution and I would certainly agree that we all need to be held accountable.”

Earlier Ramos commented that many of the benefits of Let’s Talk “can’t be measured,” saying that the program was “minimizing frustration” and would keep parents and guardians from “taking the issue someplace else.” Ramos said that already the program was creating a “tone” — “an improved sense of communication.” He also noted that in its full, post-pilot mode, the program would also capture tweets, emails and other social media communications.

But again Ramos agreed with board members that it all comes down to execution: “Like any other tool, it’s just a tool.”

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