School Districts Use CRM to Balance the Needs of Their Constituents

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Think your CRM needs are demanding? Try corralling the parents of 5,000 elementary and secondary school students when a school day unexpectedly gets cut short by a snowstorm. Paperwork got you down? Imagine filing with the state board of education the litany of attendance records, testing scores, and graduation rates of every single student on your watch. Sarbanes-Oxley stressing you out? Try complying with the No Child Left Behind Act. This ain't kid stuff. And neither is convincing school districts that CRM is the answer. Even the most advanced have only just begun to deploy student information systems (SISs). But the typical SIS is a one-dimensional data store that wasn't built for the heavy lifting of CRM. "SISs are in place to track things like attendance and bus routes--the things that have direct value," says Ken Stehlik-Barry, a technical consultant for analytics vendor SPSS. "They were designed around a different purpose. Most don't [even] have test data loaded into them, just grades." An SIS at least assures that all the contact information is in place. Many schools have tied their SIS to their attendance package, to automatically place calls to parents when their child is absent or tardy--a move that has a predictable impact on truancy rates. Today most districtwide CRM efforts appeal to counselors and administrators, but have yet to really trickle down to the teacher-parent-student relationship. "The K-12 market is held accountable for student performance in a way that higher education institutions really are not," Stehlik-Barry says. "How a student does is viewed as a reflection on how the school is doing, not the student." In higher education, the reverse is true. This may be one reason districts are using CRM to aggregate and report test scores. "At the superintendent's and school board level, [the commitment to CRM] may be driven by what may appear in the paper"--dropout rates, average test scores--"but at the school level, it runs deeper," Stehlik-Barry says. Colin Jones, a senior account executive at RightNow Technologies who specializes in the public sector, agrees: "At the board level, they're just running reports and looking at numbers. But as you start to trickle down through the organization it starts to be customer-centric." That's where the challenges really multiply. "There's such a huge amount of data to deal with," says Chris Bowman, the supervisor in charge of federal programs for the Lafourche Parish School Board in Louisiana. Bowman has been comparing clusters of students who fail against those who pass, but in the end, he says, "I'm not the school's statistician." Forget statisticians--some districts don't have a dedicated IT staff of any kind. Often, the responsibility for championing or maintaining even rudimentary CRM efforts falls to the resident math or science teacher. For most K-12 outfits--especially the public ones--funds are often lacking. It doesn't help that the hardware in place may be too antiquated to run today's powerful software. And, unlike higher education, school districts don't get to cherry-pick their clientele. As SPSS's Stehlik-Barry says, "In the K-12 public arena, there really isn't a competition for students. The school district has to take everyone within its footprint." RightNow's Jones says that for the full CRM benefits to be realized, schools will have to expand their focus, tracking the full life cycle of each student, from kindergarten through graduation, crafting individual curriculums to match interests and strengths along the way. That's a realistic goal, according to Stehlik-Barry, because "school districts have a tremendous amount of data on their students." With all that information, he says, a solid CRM effort could provide "ways to raise performance levels." Unfortunately, he says, "conceptually, they're just not there yet."
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