YES Prep Public Schools uses Microsoft Lync to streamline communication and drive academic innovation

Today’s post was written by Troy Neal, the director of technology at YES Prep Public Schools. YES Prep Public Schools is an open-enrollment charter school system that serves 8,000 sixth through twelfth-grade students in greater Houston, Texas. This is the story of how YES Prep uses Microsoft Lync 2013 to enable educators and close the achievement gap.

At YES Prep Public Schools, most of our students come from communities where only 50 percent of students graduate high school and less than 10 percent are expected to earn a college degree. But we know from experience that all students can achieve at the highest academic levels when they have access to a quality education.

For the past 14 years, 100 percent of YES Prep seniors have been accepted to a college or university. And within five years of leaving high school, 82 percent of our alumni have either graduated or are still enrolled in college.

Despite this academic success, we struggled with disparate and often inadequate communications and collaboration technologies. We wanted to use technology as an education enabler, but without reliable systems, our teachers struggled just to get the administrative basics done. Fortunately, in 2008, we received significant IT funding from Dell and were excited about the improvements we could make.

The windfall and the hurricane

Shortly after we received funding, Hurricane Ike made landfall in southeast Texas. The costliest hurricane in Texas history took out almost our entire private-branch exchange (PBX) phone system. We moved quickly, and, in two months, we built a centralized messaging and communications environment based on Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2.

The IT team can’t teach the students, but they can find and deploy technology that makes it easier for teachers to use their time effectively. One of our key technology strategies is to drive academic innovation by simplifying systems and streamlining processes.

By 2019, we plan to serve new communities at five more campuses in Houston and six campuses in Memphis, Tennessee. So it is important to keep improving our ability to work together, while controlling costs and always making disaster recovery a priority. In 2014, we continued to unify our collaboration and communications infrastructure with Microsoft Lync 2013 and Microsoft Office 365, expanding our ability to improve education outcomes.

All YES Prep students use the cloud-based Office 365 service for productivity, email, and collaboration tools, and the staff uses an on-premises deployment of Lync 2013 for voice, conferencing, screen sharing, and instant messaging. Students use Office 365 to build digital portfolios and we intend to use Lync 2013 to build and maintain a homework helpline where students can communicate with teachers and other students after school hours. The IT help desk uses the screen-sharing feature in Lync to resolve service requests, while administrators use Lync to send voice and instant messages to classrooms.

We anticipate using Lync and Skype together to develop virtual field trips, communicate with other schools, and bring educational resources from outside the school into our classrooms. Eventually, we intend to switch to Lync Online in Office 365 and manage our entire messaging environment in the cloud.

Simplified processes drive academic innovation

Now, our staff and students can find the information they need, anywhere in the organization, which makes the educational experience much richer for students. YES Prep counseling teams also host Lync 2013 conferences to provide ongoing support for graduates during their time in college.

Teachers can send service requests to the IT help desk by instant message and share their screens so that we can work on their issues while they focus on the students. Our help-desk satisfaction level has increased from 75 percent to 90 percent.

Supports growth, controls costs, and maintains high availability

We will hire approximately 240 new teachers in 2014, and we’re looking forward to using Skype to conduct interviews with candidates. As we expand into Tennessee, we can use Lync 2013, Office 365, and Skype to hold conferences and share resources across multiple campuses.

yes prep Replacing our PBX phone system could have cost $60,000 to $80,000, but we can set up a Lync 2013 voice system for less than $2,000. By adopting cloud-based Office 365 services, we also reduced the size of our on-premises infrastructure and save up to $120,000 a year in electricity costs.

We watch hurricane season closely, and we’ve taken steps to minimize our disaster-recovery exposure, but no school wants to be in the datacenter business. With Microsoft capabilities and vision, it makes sense to push more things to the cloud.

Read the full story of how YES Prep uses Lync to drive academic success.

  Troy Neal