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YES Prep Public Schools

Charter School Unifies Communications Environment to Drive Academic Innovation 
To help close the achievement gap for students in Houston, Texas, YES Prep Public Schools wanted to enable learning with IT, but it struggled with disparate technologies. In 2008, YES Prep standardized its collaboration environments, and in 2014 updated its communications with Microsoft Lync 2013 and Microsoft Office 365. Since the update, YES Prep has driven education innovation, simplified systems, and streamlined processes, while supporting continued growth, controlling costs, and mitigating disaster-recovery risk.

•  “We use Lync 2013 to streamline processes and add value from an IT standpoint and an academic standpoint.”
Troy Neal
YES Prep Public Schools
Director of Technology

•  “We are using Lync 2013 to distribute more information to more people, which makes the educational experience so much better for the student. There is no price tag you can put on that.”
Troy Neal
YES Prep Public Schools
Director of Technology

•  “We use Lync 2013 to streamline processes and add value from an IT standpoint and an academic standpoint.”
Troy Neal
YES Prep Public Schools
Director of Technology

•  “We are using Lync 2013 to distribute more information to more people, which makes the educational experience so much better for the student. There is no price tag you can put on that.”
Troy Neal
YES Prep Public Schools
Director of Technology

Business Needs

Since 1998, YES Prep Public Schools in Houston, Texas, has operated on the principle that all students can achieve at the highest academic levels when they have access to quality education.


An open enrollment charter school system, YES Prep manages 13 campuses and serves about 8,000 sixth-grade through twelfth-grade students, most from communities where only half the students graduate from high school and less than 10 percent are expected to earn a college degree. The majority of sixth graders entering YES Prep read at or below the fourth-grade level. Against those odds, the standard of graduation from YES Prep is acceptance to college, and for 13 years, 100 percent of YES Prep seniors have been accepted to a college or university. Within five years of leaving high school, 82 percent of YES Prep alumni have graduated or are still enrolled in college.


“These are children who have been underserved scholastically,” says Troy Neal, Director of Technology at YES Prep Public Schools. “At YES Prep, we reject the excuses that the education system has used in the past to explain why these kids can’t go to college.”

YES Prep partners with local public school districts to operate schools within schools, sharing buildings with district schools and best practices with district teachers and administrators. YES Prep students can even take some district courses as electives.

To help its 1,100 teachers and administrators collaborate effectively, YES Prep relies on a robust communications environment, but in its first 10 years, the charter school struggled with disparate and sometimes inadequate technology. While some administrators used a hosted messaging environment based on Microsoft Exchange Server, teachers and other staff used Gmail or other web-based email services, and teachers had to buy their own laptops or else struggle to update digital gradebooks or schedule parent conferences.
“We wanted to use technology as an education enabler,” says Neal. “But without reliable systems, our teachers struggled just to get the administrative basics done.”

Then, in 2008, YES Prep received significant IT funding from Dell to help promote and sustain the charter school’s remarkable academic success—and not a moment too soon. On September 13, 2008, as YES Prep was preparing to update its IT infrastructure, Hurricane Ike made landfall in southeast Texas. The costliest hurricane in Texas history, the storm created havoc in Houston and YES Prep lost almost its entire private-branch exchange (PBX) phone system.


“We knew we wanted a more centralized messaging environment, but when we lost the PBXs, we had to very quickly start evaluating new voice solutions,” says Neal. “We came from Cisco and considered Cisco IPT but didn’t have the budget—or the need really.”

After evaluating other communications solutions, YES Prep built a centralized collaboration and communications environment based on Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2. In 2010, the school continued to unify its communications infrastructure with Exchange Server 2010 and Microsoft Lync 2010.

“The IT team can’t teach the students, but we can find and deploy technology that makes it easier for teachers to educate and maximizes their time,” says Neal. “One of our key technology strategies is to drive academic innovation by simplifying systems and streamlining processes.”


YES Prep is currently growing at about 35 percent a year. By 2019, it will open five more campuses in Houston and six campuses in Memphis, Tennessee. With new communities and students to serve, YES Prep has to continuously upgrade its communications capabilities, while controlling costs and keeping availability and disaster-recovery top priorities.

Solution

According to Neal, when YES Prep originally evaluated collaboration solutions, Microsoft offered the solution that the charter school needed and that fit his team’s skill set. To meet its evolving communications needs, YES Prep signed a licensing agreement that lets it update to new versions of Exchange Server and Microsoft Lync as they were released. “The best part is looking forward to the release of new tool sets,” says Neal.


Neal also noted that Microsoft partnership networks and certification programs make it easy to find trained professionals to help implement and configure solutions, which helps him fill gaps in his IT staff. In 2014, YES Prep worked with Insource Technology, a member of the Microsoft Partner Network, to continue unifying its communications with Microsoft Lync 2013 and Microsoft Office 365.
“Our initial deployment and the update to Lync 2010 were to help streamline communications so that teachers could work more effectively,” says Neal. “By updating to Lync 2013 and adopting Office 365, we can provide even more effective learning environments and help students achieve even better 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 resumes to prepare for college or jobs. By early 2015, YES Prep expects to launch a homework helpline based on Lync 2013 where students can communicate with teachers and other students after school hours.

The IT helpdesk uses the Lync 2013 screen-sharing feature to serve the whole organization without having to maintain technicians on every campus. Administrators use Lync 2013 to send voice and instant messages to speakers and screens in the classrooms to find students, make announcements, or sound alarms.


Eventually, YES Prep intends to switch to Lync Online in Office 365 and manage its entire messaging environment in the cloud. By 2015, YES Prep expects to federate student and staff domains so that teachers and students can communicate directly by using Lync or Skype. “We anticipate using Lync and Skype together to develop virtual field trips, communicate with other districts, schools, and universities, and bring educational resources from outside the school into our classrooms,” says Neal.

Benefits

When YES Prep updated its unified communications infrastructure with Lync 2013 and Office 365, it helped to drive education innovation across its campuses, simplify processes, support its continued growth, control costs, and mitigate its disaster-recovery risk.

Drives Academic Innovation

By using Lync 2013 and Office 365, YES Prep makes it easy for its staff and students to find the information, resources, and expertise they need, anywhere in the organization. “We are using Lync 2013 to distribute more information to more people, which makes the educational experience so much better for the student,” says Neal. “There is no price tag you can put on that.”


YES Prep uses Lync 2013 to measure and promote student success long after they graduate. Counseling teams host Lync conferences with graduates to help them with class schedules, monitor their grades, and provide ongoing support to help make sure they’re successful at college.

Simplifies Systems and Processes

With reliable collaboration tools they can access from anywhere, YES Prep teachers can focus more on academics and less on technology or processes. For example, if a teacher experiences an IT issue, they can send an instant message to the help-desk team, share their screen, and go back to teaching. “We use Lync 2013 to streamline processes and add value from an IT standpoint and an academic standpoint,” says Neal. “We work on their issues, while they focus on the students.”


According to an internal survey of the school staff, help-desk satisfaction has increased from 75 percent to 90 percent since the help-desk team began using Lync 2013 to manage service requests.


Supports Growth


YES Prep expects to use Lync 2013 to provide more learning opportunities for more students. The school wants to use Lync and Skype to support students who are homebound due to medical or family issues. It’s using Microsoft Lync Mobile to give parents multiple channels for interacting with teachers and school administrators. With Lync Mobile, teachers can use wireless internet to make phone calls at campuses that often have poor mobile phone coverage.


YES Prep staff members use Lync 2013 to communicate more effectively both inside and outside the organization. The school expects to hire approximately 240 new teachers in 2014 and plans to use Skype to conduct interviews with candidates. That will save time and expand the talent pool to include more high-quality candidates. As YES Prep expands into Tennessee, it can use Lync 2013, Office 365, and Skype to hold conferences and share resources across multiple offices and campuses. “We are looking into ways we can use Lync 2013 or Skype to share classroom experiences or even try team teaching from different locations,” says Neal.

Controls Costs and Supports High Availability

When YES Prep replaced its old PBX phone systems with voice solutions based on Lync 2013, it began saving up to US$80,000 per campus. “In education, cost is always a large factor,” says Neal. “It can cost $60,000 to $80,000 to install a traditional PBX phone system, but we can set up a voice system based on Lync 2013 for less than $2,000.”
 
YES Prep can also control costs as it expands into Tennessee by using the centralized environments that it already has in place. “We save costs because everything is centrally managed and we don’t have to set up something new from scratch,” says Neal.


By adopting cloud-based services such as Office 365, YES Prep reduced the size of its on-premises datacenter and saved $120,000 a year in electricity costs. Migrating toward a cloud-based infrastructure also helps YES Prep maintain high system availability and lower its disaster-recovery burden.


“We have to watch the hurricane season every year, and we’ve taken steps to minimize our disaster-recovery exposure, but no school wants to be in the datacenter business,” says Neal. “I’d like to get to the point where we don’t need a datacenter any more, and with Microsoft capabilities and vision, it makes sense to push more things to the cloud.”