Enrolling a student one of the 137 schools in the Boston Public Schools system can be a difficult process to navigate. To register a student for BPS, parents must visit a Welcome Center to provide custody documents, proof of residency in the City of Boston, up-to-date immunization records, etc. Current experience involves long wait times, unclear expectations of necessary documents, and a reliance on paperwork, where human error is likely to occur.
As part of the application process and curriculum for Fresh Tilled Soil’s UX Apprenticeship program, I conducted research and created designs for an iPad kiosk app that parents can use to jumpstart the BPS registration process at Welcome Centers.
As I continued work on the app, I focused on my most dangerous assumption that parents knew which schools they want their student to attend. It was common for parents to ask the registration specialist what was a "good" or a "bad" school and it became clear that the framework needed to change to "which school is the right fit for my student and family?" So in addition to crating a more seamless registration process, I needed to help parents understand and priortize which characteristics to find in a quality school for their unique student.
The BPS audience
Forty-four percent of BPS students speak a language other than English as their first language. The most spoken languages for BPS families include Spanish, Haitian creole, Cape Verdean creole, Chinese, Vietnamese, Somali, Arabic, and French.
Seventy eight percent of BPS students qualify for free- or reduced-price meals due to income status. Families living along or below the poverty line will have significantly less resources than middle class and upper middle class families, whether it’s time or ability to navigate the system.
One parent argued with a registration specialist on the phone, accusing BPS for putting her student in a particular school because he was a Black student. Despite the specialist’s attempts to explain that the computer algorithm wasn’t capable of racial biases, it was clear that there was an intense distrust of the system.
Waiting rooms at the Welcome Center are typically noisy and hectic with kids. For many families, it is a cultural norm to make a decisions as a family and sometimes entire extended families accompany parents to register a student. It wouldn’t be unusual to see the grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousins crammed in one cubicle.
Process began elsewhere
Parents had to start planning for their visit beforehand whether it was finding coverage for work or childcare or researching schools at home. Even for parents who thought they did significant research before their visit, it fell short. Sometimes they knew to visit the Welcome Center, but arrived without necessary documents or with outdated documents and had to make another visit.
I iterated on my original language prompt and created a test with directions in Chinese with my English-speaking participants. I also included a questionnaire-like feature in the school choices section to help parents prioritize school characteristics using distinctions used by BPS’ Discover BPS website, an incredibly helpful, but underutilized resource.
Left to right: a previous interview revealed that a parent felt embarrassed to ask questions about schools. "Learn more" links also help parents discover diverse school offerings they didn’t know BPS provided. To address prioritizing preferences, I designed a drag and drop feature.
The navigation needs to explicitly communicate the fluidity or progression of registration steps. It also needs menu options that allows parents to save, email, and print their progress if they have to unexpectedly pause their registration.
Furthermore, parents' pain point of visiting the Welcome Center is still not solved. Due to potential fraud with digitized documents, I recommend mobile Welcome Center alternatives, perhaps in the form of a vehicle that visits neighborhoods to accommodate busy parents.
While some families will be lucky to receive a letter in the mail with the name of their first or second choice school printed on it, BPS cannot promise everyone their top ranked school. There simply are not enough open seats for everyone to get what they want. While the app guided parents to think about their students’ educational needs, it didn’t prepare them for potential disappointment. The app will need further work on onboarding parents’ expectations and familiarize them with BPS’ Home-Based system of assigning students seats.
I believe the parents of BPS need more than an app to equip them and their families for educational success. For progress, structural changes that go well beyond a screen will be necessary. However, this project reminded me that despite moving professionally in a different direction after working in public education, I can use my newfound passion for UX to continue to strengthen my community and create more equality in the world.