8x8 and E-Rate Program Help Charter School Cut Costs and Grow Rapidly
Founded 13 years ago, Learn4Life began in Lancaster, California, as a new education resource for disadvantaged children who cannot attend traditional full-time schools. Typically these kids have dropped out—or are at risk for dropping out—because they must work to support their families, have experienced teen pregnancy, are in foster care, or lack transportation.
Learn4Life addresses these barriers by setting up charter schools (or “resource centers”) close to the students’ homes. The schools go up quickly in nontraditional spaces such as churches, boys and girls clubs, and empty storefronts. Students receive personalized learning plans that allow them to do their schoolwork at home. Many also receive vocational training to help them find jobs. Phone, Internet and videoconferencing services enable students to connect with teachers remotely.
“The kids we’re dealing with cannot attend school five days a week or travel more than 2.5 miles to get to school,” explains Skip Hansen, senior vice president of Learn4Life. “Some have jobs; others have babies to take care of. Typically students spend just one or two days a week in our resource centers. That’s why we’re constantly creating new ones right in their neighborhoods.”
Wanted: “Unified Communications That Can Scale with Us”
Learn4Life needed highly reliable unified communications that could support both its rapid expansion and its distance learning model. The company had grown to 800 employees and more than 70 sites in Southern California, and has plans to expand to Texas, Ohio and Northern California over the next two years.
Hansen had already recognized the limitations of traditional landline phone service and had implemented a VoIP solution subsidized through the federal E-rate program, which supports telecommunications modernization and upgrades at qualifying educational institutions. The problem was, the company’s business VoIP provider could not deliver the uptime or scalability required to fulfill Learn4Life’s mission.
“We need a service provider who can keep up with us,” says Hansen. “Unless we can roll out reliable communications quickly, we have to delay the opening of new sites—and that’s not in line with our mission. Our goal isn’t just to teach kids; we’re trying to save their lives. Time to market is key for us.”
Hansen and his IT team began searching online for a replacement communications system. Their selection criteria included videoconferencing to enhance distance learning, scalability and customer support to enable faster expansion, and E-rate participation to ensure the new solution was affordable.
“A lot of VoIP providers charge extra to add advanced features like videoconferencing, “says Hansen. “We were looking for somebody who could deliver unified communications and scale with us. They also had to provide customer support that could accommodate our rapidly growing organization, because we are opening 15-20 branches every year.”
E-Rate Subsidizes up to 95% of Communication Costs
After researching a number of vendors, Learn4Life’s E-rate consultant helped Hansen zero in on 8x8.
“8x8 has a lot of respect in the industry,” notes Hansen. “But more importantly it has the scalability to grow with us and meet our needs as we continue to add locations and staff.”
What closed the deal though, was 8x8’s participation in the E-rate program. Hansen estimates that Learn4Life recoups 85–95% of its actual communication costs through the program, making 8x8’s participation “essential” to his organization’s success and growth.
“8x8’s ability to help us through the E-rate process was invaluable,” he says. “Applying for federal subsidies is not easy, and having a knowledgeable vendor who understands the process makes all the difference in the world.”
“We had a lot of choices and 8x8 was certainly the right one. 8x8 has the capabilities, backbone and redundancy to ensure our communications services are always up. They understand our business and will be a long-term partner as we continue to grow and help disadvantaged students.”Skip Hansen, Senior Vice President at Learn4Life
8x8 Expedites the Opening of New Schools
In late 2012, Learn4Life began rolling out 8x8 unified communications. Within a few weeks more than 50 sites were fully deployed—and more are coming online all the time.
“Since switching to 8x8 we’ve been able to open new resource centers much faster. With our previous VoIP provider, deployment would typically take six to seven weeks. Our staff was constantly overwhelmed because equipment would arrive and not be configured properly,” recalls Hansen. “Imagine having 25 kids waiting and you can’t open their school because your phone system isn’t working! With 8x8, our phones and routers are preconfigured and ready to go.”
Meeting and Collaboration Features Support a Mobile Workforce
Learn4Life now uses 8x8’s built-in meeting and collaboration features on a daily basis. Conference calls and especially video calls help teachers stay in touch with students and their parents. 8x8’s bandwidth-efficient cloud infrastructure supports video without degrading phone, Internet or other IP-based services.
“Being able to see the person you’re talking to instead of just hearing their voice makes remote communications more effective,” explains Hansen.
Group paging enables employees at all sites to hear company announcements through the intercom feature on their desk phones. A mobile app for iOS and Android devices allows them to access 8x8 features through their smartphones and tablets wherever they are.
“Teachers and staff are spending more time collaborating and less time dealing with phone system problems since we switched to 8x8,” observes Hansen. “The mobile app keeps them close to students and parents even when they’re working off site. Employee productivity has definitely increased.”
In fact, Hansen credits 8x8 with enabling his mobile workforce of teachers to work remotely.
“Years ago I implemented VoIP at another company, and it was a much more laborious process. We didn’t have a mobile app or the ability to take our phones home, plug them in and keep our business going. Now with 8x8’s rich feature set, we have employees who can actually work from home, which is a first for us. Schools that looked at VoIP in the past and thought it was too limited should take a look at what’s possible today!”
Ongoing 8x8 Support Keeps Schools Open
Because Learn4Life’s distance-learning model depends on its communications system, ongoing support from 8x8 is extremely important. Hansen and his team are very pleased with 8x8’s responsiveness when issues arise.
“If we have a problem, which is very rare, we just pick up the phone and call for help. Usually it’s a network problem on our end. 8x8 gets in right away and finds out exactly what’s happening. Typically they just make a tweak, and everything’s fine again.”
Day to day, Hansen’s IT team appreciates the ease of 8x8 system administration, which enables them to make changes whenever necessary.
“One of the great things about 8x8 is that the system is easy to use and administer,” says Hansen. “A web-based interface provides the tools you need to quickly go in and make changes for immediate impact. It’s as simple as that.”
8x8: A Long-Term Partner for Educators
Hansen notes that his organization is large—and growing—with more than 700 employees. But in his view, any size organization can benefit from 8x8.
“I constantly get calls from business owners asking us about our phone system. I tell them whether you have two employees or 2,000 employees, 8x8 is the answer. It’s very easy to roll out, the service is inexpensive, and the ROI is immediate.”
Hansen also believes that 8x8 offers significant advantages to educators, who typically have less budget to work with than their business counterparts.
“If I were a school administrator looking for a new communications system, I’d certainly be looking at 8x8,” he says. “8x8 lets you quickly implement cloud communications that will make a difference in students’ lives today—without all the expensive hardware you don’t have the time or resources to maintain.”
But given the number of VoIP solutions available to educators today, what makes 8x8 stand out for Hansen?
“We had a lot of choices and 8x8 was certainly the right one,” he says. “I would give this advice to any educator looking at VoIP solutions: Make sure your provider can scale with you. 8x8 has the capabilities, backbone and redundancy to ensure our communications services are always up. They understand our business and will be a long-term partner as we continue to grow and help disadvantaged students.”