LivingTree takes student-parent communication beyond ‘school was fine’

By: Doug Pitorak, Built in Austin

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When parents ask kids about their school day, they often get a generic, succinct response. Tired of being left in the dark as parents, Cullen Childress and Krishna Sai founded LivingTree, a private, secure and hierarchical social network that enables convenient communication among parents, teachers, students, schools, districts and community organizations.

“It became tremendously painful when our children were younger that a lot of those organizations were still using the early 2000s way to communicate,” LivingTree President Joni Carswell said. “It was very difficult to stay on the same page as a family and to keep all the balls in the air at the same time.”

Carswell said the LivingTree team identified the following communication roadblocks: basic websites, lack of mobile presence, paper flyers and emails where everyone replies to all.

LivingTree’s mobile and web apps eliminate those outdated methods — and does much more.

Built by parents, for parents

Instead of just wondering about the absence of Web 2.0 technology and social media, LivingTree took matters into their own hands. They built a network that allows two-way conversation. It is built hierarchically, like an organization. Each grouping receives relevant information, and everyone part of a group — a class, for example — can converse.

So far, so good. After being founded in 2012, LivingTree launched beta testing in Texas during the 2012-2013 school year. Now districts around the world — from Texas, Maryland and New York to Australia and Switzerland — use LivingTree, resulting in a user base of more than 200,000 people.

Teachers share pictures from the day. They post homework assignments, request chaperones and remind users about field trip permission slips and report cards.

“As a parent, you connect to a class and share a multidirectional connection with the teacher and other parents,” Carswell said. “Instead of getting that two-word answer from your son, you actually get a picture of what they were doing.”

Carswell said teachers can share information with students, parents or both groups. She said parents can view but not interact with information shared with only students. Parents can see how students communicate digitally and help them improve.

Practical for schools and districts, too

The benefits of LivingTree extend to schools, districts and community organizations.

For example, schools easily send weather alerts or announcements about school achievements, be them academic, artistic or athletic. Districts send push notifications to their schools. Community organizations — such as little league teams — spread information on LivingTree.

Furthermore, LivingTree provides engagement analytics to schools and districts, allowing them to properly monitor their networks, a valuable feature especially in Texas, where Carswell said schools must conduct a self-assessment on community engagement each summer. Because of the analytics, and because LivingTree essentially sets up an entire network for schools and districts, LivingTree charges those parties a license fee that varies based on a district’s student count.

LivingTree also makes revenue via training, Carswell said. The network is free for students, parents and teachers.

Safe, secure and growing

Just because it’s free, however, doesn’t mean LivingTree is unsafe. In truth, LivingTree distinguishes itself through security, Carswell said.

LivingTree integrates with a district’s student information system, and if someone is not in that system, they’re not connected. In addition, users must be invited via email to join a group.

“Every district wants a mobile app, but they’re not thinking about what happens when you can just download it and all the information is there at your fingertips,” Carswell said. “I can download an app, get notices on where students are and photos of the students, and I’m not connected to that district in any way, which is very scary as a parent.”

LivingTree’s invite-only and district data-based model eliminates that threat, a trait that surely contributes to LivingTree’s rapid growth.

Since beta testing, LivingTree has experienced 9x growth each school year. Carswell hopes to have 15x growth from today by year end.

Though she said that goal is lofty, Carswell believes LivingTree is equipped to achieve it, backed by a quality product, an angel investor who has contributed two undisclosed rounds, and 22 dedicated team members.

“The way we communicate today — via email or social media like Facebook or Google Plus — is all one-to-one. You go find a person and you connect with them. You can do groups, but you build them one by one,” Carswell said. “LivingTree is very different. If I connect with my son’s school via a classroom, I’m automatically part of the correct grade level, the correct school and the correct district.”

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