Schooling the System

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Joni Carswell, president of LivingTree, is helping tackle community issues in today’s schools through the power of technology. 

By Lydia Gregovic, Photo courtesy of APC Collective

With a background in industrial engineering and a knack for seeing the bigger picture, Joni Carswell is not a woman you’d want to challenge to a puzzle match. Currently, however, she has her sights set on solving an entirely different kind of puzzle: the disconnect between educators and parents that plagues school systems throughout the country.

As the president of LivingTree, an innovative and secure social network that strives to bridge the gap between parents and their children’s teachers, Carswell has utilized her creative abilities to foster a community approach to education, one centered on student learning. Although the company is less than 10 years old, it’s already revolutionizing the ways in which both educators and parents talk about school.

The idea for LivingTree was born from a frustration that all working parents can understand: the struggle to remain up to date on your children’s academic lives while still fulfilling career obligations. And while sites such as Instagram and Facebook allow users to keep in touch with the social lives of their loved ones, prior to LivingTree, no similar platform existed for education-related matters. Rather, methods of information distribution varied from classroom to classroom, resulting in an enormous amount of effort on the part of parents. So, when founders Cullen Childress and Sai Krishna approached Carswell with a plan to create a virtual space for parents and teachers to interact, she saw the opportunity she had been waiting for.

“The mission of simplifying communication and engagement so that families focus on experience rather than coordination really resonated with me, even more as the daughter of an educator,” Carswell says. “I saw LivingTree as an opportunity to make a tremendous impact, not only for educators and families, but also students who were developing under that umbrella of partnership.”

Unlike other methods of parent-teacher communication, LivingTree uses a unique tiered social-network approach to make sharing information easier for those on all sides of the system.

“Instead of setting up and maintaining many different groups, or having each teacher use something different, LivingTree allows for teachers and classrooms to have their own private space, each of which nests into the tier above it, hence the tiered social network,” Carswell explains. “This system is also a lot simpler for families because families are automatically connected to each teacher, and so, they don’t have the burden of going and determining which teacher they should connect to or how the service works. Instead, LivingTree does all that behind the scenes.”

For Carswell, connection is the name of the public-education game. To date, Living- Tree is working with more than 25 schools in the local area, serving approximately 15,000 students and families in the Austin and Leander school districts combined.

Carswell stresses her pride for the platform’s ability to translate announcements into more than 100 languages, as well as its easy-to-use mobile access, both features that are designed to include families from all backgrounds and income levels in the academic conversation, and both of which resonate with Carswell’s central mission of positive community impact.

“I think the common link [between all the positions I’ve held]is positive impact,” Carswell says of her career trajectory. “As I broadened my skill set as an engineer and a leader, I’ve been drawn to products and companies that impact positivity, quality of life, education and environment. With each role, I’ve widened my circle of impact, and I’ve gotten closer to my core roots of education and environment.”

Carswell will have another opportunity to express her love for the environment in the near future, as she recently accepted the position of executive director for Laura Bush’s conservation foundation, Texan by Nature.

But whether she’s solving product issues as an engineer or driving new conservation strategies, Carswell’s mission remains the same: to make her community a place where she’s proud to live, one project at a time.


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