Cell phones test schools’ outreach efforts

OMGYG2BK. As any teen parent knows, kids today don’t use cell phones to actually talk to each other: They text.

Now it turns out teens aren’t the only ones texting their way into history. New survey results released by the Pew Internet & America Life Project show that 58 percent of adult Americans are using cell phones and other mobile devices for non-voice activities.
And, for the first time, more Americans say cell phones—rather than landline phones—are the one technology device they couldn’t live without.
Did anyone else feel the earth shift? Americans now value cell phones or personal digital assistants (PDAs) over the internet and television—RLY.
This quest for faster, mobile access is transforming communication. And young adults, particularly Hispanics and African-Americans, are leading the way.
The trend is particularly strong among Hispanics, 73 percent of whom say they send or receive text messages. This compares with 68 percent of African-Americans and 53 percent of white adults.
Hispanics and African-Americans also are more likely than whites to use cell phones or PDAs to take a picture, send or receive eMail, access internet information, and send or receive instant messages.
Among adults under 30 years of age, cell phone saturation is nearly universal. Currently, 84 percent of English-speaking Hispanics under 30 have cell phones, as compared with 74 percent of white Americans and 71 percent of black Americans.
Hispanics and young adults also lead other Americans in using wireless access to go online away from home or work.
For example, 65 percent of English-speaking Hispanic internet users and 54 percent of black internet users have accessed the web wirelessly, compared with 49 percent of white internet users.
Wireless internet use also varies greatly by age. While 70 percent of online users between 18 to 29 years of age log on wirelessly away from home or work, only 39 percent of online users between ages 50 and 64 do so.
The age gap still persists for online users between 30 and 49 years of age—53 percent of whom access the internet using mobile means.
Since Hispanic young adults make up the fastest growing segment of new public school parents, this means today’s elementary school principals need to get the 411 on how to communicate with this on-the-go population.
When eMail seems almost quaint to these tech-savvy parents, it’s no wonder traditional methods—such as memos sent home in book bags and photocopied school newsletters—fail to connect.
Unlike landline phones, cell phone numbers change frequently, and they might never appear in a phone book or even on switchboard.com.
The transient nature of parent contact information, combined with young adults’ hunger for better, faster, and more mobile technologies, can create communication chaos for school leaders and teachers—and that’s before poverty, language barriers, and cultural differences are thrown into the mix.
This is especially true in urban and rural areas, where large numbers of immigrant workers—and parents of school-aged children—are likely to live.
In North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), for example, Latinos represent the district’s fastest-growing student population.
Their parents also represent the most difficult group to reach, because they are less likely to speak English well, have internet access, watch the local television news, or read the daily newspaper.
For example, while 84 percent of all CMS parents have internet access, according to public opinion studies, only 55 percent of Hispanic/Latino parents do, as compared with 96 percent of white parents and 80 percent of African-American parents.
Access to cable television follows similar trends. While 71 percent of all CMS parents subscribe to cable television, only 55 percent of Hispanic/Latino parents do, as compared with 79 percent of white families and 67 percent of African-Americans.
Latinos in the nation’s 23rd largest school district also tend to prefer satellite dish (which carries Spanish-language programming from their native countries) over cable television, which means they also lose out on information shared via the district’s cable television channel.
Latino families that enter the United States illegally might rarely or never attend programs at their children’s schools, for fear of being turned over to immigration authorities.
Latino families are often more likely to live in poverty in CMS, which means the home addresses and phone numbers change frequently for many students and their parents as they try to stay one step ahead of various bill collectors.
With the economy worsening, multiple moves in one year are increasingly common, as more families teeter on the brink of financial disaster and homelessness.
Cheap cell phones and pay-as-you-go plans might represent a lifeline for many poor families, but the technology also makes it difficult for school officials to keep accurate and current contract information on students.
Like many urban districts, CMS often finds during emergency mass telephone notifications that as many as 20 percent of its student phone numbers are wrong.
Because urban issues eventually spread into the suburbs, school leaders would be wise to start preparing now for a generation of parents who are considerably harder to contact.
This means updating contact information monthly, rather than annually, and investing more in voice and text broadcasting systems that are web-enabled. 
Bilingual staff members who can answer parent phone calls, translate web copy, and send eMail, text, and voice messages in Spanish are increasingly essential if educators are going to bridge the gap between home and school successfully.
And, while it’s hard to imagine a veteran principal ever signing a text message with “L8R,” educators do need to learn more about this compact new language.
Webopedia’s “Guide to Understanding Online Chat Acronyms & Smiley Faces” provides 700 text-messaging abbreviations, is updated frequently, and is a good place to start.
(For the uninitiated: OMGYG2BK is “Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding”; RLY is “really”; 411 is “the scoop,” or “the information”; and L8R is “later.”)
Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is chief communications officer for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.

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