Unprecedented demographic shifts in the U.S. are creating a communications gap between teachers, principals, and the students and families they serve, forcing educators to rethink their school communication strategies.
Minorities will become the majority of children under 18 by 2023, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Educators and school communicators, on the other hand, are predominately non-Hispanic white females.
The gap is also socioeconomic in nature, because children of color are often poor as well, while teachers and other school officials are solidly middle to upper-middle class.
In terms of education, the gap widens even further, with educators holding more advanced degrees than most other American workers have—including their students’ parents.
All these trends will require profound changes in parent engagement and school communication, as well as classroom instruction.
Tried-and-true school communication methods, such as fliers, memos, teacher notes, eMail messages, and newsletters—typically written in college-level English—aren’t going to reach parents who struggle to read or who might not be literate in their own native language.
Connecting by phone is also a challenge with parents who change cell phone numbers and move frequently to stay one step ahead of the bill collector.
Home visits are more difficult to have with families who bounce between homeless shelters, relatives, friends, hotels, and other temporary housing.
These issues make school communication with many families more difficult and complex, though not impossible.
For school leaders, this means investing more time and resources in outreach efforts, particularly through social workers, school counselors, volunteers, faith leaders, advocates, and others who have built relationships of trust in certain communities.
And, although cell phone numbers might change frequently, keeping school records current is worth the effort. Mass notification systems, which broadcast voice-mail messages in English, Spanish, and other languages, can make parents aware of important school news and information.
Many minority families are also more likely to tune into television news broadcasts, making district-owned cable channels and a proactive media relations strategy that gets the good news out on a regular basis even more important.
Minority families who aren’t caught in poverty’s web pose other communication challenges for teachers and others immersed in middle-class mores and traditional methods.
Hispanics and Latinos living in the U.S. come from 22 different countries, with the majority from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
Assuming that individuals from each of these countries share the same cultural background, dialects, religion, income, education, and communication preferences is foolhardy.
According to recent research, Hispanic/Latino adults with incomes of $100,000 or more grew by 126 percent from 1991 to 2000, while 75 percent of adult Hispanics/Latinos read magazines on a monthly basis.
Perceptions and experiences regarding cultural tension, racism, and distrust also vary within and among various ethnic and racial groups, making one-size-fits-all communication for different audiences problematic.
For example, Hispanics/Latinos with low cultural tension might seek out exposure to non-Hispanic experiences and feel comfortable with non-Hispanic people, while those with high cultural tension might not, according to a 2006 study by Synovate.
Non-traditional school communication methods, such as posting information in Hispanic grocery stores or having bilingual staff members talk to parents and distribute information in Spanish in between soccer matches sponsored by Latino leagues and churches, might work better than sending fliers home in backpacks.
Local context matters, too, which is why it’s important to invest in school communication research on a regular basis.
In North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools (GCS), research shows that African-American and white parents are more likely to access the district’s website and cable television channel than Hispanic/Latino parents are.
Paid for by business partners, GCS’ research also shows that while almost 90 percent of parents and 80 percent of community residents have access to the internet, only half of Hispanic/Latino parents have it—and fewer than 20 percent have visited the district’s website.
For Hispanic/Latino families, school employees and word of mouth (including their children) represent their preferred information sources, followed by the district’s mass notification system. On the other hand, African-American parents are more likely to watch the district’s cable channel, GCSTV-2, than white or Hispanic/Latino parents.
When trust is an issue—and social theory contends that trust is usually an issue when individuals from different ethnic, racial, and cultural groups communicate and interact with one another—non-verbal cues such as facial expression, gestures, tone of voice, emotion, and body language become even more important.
The communication preferences for different ethnic and racial groups might look completely different for students rather than parents, however.
A 2007 study sponsored by the National Research Center for College and University Admissions regarding the electronic communication expectations for prospective Hispanic and Latino college students showed strong similarities between this group and white students.
Both groups want to learn more about financial aid and admissions, and both are interested in downloading podcasts. Hispanic/Latino students, however, are more open to participating in online chats, viewing video casts, and receiving recruiting calls and text messages.
Of greatest significance for school communicators, however, is the difference in parental involvement.
According to the study, only 48 percent of Hispanic/Latino parents assisted their children in the college admissions and financial aid process, compared with 65 percent of white students.
The difference in engagement isn’t explained by parental values regarding advanced education, because studies show about 95 percent of Hispanic/Latino families expect their children to attend college.
Instead, the research points to an awareness, information, and experience gap—something that can be targeted by smart school counselors and communicators.
As these examples illustrate, understanding and addressing the right issue in communication planning often makes the difference between effective and ineffective messaging and appeals.
Often, when parents, students, or the public don’t respond to invitations or show up for parent-teacher conferences, educators assume they don’t care, aren’t supportive, or don’t want to learn more about how they can support their children’s school success.
By the same token, when educators always communicate in a language parents don’t understand, host conferences during the work day, and always expect parents to come to school for meetings and events, parents might resent educators’ lack of sensitivity to their needs and assume school officials are only giving lip service to the need for more parental involvement.
As a result, the communications gap between parents and educators might widen further, leaving both parties frustrated.
As a first step to finding common ground, educators and parents need to set their assumptions aside and begin listening to each other—either formally, through online (and bilingual) surveys, public opinion polls, focus groups, and other forms of research, or informally, through social media dialogue sessions or face-to-face interactions.
Listening well will help educators build mutually beneficial relationships with parents—relationships that ultimately will result in more and better parental involvement in their children’s education.
Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.