Switching up the system
Internally, Thiele says the district’s IT department has also made some changes that have streamlined the way teachers, students, parents, and administrators interact. For example, there was a time when student discipline incidences were recorded 15 different ways across three different high schools, he says. “Having a machine try to interpret all of that data was impossible,” Thiele points out. To solve the problem and create a more cohesive approach to the data, he says the district reviewed and redrew its discipline codes and its attendance reports in a way that allows the SIS to analyze it and generate communications based on specific triggers.

One particularly important change involved open text fields—a variable that can become unwieldy when users are left unlimited space in which to provide comments. “In some cases, we’ve had to limit the options in a way that allows us to gather data in a consistent format,” Thiele explains, “and the computers to make sense of that data for us.”

In 2014, the district added a new interface that allows parents to access the SIS and update key pieces of contact information (phone numbers, email addresses, etc.) without having to call the school’s office or visit the institution in person. More recently, the schools began collecting the mobile phone numbers of parents who would rather receive text messages versus emails or phone calls.

In return for these efforts, Thiele says Maine Township High Schools’ parents receive pertinent information in real-time, “rather than getting it every four or eight weeks.” Going forward, he says the district will continue to hone its approach to parental engagement and create an even more interactive, real-time environment for such communication. “We’re putting the task into the hands of the parents and students,” says Thiele, who sees this “hands-off” tactic a positive move for schools, “with the goal of getting to the point where no one has to look at the data to make it useful and relevant.”

(Next page: Using social media, parent portals, and more)