Smart ways 2 districts are tackling their K-12 parent communication challenges, and how IT can help

parents-technologySix years ago most of Maine Township High School District 207’s parent communication efforts were one-way in nature.

According to Hank Thiele, assistant superintendent of technology and learning, parent newsletters, email blasts, and website announcement were the communication mainstays for the 7,000-student district in Park Ridge, Ill.

But in the past few years, Thiele’s department began to integrate more interactive, technology-based options into the mix—one that would keep parents up-to-date on what their kids were up to, and give them a chance to respond. “We really want to foster two-way communication with our families,” Thiele says.

At the core of Maine Township High Schools’ parental engagement approach is an Aspen student information system (SIS) populated with information like student tardies, absences, grades, and report cards. If, for example, a student’s grade falls below a certain pre-determined threshold, parents are alerted to the issue and asked to contact their pupil’s teacher. “We kick messages out to families through the SIS,” says Thiele, “and encourage them to contact us about inaccuracies.”

The district has also integrated a SchoolMessenger auto-dialer with its SIS—a move that Thiele says resulted in even more real-time communication with families. The system was then paired with numerous Google for Education tools that teachers use to send email and other types of messaging out to parents. “The data integration piece generates the messages that are then sent out to the families,” says Thiele, “making the messaging even more personalized and invoking responses on the families’ parts.”

(Next page: How simplifying systems makes a big difference)

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)

Raising the Bar  
Intent on gaining a better understanding of its constituents and communicating with them, Bethlehem Central School District of Delmar, N.Y., has adopted a multi-pronged slant to parental engagement. According to Sal D’Angelo, chief technology and information officer for the 5,000-student district, the approach includes a website that’s regularly updated with pertinent information, a social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, and an Aspen SIS that includes a parent portal. Through this multi-faceted solution, the district has been able to stoke a “meaningful exchange of information regarding student grades, discipline, and attendance,” says D’Angelo.

“Roughly 90-95 percent of the information we distribute as a school district goes through our parent portal,” says D’Angelo, “whether that’s grades, report cards, assessment reports, or anything else that needs to be communicated with families.” When parents log onto the portal, they can access the information across multiple students, drill down to one single student, and then view the related teacher pages and other information. “Parents come right into their student’s world,” he says, noting the direct correlation between ease-of-use and utilization. “In a world where people have a variety of technical competencies, we really need to provide parents with easy-to-use, reliable communication options.”

To other districts looking to improve their own approaches to parental engagement, D’Angelo says a good first step is to survey parents on how they want to be communicated with. Then, look at how other schools and districts are successfully tackling the challenge and explore the current tech tools that are on the market. “Navigate the options and narrow them down to the tools that will work most effectively in your own environment,” says D’Angelo “all while focusing on reliability, simplicity, and ease of use.”

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.