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A director of community relations explains how her school district communications improved after working to reach families in different ways.

How we ensure flexibility in our school district communications

A director of community relations explains how her district improved communications by working to reach families in ways that work for them

Key points:

  • School district communications can be complicated by multiple languages and how families prefer to receive messages
  • Flexible communications can help districts resolve a number of issues, including parent outreach and delinquent accounts
  • See related article: Language barriers still impede home-school communication

Fairfield City Schools is a suburban district with approximately 10,000 students. About 40 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and we have large populations of Spanish- and Nepali-speaking students.

With so many students coming from a range of backgrounds, school district communications can be challenging for us. To complicate matters further, the communication system that we previously used made it appear as if our messages had been sent when they had not. It caused an onslaught of complaints from families that took me and other staff away from doing our jobs. Here’s how we make sure that we are able to deliver the correct messages to the people who need to hear them while regaining time to focus on other tasks.

Deploying a reliable school district communications tool

Like any district, we often need to communicate with our families about upcoming events, days schools might be closed, or details about crises, among other things. With such a large and diverse population of families comes varied needs and preferences for how they’d like to be reached, and even in what language they would prefer to be addressed. Through a few school district communications surveys, we found that most families texted and preferred to be reached that way instead of by phone calls or emails, so that was a top priority in finding a new communication platform.

Our data and technology coordinator is always on the lookout for tools that can help us carry out district business, and he suggested looking at Remind, which sends text messages without revealing the number of the sender or receiver. Some of our coaches were already using the free version, and they were very pleased with it, so we thought we’d try it.

This was during the 2019-2020 school year, so we deployed it during the pandemic and remote schooling. Because everyone was at home, there was ample opportunity to test it out and see how well it worked for both district staff and students’ families. There were immediately several logistical things that we needed to communicate, such as when students could come pick up free meals, how to get their laptops for virtual schooling, and more.

Deployment was easy, even in a pandemic. The team at Remind gave me a template to reach out to families with, explaining what we were doing, what the invitation would look like, and how they could join. Information for all our enrolled students’ families came from our student information system (SIS), so contact details were ready to go right away. It syncs every night, so when we get new students, they are added to the system just as soon as their information is in the SIS.

We do have some families who prefer email, so we set their preferences up to make sure they receive messages that way. We can even send messages to a cell phone or landline and leave a voicemail if that’s what they prefer. We also send most messages out on multiple platforms. Most messages go out via text first, then we follow up with an email to staff, then post it to our website, and last, we send it out over our social media accounts.

School communications

One of the more popular features of Remind has been automatic translation of messages into the recipient’s language of choice. At one of our elementary schools, many families primarily speak Spanish at home. In the past, we had a lot of trouble getting families to show up to things like parent teacher conferences because the family didn’t understand why they were being asked to come to the school. Now they understand why their student’s principal is contacting them because they see in their own language that she is inviting them to the multicultural fair next Friday, or whatever it happens to be.

At our high school, communications always get hectic at the end of the year, with families asking when the last day for seniors is, when they can pick up yearbooks, information about caps and gowns, and more. The principal is able to send all that information out, and we follow up with posts to social media. I read some of the comments on our social sites and see families talking about the messages they already received and sharing additional information with each other. When you’re dealing with thousands of people, I don’t think you can ever overcommunicate.

School district communications

At a district level, recording voice messages for families has been very helpful. There have been a couple incidents recently that threatened student and staff safety. Whenever those kinds of threats surface, there are always rumblings in the community about how it happened and what the response was. Having a voice message from the principal helps to cut off a lot of that suspicion and second-guessing. It just feels more personal when you can hear someone’s voice explaining what happened, what we did, and how we’re working with the police. It’s reassuring to know the principal took the time to leave the message, and it ensures that families can hear the care in our principal’s voice, whereas text often leaves tone up for interpretation.

In another instance, our food service director had been having trouble with delinquent lunch account balances and asked me for help reaching families. She gave me a list and I created a targeted group that we messaged every week. The message told them their payments were delinquent and provided information about how to apply for free and reduced lunch. As a result of this outreach, we saw a significant decrease in the number of delinquent accounts. We also saw an increase in the number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, which led us to messaging the whole district encouraging them to apply. We suggested that they fill out the application even if they thought they wouldn’t qualify. The worst that could happen is they would be denied.

In Fairfield City Schools, we’ve found it helpful to be flexible in our communications, switching between text and voice messages where appropriate, or shifting from targeting specific groups to messaging the entire district as needed. When it’s easy to choose who you’ll message and how, you’re free to focus on the message, whether it be about something as mundane as lunch balances or as upsetting as school safety issues.

Related: Learn to align your communication strategies with school safety

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