Online tools boost parent-teacher communications

An improved online platform helps with stakeholder communications.
An improved online platform helps with stakeholder communications.

Few will dispute the fact that parental involvement improves a student’s chances for success. And in order to engage parents, first we need to communicate effectively with them.  To increase the participation of parents in our California district, Natomas Unified School District created a Communications Committee in 2007 to research and identify ways that we could improve the district’s communications with our parents and other stakeholders.

The majority of our communications at the time were sent home in students’ backpacks.  And every district knows the obstacles involved in actually getting a piece of paper from a student’s backpack into the hands of parents, who then must manage a growing pile of documents and often miss important information. We also used eMail to communicate with our parents, but our eMail flow was not effective or comprehensive enough. Also, we were struggling with maintaining communications with our growing student population. Within eight years, our enrollment grew from 5,400 students to its current population of 12,175.

Recognizing that our students are digital natives, and that their parents are accessing online applications daily as well, we wanted to leverage the power of online communications.  But our district web site at the time was not user friendly and thus the burden of content creation lay with those of us in IT. Also, our web site lacked applications for two-way engagement of our stakeholders. Rather, it was a static holding ground for the same information we were sending home in paper form.

We decided it was critical to implement a more robust and interactive web site. However, as we began exploring different solutions, we quickly realized that we needed to broaden our thinking beyond “just a web site”. We saw an opportunity to leverage our entire digital environment, to bring in tools for all our teachers, principals, and staff to communicate with all our stakeholders, and to provide a way for our stakeholders to engage in communications with us. We are fortunate enough that we have a superintendent, Dr. Steve M. Farrar, who shares the view that technology can be much more strategic and impactful when viewed as an integrated platform rather than just a collection of disparate functions and gadgets.

However, we also needed to be mindful of the demands that a holistic platform would place on our IT resources. We wanted a robust platform that could support multiple software applications. Although our IT staff is very skilled, we do not have the resources to build and maintain a multitude of interfaces.

After careful research, we chose the Schoolwires strategic web site and community management solution. Their product platform consists of the Schoolwires Centricity, Assist, and Synergy solutions. This integrated solution suite serves all our communication needs, from putting interactive, internet-based teaching tools into the hands of teachers to better engage their students, to informing all our parents and students about an unexpected school closing, to providing information to the community at large. Our staff even uses it for all service requests, from requesting the repair of a broken desk to reserving a bus for a field trip.

All the applications are already seamlessly integrated into a single platform, and we have the capability to integrate other applications as well. This integration met our objective of having a robust, digital environment that did not require in-depth technical support. In addition, the integration of the three products into a single platform makes them easier for end users, like teachers, to use and thus increases their value even further.  A user can move seamlessly among the three solutions because the suite is built on the LDAP software protocol. In our experience, the ability to move seamlessly among all the applications within the communications suite has greatly increased the products’ usability while providing the district with the interactive tools we wanted to foster better communications and collaboration.

Teacher/Parent Communications Deserve Special Emphasis

As we reviewed different products, we took all our stakeholders into consideration, but frankly, we gave our teachers special consideration. Why? Because they are the frontline for parental communications. They are the people who parents want to reach most often; and teachers want parents supporting their classroom initiatives.  For this reason, it was essential that we selected a solution that was easy for teachers to use and easy for parents to access.

The templates within Centricity for creating teacher web sites look and feel like Word and eMail applications–tools that teachers are already comfortable using. Even novice tech users can easily go in to the software and create a teacher web site with basic information like contact information and homework assignments. And more technologically-sophisticated teachers have access to powerful capabilities like HTML source editing, JavaScript and Flash support, and even custom asp programming integration.

The more information and resources that teachers put on their web sites, the more parents are engaged. Today, our parents can go online and see student homework assignments and find resources for helping their child with difficult subjects. Some teachers are posting photo galleries and RSS feeds that demonstrate the activities taking place in the classroom. These are additional tools for parents to engage with their children and to have discussions about what is taking place at school.

I believe that one of my most important roles as CTO is to make technology easy for our teachers and other users. If the technology is too hard to learn and to integrate into the daily activities of the classroom, teachers won’t use it.

For this reason, we always start our training and pilot programs for new technology products with our most reluctant teachers, rather than the early adopters. Many districts start with their early adopters, but we know that these teachers will quickly grasp new technology tools.  We start with the most reluctant teachers because if they can understand and use the tool, then we know we will eventually have 100 percent adoption.

We had one teacher nearing the end of his career, considering retirement and was reluctant to learn the applications within Centricity. But when he saw how easy it was to use–and the potential of the applications to engage students further–he quickly adopted them and is still teaching with us now. He told me that, “these are the kinds of things that help me stay around a little longer.” It made my day.

We had other teachers who also were resistant to using the product. They expected it to be complicated. But as they started training, their emotions went from apprehension, to being pleasantly surprised and now we even see excitement from teachers about the product. To date, we have 261 teachers trained on and using the teacher web sites. We expect that number to grow dramatically in the next year as we are training more teachers daily. As a result, our parents have much more information about what is taking place in the classroom, they have easier access to teachers and we have greatly increased the exchange of information between teachers and their students and parents.

Interactive Applications Bring Power and Depth to Communications

Although a large part of our focus was on increasing engagement with parents, we also wanted to improve communications with our broader stakeholder community. The Centricity community management solution has enabled us to achieve this objective, as well. On our public-facing web site, we now post RSS feeds, podcasts, news briefs, and many other tools for our stakeholders to access information and resources on our teaching initiatives, the school board and many other topics. Taxpayers can drill down to see where their tax dollars are spent and how the funds benefit learners. Currently, we are using a survey tool on the web site to solicit the community’s feedback on how we can improve communications even more. These are all additional communication tools that were not available to us before within our traditional web site, and they have doubled our ability to communicate with our many and varied constituents.

All applications and resources, like eMail and teacher pages, are readily available through the district home page. Because the product is so easy to populate, our designated staff members regularly add and update content, resulting in an explosion of information being made available to our stakeholders. For example, one of our high schools posts a daily podcast and our principals blog about topics of interest to the district. This capability to add voice, photos, and information from multiple sources is very powerful in bringing the work and successes of the district alive. In addition, the mere fact that we have these interactive technology tools reflects well on the district. Their availability tells stakeholders that we care about communicating with them and that we are using current technology in the classroom to educate the community’s students.

Our online platform helps us make sure that the majority of our stakeholders are receiving complete information. We no longer have to rely on the local newspaper to print an accurate story on the budget needs of the district, or hope that taxpayers open the mail that we sent to their house. People in the community are aware of our district web site and access it regularly. Many parents have made it their homepage on their computers. It allows us to post comprehensive information on proposed budgets and other topics so that stakeholders can access complete information.  We are also able to quickly and consistently address and end rumors by posting information online, in a message from the superintendent, for example. When we have a hot issue, we direct everyone to the web site for information so that our communications remain controlled, consistent and available.

Recently, we tapped into the power of our platform once again when California cut $30 million from our budget. We’ve been able to keep our stakeholders informed about the impact of the cuts and solicit their input. We know they are accessing the information because we are seeing more engagement from the community as a result. For example, we have been receiving donations of paper, money and school supplies. Also, more folks are showing up for meetings and are getting more involved with the district. I believe all the information we have posted and made available is helping people fully understand the severity of the budget problem and as a result, they are stepping up to help where they can.

In addition, we were positioned to quickly reduce the costs associated with paper documents. Because our teachers already have teacher pages, they are putting more information and resources online, reducing their use of paper and helping the district cut costs. Several teachers have requested additional training so that they can leverage some of the more sophisticated applications on the platform to make even better use of their time and to engage their students further this year.

If we had “only a web site”, we would not be able to move quickly with all these initiatives. But because we took a broader view of our communications platform at the outset, we are in a position to continually adopt new applications and technologies as they emerge. And we have already benefitted from stronger community support that resulted from our increased and more effective communications.

Joe Jenkins joined Natomas Unified School District in 2001. In 2009, he was promoted to the position of Chief Technology Officer. He is an active member of the superintendent’s cabinet Jenkins has more than 23 years of experience in information technology, including 10 years of integrating technology in support of education.