When it comes to education, Indiana is a highly competitive state. We have vouchers, charter schools and in our district, in particular, we have many private schools. Our area is known as the “City of Churches,” and a lot of those churches have historically had their own schools. Now, students can use state vouchers to attend one of those schools.
For these and other reasons, our district places an emphasis on school communications. Private schools and charter schools have relied on marketing, promotions and customer service to bring families into their schools. We realized quickly in a competitive market that we could no longer simply wait for families to walk through our doors just because our buildings are in their neighborhoods.
We had to prove we wanted families in our schools and that we are willing and able to establish school-home partnerships. We must provide the information and support today’s parents want and need to ensure their children are thriving in school. As a result, we’ve become more responsive to our families, made our buildings even more welcoming and created an overall, supportive atmosphere on campus. Here’s how we did it:
1. Encourage positive school communications by email, text, phone and in-person. One way to strengthen bonds with parents and guardians is by keeping them informed about good things that their children do. Too often, parents fear getting a call from their child’s school, assuming it means their child is in trouble. Building a positive relationship upfront with positive messages makes difficult conversations easier.
As more families receive communications electronically, the personal touch of a phone call can be a nice surprise—and sometimes a necessity. Sensitive conversations can come across as cold in an electronic format, while a phone call or an in-person meeting can strengthen the school-home connection and build trust.
2. Always be transparent with your information. If something goes wrong, we’re going to let our parents and guardians know. It is a natural inclination for parents to want to know all the details of a situation, especially if they feel their child was in danger. But student privacy laws often prevent us from sharing details.
This can be frustrating for parents, even when we explain the student privacy issues. Most family members are reasonable and can appreciate that we would hold the same confidence if their student was involved. Ultimately, our mission is to be upfront and open from the beginning and to be as transparent as possible while also protecting the privacy of students and staff.
3. Use technology to your advantage. We are proud to be a multicultural district and celebrate our diversity and the richness it adds to our classrooms. Communication can be a challenge, however, when more than 70 languages are spoken by families. The ParentSquare school-home communication platform has helped our teachers maintain direct communication in the preferred language of the parent or guardian.
We have a large Burmese community in Fort Wayne but few staff members who can speak or write in Burmese. Through ParentSquare, families can receive messages translated into their preferred language and respond in their language of choice. Return messages are translated into English for the teacher, allowing school-home communication at a higher level.
4. Pick your battles. Social media can be a public forum of criticism when something goes wrong. For example, if a school communicates with families that there was a threat made by a student or a weapon found, it can create an onslaught of anxious and fearful comments on social media sites. When this happens, we try not to engage in one-offs directly on social media.
But if a parent or guardian reaches out to us with concerns —say, if their child was involved—then we want staff members to follow up directly with the family and create a dialogue. You can’t address every negative comment on social media, but we try to be responsive to legitimate concerns. Even if such outreach doesn’t de-escalate the situation immediately, it will help build a relationship and trust long-term.
5. Put the right procedures in place. If there’s an emergency, we have procedures in place for alerting the individuals who need to know immediately (i.e., principals, security department, communication department). Our cabinet-level administrators always get the information and can disseminate it to the individuals in their areas who need it. We have multiple texting groups to allow for quick communication when an emergency occurs. These pre-established groups minimize the likelihood that someone would be left out of receiving important information and allows for those involved to act quickly.
Adding a personal touch to school communications
Call us old-fashioned, but we still think the best way to build bonds with our students’ families is by inviting them on campus and getting to know them as individuals. Technology is a great facilitator and helps us get communications out quickly and efficiently, but sometimes you need direct interaction. Find out the communication methods that your parents prefer, and remember a little bit can go a long way.
Did Katie help Liam on the playground when he was feeling sad? Pick up the phone and call Katie’s mom or send a photo of smiling Katie to her dad. The next time they see the school’s number on the caller ID, they won’t wonder what their child did wrong in school today—they’ll look forward to hearing from you.