Why empathy is such an important tool for keeping families engaged

A rural school district improved district communication by focusing on what families want and the challenges they face in receiving messages.
Melissa Lewis
Melissa Lewishttp://www.levyk12.org/
Melissa Lewis is the director of accountability and assessment and Title IX coordinator for the Levy County School District in Florida. She can be reached at [email protected].

At Levy County School District, we believe that when our students have someone at home who is participating in their education and helping to keep them on target, their chances of succeeding are much greater. Building those relationships, whether it’s by greeting families at drop-off in the morning or sending them messages about classroom activities, is important for us.

As a rural district, our community is quite spread out, and we share many of the problems other districts face, such as language barriers, poverty, and transient student populations. By offering families multiple opportunities to be welcomed into the district and streamlining our communication with an eye towards reaching the families that we find most challenging to engage, we’ve been able to ensure more students have someone at home who is informed and involved in their learning. Here’s how our district’s commitment to empathy works.

Family engagement strategies

Each school builds its own parent involvement plan, so we have a variety of things happening across our district each year. Enticing families with food used to be the trick that brought everyone in, and we still use that often, but these days enticing them with something fun is more effective.

Some of the popular activities around the district include “donuts with grownups,” movie nights on the lawn, and literacy luaus. Freshman nights and junior journeys are well attended and provide good opportunities to pull families in and inform them of graduation requirements and expectations.

Each school holds a family conference night once a semester, and they all encourage parents to attend those in person if at all possible. We want families to have that opportunity to ask questions and get an update on their students periodically. Messages can get muddied or misunderstood in text, and sometimes teachers need to have difficult conversations with families at these conferences, so we think it’s important that they happen in person. If someone can’t make it, a phone call is the next best thing.

Our student information system, Skyward, has a message system that goes to families’ email, which is helpful for adults who want to see information such as their student’s state assessment scores through a direct link. Some messages from schools and most district-level messages go out to email in addition to our primary messaging platform, but we haven’t found email to be the most effective way to communicate on a day-to-day basis.

Reaching every family with empathy

Until a couple years ago, our teachers, schools, district personnel, and even extracurricular leaders were using whatever tools they preferred to communicate with families. Between paper notes home, email, texts, various apps, and even social media, there were too many channels for families to keep up with. We decided to consolidate across the district on a single platform.

We had several requirements that we needed this platform to meet. For example, we had translation services available for faculty and staff because language barriers are a challenge in our district, but we wanted a messaging tool with automatic translation to allow more seamless back-and-forth communication regardless of everyone’s preferred language.

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We are also a district with Title I schools with 73% qualifying for free lunch. In our district, even families with challenging economic circumstances tend to have cell phones, so we wanted a platform that would reach people through their phones.

Finally, our student population is also highly transient, with many students coming into the district from outside or moving within it. We wanted something that would work with Clever and Skyward to automatically roster students and families as they enrolled so that no one had to connect them to our communication platform before they’d receive messages.

We chose Remind Hub as our communication platform to make sure we were reaching all of our families where they were, and because many of our teachers were already using it with success. The hardest families for us to engage are those who don’t speak English, are experiencing poverty, or are transient, but it’s not necessarily because they don’t value education or lack the desire to be involved. Sometimes it’s just because their circumstances mean they aren’t receiving the same messages other families are. We believe that if we can get the information in front of them, something will spark their interest and bring them in to participate more fully.

Communication leaders

In our district, the schools with the strongest family engagement tend to be those where the leadership leads this charge. If the principal or assistant principal takes a lead role in messaging daily, or if they have a strong system with a person assigned to send out daily and as-needed messaging, strong communication becomes the expectation for the rest of the campus. Once that expectation is established, faculty and staff tend to find engaging ways to invite families in and build relationships.

Last year, one teacher started sending out weekly messages highlighting what her students would be learning in the upcoming week. As a district, we had talked with teachers about how, when family members ask their students what they are learning, students will often say, “I don’t know,” or provide vague answers. If those family members know, for example, that life cycles are being covered, they can ask more specific questions to get a more informative response about class work. This teacher took that information and provided her students’ families with it to open more meaningful conversations.

Another of our schools has a Future Farmers of America (FFA) program that sends out messages every Sunday about the week’s agenda. FFA involves students in grades 6-12 and includes practices, competitions, and other events throughout the year, so there is a lot of information for participating families to keep track of. These weekly messages are supplemented with a Google document that includes scheduling information beyond the current week so that families and students can plan further out, as well.

Sometimes communicating with families is less about building relationships and more about preventing damage to them. For example, our transportation department created messaging groups for each bus route to let families know about interruptions to normal operation, like a substitute bus with a different number or a bus that’s running late. It’s a small thing, but letting families know about changes like that makes them less likely to get frustrated or angry with the school.

Despite our best efforts, there will probably always be some families who opt out of receiving communications from us. This year, some difficult situations arose that led to campus lockdowns. In those moments, it was a relief to know that even among those families who chose not to hear from us, we were able to get the word out because our messaging system has an “urgent message” override feature.

By approaching communication with empathy and asking what will bring families in and what might prevent them from hearing us, we’ve found the right path for our district. We still have challenges to solve, but these days, those are more likely to be issues like ensuring we aren’t communicating so much that we drown out truly important information—not struggling to reach the people who need to hear from us.


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