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Published in Print: April 20, 2011, as Districts' Web-Polling Tools Survey Parents on Hot Topics

Districts Use Web Polls to Survey Parents on Hot Topics

Experts say online polls provide key information for important decisions

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In the St. Cloud school district in Minnesota, staff members used a parent-communications system to survey families on the phone and through email about the best time to have spring break.

Seeking opinions on spring break and on a possible fall referendum, the Sauk Rapids-Rice district, also in Minnesota, used a free Web-based survey tool to measure family and community response.

Improved electronic methods are allowing school districts in Minnesota and across the country to reach parents and community members rapidly and get an almost instant reply when seeking information about school policies and practices.

While they won’t replace public meetings and face-to-face discussions with community groups, electronic surveys are providing schools with better and more efficient responses from the people whom their decisions will affect the most.

“We recognize that families are busy. We know it is very difficult to make the time or have the time to attend the meeting. These surveys provide an opportunity for parents to provide input at their convenience,” Sauk Rapids-Rice Superintendent Dan Bittman said.

And what’s happening in Minnesota reflects a national trend, said Keith R. Krueger, chief executive officer of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking. And while not every district is engaging in Web polling to get feedback from its community, Mr. Krueger said they should be thinking about doing so.

“We think online surveys are a great way to get student, parent, and teacher input, especially since there are many free survey tools available,” Mr. Krueger said in an email. “It is a very good metric to examine, namely, how our ‘customers’ feel. And, while it is used by some, it should be used by all districts.”

Timing of Spring Break

St. Cloud Superintendent Bruce Watkins said he was considering shifting the district’s annual spring break from March to February to coincide with Presidents Day.

He asked the media-services staff to develop a question through the district’s parent-messaging system to capture the opinions of parents. The 10,000-student district sent a message out a day in advance telling parents that they would be asked the next day when they wanted spring break. People were given the heads-up so they could have a calendar nearby and have some time to think about the question. Others who missed the calls sent their opinions in through email.

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The calls went out, and the ditrict received more than 2,000 responses. Overwhelmingly, people preferred the March spring break. The results ended the discussion of a February break.

“I think we are just pleased we know it’s available for topics that might come up in future. We want it as a readily available tool,” Mr. Watkins said of the communications system.

The 3,200-student Sartell-St. Stephen district in Minnesota is using regular Facebook and Twitter updates to inform parents about school events and policy proposals. Most recently, the district updated its Facebook page shortly after school board members approved a plan that shifted some students from one school to another.

School districts typically have a student-tracking system, but the most recent versions have included ways that allow the schools to interact with parents and for the parents to follow their children’s progress, easily contact teachers, and quickly find attendance records. Those systems also give schools the ability to quickly reach parents to alert them of schedule changes and emergencies. They’re used, for example, to announce weather-related school closings.

Survey Challenges

The 2,400-student Rocori, Minn., school district has the same system as St. Cloud’s and is contemplating using it to survey parents as it plans for an effort to renew a tax increase that voters approved in 2001. The tax is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Without it, the district would lose about $300,000 a year.

“You have to keep in mind the audience and the kind of feedback you are getting,” Rocori Superintendent Scott Staska said.

A vote on a property-tax increase would require opinions from a wider audience than just the list of parents that the school district can contact. The 3,800-student Sauk Rapids-Rice district is using a website called Survey Monkey, which offers free polling. The survey asks some demographic questions and then asks specific questions about desires for programs and at what level someone might support a tax increase. The district has close to 1,000 responses.“This tool has been very effective, and we continue to use it,” Mr. Bittman said,

The survey tool is not perfect. There is no way to limit it to just Sauk Rapids-Rice district residents, and someone could take the survey multiple times.

Sauk Rapids-Rice also used the Web survey to gauge opinions on whether parents wanted a week-long spring break added to the school calendar beyond the three days off planned around Easter. That vote was a resounding no.

St. Cloud used its messaging system to get a similar answer and was pleased with the results. But Mr. Watkins said the district has to be careful about when and how the system is used, and he is uncertain when it might get used again.

“It was quick. It was immediate. We happened to ask questions that were easily defined by selection choice,” Mr. Watkins said. “We know that there are some negatives we are going to try to work with.”

Some people don’t want to be bothered with anything that is not specific to their own children, Mr. Watkins said. Others just want emergency calls. And the district is discovering that phone numbers change frequently.

The St. Cloud district this winter asked parents and community members to suggest ideas for budget reductions by filling out a form on the website.

“We have used the Web in the past. We wanted to use this one because we assume not everyone has Web access,” said Gary Ganje, the supervisor of media services for the St. Cloud schools.

Many of the district’s Somali parents do not have Internet access or they are not able to read an email message in English, Mr. Watkins said.

The phone messages are spoken, and the district uses a translator to ask the questions in Somali. Students in the district speak about 40 primary languages. The district is able to easily translate for about five of them.

Other surveys have been done using regular mail. But that carries a cost and a dismal return rate, Mr. Watkins said.

“We will be cautious to maintain it for priority issues,” Mr. Watkins said.

Vol. 30, Issue 28, Page 12

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