Families & the Community

Schools Are Using Social Networking to Involve Parents

By Nora Fleming — November 06, 2012 9 min read
Maria Garcia, 40, a parent in the Houston Independent School District, uses technology and other resources for a class for parents at a Parent Super Center in Sam Houston High School. The center is one of five in the district that offer parents access to digital-literacy classes and other learning opportunities.
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Digital technology is providing a growing variety of methods for school leaders to connect with parents anywhere, anytime—a tactic mirroring how technology is used to engage students.

Through Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and text messages sent in multiple languages, school staff members are giving parents instant updates, news, and information about their children’s schools. Not only that, but a number of districts are also providing parents access to Web portals where they can see everything from their children’s grades on school assignments to their locker combinations and what they’re served for lunch.

Socioeconomic disparities in Internet access can make such digital-outreach efforts challenging and even divisive, however; some parents have many options for connecting digitally, and others don’t.

Yet some school leaders are meeting that challenge head-on by teaching parents how they can use technology to become more engaged in their children’s education, and in some cases, by providing them with access to it in their own homes.

“Digital learning levels the playing field among parents in a pretty profound way,” said Elisabeth Stock, the chief executive officer and co-founder of CFY, or Computers for Youth, a New York City-based nonprofit that works with low-income communities and schools to improve digital literacy.

“For low-income parents who feel they can no longer help their kids with learning as homework starts to become appreciably harder, access to high-quality digital learning content at home and the training to use it keeps these parents in the game,” she said. “These parents can now easily find help online or learn side by side with their child.”

Interest among school leaders in using digital tools to connect with parents in new and more cost-effective ways is rising across the country, educators say, in efforts to save staff time, ease language barriers through translation services, and provide opportunities to reach more parents than ever before, no matter their socioeconomic status.

For those reasons, some of the largest districts have recently undertaken or expanded digital-engagement initiatives involving parents.

This school year, the 1.1 million-student New York City system launched a new text-subscription service that notifies parents in English or Spanish of school news and a series of webinars on topics of relevance to parents. The 640,000-student Los Angeles school district hired its first-ever director of social media this past spring, whose main charge is communicating and sharing district information with parents and students via tools such as YouTube, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Those and similar efforts around the country are attracting the attention of parents.

In the 182,000-student Fairfax County school system in Virginia, 84,500 people have subscribed to the district’s enhanced news and information email and text service, the district’s Facebook page has 26,000 “likes,” and its Twitter account has 8,100 followers.

‘Menu of Offerings’

It’s not only the biggest districts that are reaching out to parents digitally. Individual schools and smaller districts are also increasingly connecting to parents using a number of virtual tools, efforts often stemming from the vision of an administrator, such as the principal of the 600-student Knapp Elementary School, about 25 miles from Philadelphia.

When Principal Joe Mazza took on his position six years ago, he made it a priority to use digital technologies to improve communication between the school and parents.

Today, the school—where 40 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 22 languages are represented—has grown from its first outreach effort of an email listserv to communicating with parents through Twitter, Facebook, a parent-school Wiki, virtual chat, blog, and a Google text line.

In addition, the school—part of the North Penn district—has its teachers use Skype to run parent conferences and airs live and archived video of all parent and teacher association meetings for parents who are unable to attend. Recently, Mr. Mazza and some staff members even brought laptops into a local mosque that a number of the school’s families attend, and streamed live footage there of one of the meetings.

“We have parents from all walks of life. The feedback we have from families has told us we can’t provide a single communication means to engage them, so we provide a ‘menu of offerings’ they can pick and choose from,” Mr. Mazza said. “Our goal is relating these family-engagement offerings to how we work with students, in a differentiated manner.”

Other school leaders have similar goals.

In California’s 26,000-student Vista school district, 40 miles north of San Diego, Superintendent Devin Vodicka decided when he took the job this past summer to use social media to improve district communication with parents and staff members.

Mr. Vodicka started a Twitter account and began making the rounds to schools, with the goal of reaching every classroom in the district and tweeting his experiences at each to his Twitter followers. Other administrators in the district have followed Mr. Vodicka’s lead—now, 60 administrators have school-related Twitter and Facebook accounts, and around three-quarters of the schools now have some kind of social-media presence.

Recently, a teacher told him, “ ‘I feel like I already know you from following you on Twitter and seeing what you see as you go around the district,’ ” Mr. Vodicka recalled.

Super Centers

Given that the level of access to and familiarity with digital technology can vary substantially among parents, some districts have made it just as much a priority to provide digital-literacy training to parents as to communicate with them via social-networking tools. To leaders in those districts, parents need to be familiar with such tools because their children continue to use social media and other technology tools for learning after the school day ends.

The 203,000-student Houston district, for example, just launched a parent education initiative this school year around digital literacy; it targets low-income parents, most of whom do not have Internet access or even computers in their homes. More than 80 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

With donations from the Microsoft Corp. as well as $25,000 from the local school endowment, the district created “parent super centers” on five school campuses. Each center provides classes and training to parents on office software, Internet use and safety, and the district’s online grade-reporting system, among other topics.

About 2,000 parents have already received training since the start of school this year, according to Kelly Cline, the senior manager of parent engagement for the Houston district.

In addition, organizations such as the Boston-based Technology Goes Home and CFY are partnering with schools to provide parent, teacher, and school leader training and even computers for parents to use after completion of the training.

CFY, for example, has served more than 50,000 families in 13 years in New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area. The program, which works with schools where at least 75 percent of students are eligible for subsidized lunch, provides all-day training on weekends at school for parents to complete with their children. They learn how to use a computer, the Internet, and an academic platform that has lessons that are grade- and age-appropriate. Afterward, parents receive a refurbished, personal computer and are guided in how to get broadband Internet in their homes, which they can typically access at highly discounted rates.

Ms. Stock said the organization often witnesses the leverage technology can have to repair relationships between schools and parents. Parents who felt the school saw them as apathetic suddenly feel more empowered to participate when the school provides them with technology and “enlists them as part of the solution,” she said.

One parent, Sadara Jackson McWhorter, said that until she completed the training with CFY in Atlanta over the summer, she didn’t know even how to turn a computer on, let alone use the Internet. Now, Ms. McWhorter and her three school-age children use their new personal computer, the Internet, and the CFY content daily, she said. She’s even using online tools to teach herself Spanish.

Wendy Lazarus, the chief executive officer and co-founder of The Children’s Partnership, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based nonprofit that helped launch a school-based digital education initiative for parents in the Los Angeles area several years ago, said most of the attention around technology in education focuses either solely on schools or solely on the home.

To have parents become both digitally literate and more engaged in their children’s education, schools and organizations need to make bridging the gap between home and school a priority, she said.

“New dollars aren’t necessarily needed to implement a school-to-home model, but leaders would need to allow schools and school districts to blend funding from different sources,” Ms. Lazarus said. “The model takes leadership, commitment, and a partnership sustained over time. And to achieve meaningful results, it needs to be available widely, not just in pilot efforts.”

But while more districts are seeing the importance of reaching parents digitally, in others, basic hurdles such as home Internet access are still waiting to be addressed.

Equity Problems

When Sean Bulson, the superintendent of the 12,000-student Wilson County schools in a rural part of North Carolina, took his position last summer, he made improving digital learning in the district, where 60 percent of students are on subsidized lunch, a top goal. All middle school students now receive iPads to use at school and home, and the district hopes to provide all district students with devices to take to and from school in the future.

But the impact of the technology is and will be limited, Mr. Bulson said, unless the district addresses the home-access issue: A number of families cannot afford high-speed Internet access, and it’s not even available in the most isolated parts of the county. Students in those households can take their devices home, but they can’t use them to connect to the Internet.

The Wilson County district is now applying for a federal Race to the Top district grant for $24 million to have its local fiber-optic-cable provider, Greenlight, connect families throughout the county to broadband. District families who couldn’t afford to pay would receive free Internet service.

It’s the district’s hope that once more families get connected to broadband, they can begin to do more digital outreach to parents, Mr. Bulson said, but right now access itself makes that an obstacle.

Michael Searson, the executive director for the School for Global Education and Innovation at Kean University in Union, N.J., and the president of the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, said addressing what technology is used, and where, is essential if educators continue to make using digital technology in schools a priority.

“It’s unethical to provide a robust digital learning program in school for kids who don’t have access in their bedrooms and family rooms,” Mr. Searson said. “As schools begin to integrate mobile devices and social media into education, the out-of-school equity issues have to be considered. Education leaders need to understand equity is not only access to devices, but access to the networks that allow people to get information.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2012 edition of Education Week as Districts Deploy Digital Tools to Engage Parents

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