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Parental Engagement Reimagined

Russ Davis describes how highly diverse schools are leveraging technology to improve communication and student outcomes

Frequent, meaningful communication with parents is a cornerstone of student success, and in the wake of COVID disruptions, schools have realized just how critical open, two-way lines of communication are. Whether setting up remote learning structures, developing a distance learning curriculum, or offering emotional support, educators and parents began talking more than ever out of necessity. This two-way communication between school and home served as a lifeline for many students.

While the past two years have been challenging for all schools, highly diverse schools have faced additional challenges, particularly regarding parent communication and engagement.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an average of 10% of students in US public schools are English language learners, with the percentage being nearly 15% in cities. Additionally, many English-proficient students live in households where English is not the dominant language. School–home communication can be vital for students whose dominant language or culture differs from that of the majority of their classmates, yet often it can be more difficult to establish.

To help meet these challenges, schools are using new strategies and platforms that leverage student data and innovative technology to increase and enhance communications and make it easier for teachers to build important connections with all students’ families, regardless of the language spoken at home.

Communication Challenges of Highly Diverse Schools
Reaching parents, in general, is much harder than it has ever been. Many factors can sever the school–home connection— including parents with multiple jobs and demanding schedules, jobs that don’t allow phone calls during work hours, disparities in access to technologies, and nontraditional family structures, among others—but when you also add language and cultural differences, the barriers are even higher.

During COVID, this issue was exacerbated. While teachers and administrators rushed to establish contact and stability with parents and provide continuity in instruction, many student populations encountered challenges during COVID that prevented them from participating in remote learning or prevented their families from engaging. These challenges were most severe for those already at the greatest risk of not graduating—students with language and learning barriers and those experiencing poverty. As schools struggle to recover from these impacts, it will be imperative that districts prioritize data and school–home communication to support their most at-risk students.

Making an effort to build solid teacher–parent relationships can be challenging for teachers, particularly where there is a language barrier. Schools have a responsibility to communicate with families who are not proficient in English in a manner those families can understand, yet in many cases, schools do not have translation resources available for multiple languages. Even when interpreters are available, it can be challenging to establish frequent and productive dialogue between teachers and families.

We work with many highly diverse school districts. Guymon School District in Texas is one such example. The district is very rural and very diverse, with 36 to 38 different languages spoken at any given time. While the district is able to provide many materials for their Spanish-speaking community, for the many other languages, it’s more than any human translator could handle. Educators often rely on students to translate messages home—a method both time-consuming and potentially inaccurate. Additionally, many of the faculty and staff come from different backgrounds than the community they serve. So, it is critical the district have a strategy to connect the teachers and parents.

Communication Plus Data Drives Richer Communication
Many districts, including Guymon, have turned to technology to help them close the communication gap and reduce language barriers. These technologies include everything from mass communications platforms to student information systems to integrated data analytics and communications platforms.

While these current communication solutions are useful for general information dissemination, many have built-in economic or social barriers. Some of these barriers include requiring parents to own a smartphone or computer, to have reliable Wi-Fi, to have time to spend communicating, and too often, to speak English. Barriers like these limit the ability of educators to reach parents in ways that are direct and convenient.

Districts with complex communications needs can adopt technologies and communication platforms that support equitable parent communication and collaboration. These platforms fuse data and communications and offer multiple modes of communications and translation capabilities. They enable expanded educator understanding of student home life, increased professional and productive communication between teachers and parents, and shared parent understanding of curriculum and course goals.

Highly diverse schools should look for platforms with the following features:
• Translation capabilities to enable the district to communicate with every family in their language of choice, quickly and easily. New platforms have built-in translation and transcription features that enable the bidirectional translation of more than 100 different languages, eliminating language barriers.

• Multiple communication modes—including text, call, and video call—from a single platform so that teachers and administrators can easily connect with parents and guardians, regardless of a parent’s device or technological savviness. Most often, the device of choice is a mobile phone. Communicating through a method that does not require the internet makes communication much more accessible.

• Advanced data analytics on each student, made easily accessible within the communications platform. When educators have an accurate, holistic view of the student, they can have more meaningful communication with parents, which benefits the student.

• Call recording and transcription capability, to minimize miscommunication between teachers and parents and aid in accountability for school districts.

Lamar County School District in Mississippi found that using a communications platform that enabled easy access to communication tools, automatic logging of conversations and communication, and language translation helped them to communicate with parents more frequently. Having consolidated with a nearby struggling district, Lamar County SD comprises 16 campuses spread throughout five different communities with a wide range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. By using a communications platform with student data analytics integrated into a dashboard, educators can easily communicate with parents to share issues of concern.

More importantly, educators can also share positive behaviors, small or personal improvements, and previously unrecognized accomplishments on a daily basis. This platform has enabled Lamar County SD to meet parents where they are, regardless of barriers standing in the way.

Creating an Environment Where All Students Succeed
Research shows that the more a parent is engaged in their child’s learning, the larger the impact on the student’s success in school. But without the proper resources to drive this deeper communication, educators are often unable to involve parents as much as they would like. Now more than ever, schools need to prioritize removing technology, language, and access barriers to parent engagement to create an environment where all kids can succeed. New K–12 technologies and platforms can help districts reach this goal by enabling educators to harness student data and communicate effectively to build strong relationships with all key stakeholders engaged in a child’s success.

Educators can improve student outcomes and ultimately change lives by using analytics and simple communication tools.

Aubrey “Russ” Davis, founder and CEO of SchoolStatus, has always been technologically inclined. At the early age of 19, Russ became the then-youngest school district technology director in the state of Mississippi. It was there that he also got his first glimpse at some of the growing concerns within school districts from a technological standpoint and what might need to be done to fix them. Whether online or offline Russ has always had a propensity for finding ways to improve it. From there, Russ took a position at the Mississippi Department of Education as an IT planner, managing and maintaining their online presence. After his first tour at the State Department, he moved into the business world, where he continued to serve the education industry in both technical and sales roles for several companies in the Southeast. Never forgetting his roots, he was pleased to return to state service at MDE for a second tour in the Office of Research and Statistics for several years. Leaving the state in 2010, he began building a team that would eventually morph into SchoolStatus.

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