Q: It's time for our parent teacher organization to stop sending paper newsletters home, but the president is worried that going digital will cause legal problems and exclude some parents. Haven't most schools crossed this bridge?
A: Thanks to the swift migration to Internet-connected mobile devices and broadband access at home, many schools have increased the quality and frequency of communication with parents by going digital. Data shows that parents appreciate it.
Parent leaders aren't just converting their printed missives, which are often lost in the backpack, into e-newsletters; they are using a range of tools to increase information flow and engagement, including social media, online surveys, customized school websites and wikis that invite parents reviews, and apps.
Knapp Elementary in Lansdale, Pa., is a great model, according to Tim Sullivan, publisher of PTOtoday.com, a website for parents that offers advice and resources.
"Their Home and School Association (HSA) surveyed parents at back-to-school night and learned that 94 percent of families were able to access email or texts," he says. "They formed the Knapp Family Engagement Team to create a technology plan to reach out to parents."
Knapp principal Joe Mazza says it was all about "listening to parents, soliciting their feedback and responding." Mazza offers technology-training sessions for teachers and parents on how to use Twitter and other communication formats.
To avoid legal problems, district guidelines are followed closely. To protect privacy, children's names are never used and parents can opt out by signing a digital communications refusal form.
Knapp Elementary's HSA outreach program is so successful that PTO Today gave it the Judges' Choice Parent Group of the Year award for 2013.
What got the judges' attention?
-- Knapp HSA's e-book newsletter takes much less time to prepare and distribute than its paper predecessor, and the program can track response. "The click-through rate has increased from 60 to 200 readers, and growing. For a 600-student, K-5 school, that's impressive engagement," notes Sullivan.
-- Many teachers tweet what's going on in their classrooms. Parents follow posts on Twitter or on the school's website. "They might describe the day's science experiment or book chat," says Sullivan. "The tweets not only inform parents; they start conversations. Rather than ask, 'What did you do in school today?' a parent can say, 'I see you learned to count by twos! Show me how that's done.' Several teachers tweeted over the summer, keeping kids focused on learning and generating excitement for the coming school year."
-- HSA meetings, held in different places throughout the community, are live streamed using AnyMeeting, a free videoconferencing tool.
-- The Family Engagement Team created a mobile Knapp App to make it easy for parents to email staff and HSA officers. Parents find links to photos taken at school, the e-newsletter, school calendar, podcasts from student clubs and important resources (such a tool to report bullying). The Knapp Elementary app is free on iOS and Android platforms.
"These efforts don't replace face-to-face interaction," says Sullivan. "They expand busy parents' access to school news, events and policies. They can increase interaction by giving parents more insight into their children's class activities and inspiring them to come to school for visits."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)