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Business of: New technology gives parents view of school day

Districts provide digital parent-engagement platforms on websites and in mobile apps
When districts use WillowTree Apps, which designs engagement platforms, parents only have to use one login and get access to everything—school calendar, attendance, work—in one space.
WillowTree Apps' engagement platforms require only a single login for access to school calendars, attendance, and homework.

New platforms are giving parents the chance to track their children’s progress without having to schedule a parent-teacher conference.

Digital parent engagement platforms, in the form of mobile applications or websites, can facilitate dialogues between parents and administrators. District leaders have been using these platforms to share class and school news, provide sports and activities schedules, and survey parents’ and the community’s feelings on issues like lunch menu choices.

Such platforms can consist of message boards, where parents or district leaders can start a thread and parents can respond. Others have social media sections, similar to Facebook, where district leaders can deploy polls to find out how parents feel about certain issues; responders also can “like” others’ posts to show support for a particular suggestion.

Parent engagement platforms allow districts to have productive conversations with families, says Anne Henderson, interim chair of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education. She uses the Common Core State Standards as an example.

“A district can send out an email blast listing the CCSS, but a parent engagement platform provides the opportunity for parents to ask questions and for teachers to help parents understand,” Henderson says. “Through this dialogue, teachers can build relationships with their parents.”

Resource box

When selecting a platform, Henderson advises district leaders to pay attention to ease-of-use. “Not everyone is digitally literate,” she says. “There shouldn’t be a complicated sign-on process. The pages should be intuitive.”

Administrators also should plan for a testing period that is long enough to ensure elements such as sound and video are of high quality before activating a platform throughout the district, she says.

Cullen Childress, co-founder and CEO of engagement platform company LivingTree, likens his product to a digital journal for parents. With LivingTree, teachers can share photos and field trip notes with parents. Parents can save photos to their LivingTree account and use the notes to discuss the field trip with their child.

“Parent involvement is crucially tied to student success,” Childress says. “Positive results occur when parents know what is going on in the classroom and can discuss things with their children.”

It’s essential to be able to control who receives information pushed out over the platform. Parents are more likely to use the platform if they are assured they will only be receiving information that is relevant to them, Childress says.

And part of making the platform relevant to parents is making sure parents can understand the content. LivingTree offers a translation tool that can transform content into 41 different languages, which is key for diverse districts, Childress says.

Giving parents a voice

Nick Bowden, cofounder of MindMixer, a parent engagement platform, recommends districts use platforms to involve parents in decisions.

“Let’s say a district wants to redesign the look of the school calendar,” he says. “Parents who are artists can make suggestions through the platform. By giving parents the opportunity to contribute and share ideas, there can be a creative co-authorship of solutions.”

Prior to platform deployment, Bowden recommends district leaders formulate a clear purpose around what they hope to achieve. The next step is to find a platform that matches the level of engagement desired. If the goal is to obtain yes or no responses from parents through a poll, a platform that has an extensive text-response feature is not necessary.

Good platforms have a way of affirming parents’ engagement, Bowden says. A reward system helps drive participation. Bowden recommends allowing parents to earn points for using the platform; points can be traded in for lunch with a superintendent or a tour of a new school.

Keeping parents in the loop

Some platforms, such as Blackboard’s Edline Learning Community Management System (LCMS), feature calendar integration to assist parents in keeping track of their children’s schedules. Parents only have to pull up one calendar to see the activities and testing schedules for all of their children.

Sanjeev Ahuja, vice president of K12 at Blackboard, explains that parents can filter their calendar by assignments and activities.

“Calendars allow for transparency,” Ahuja says. “Parents have the information they need in advance so they can help their student before a big test or game.”

Joe Mazza, principal for Knapp Elementary school in Lansdale, Pa., tested the free platform Zippslip during the 2012-2013 school year, and found it allowed him to communicate more effectively with parents.

“A lot of our emails to parents had been going to spam folders,” he says. “Zippslip is a central place for our school to interact with parents.”

Zippslip reduces paper use by allowing parents to sign permission slips electronically, submit ideas for upcoming school events, and volunteer for field trips or classroom activities.

Mazza stresses that these platforms are not a substitute for face-to-face engagement with parents. “Nothing is better for building a school community than meeting with parents in person,” Mazza says. “But we all have different weeks and days and hours that make frequent meetings impossible.”

Picking a platform that works

There should also be flexibility in who is able to push out information to parents, Ahuja says. Teachers will be engaged in a platform that allows them to decide what class news and information to share with parents. At the same time, district leaders can post surveys, emergency alerts, and topics for the entire school community to discuss.

Blackboard platforms range from $1-$3 per child per year, depending on the complexity of features. When making the investment, Ahuja recommends district leaders look for a product that automatically syncs with their student information systems to prevent the need for time-intensive manual updates.

Tobias Dengel, CEO for WillowTree Apps, a company that designs engagement platforms for K12 districts, says that districts will be making a worthy investment if they choose a platform that provides true integration. “Many platforms will claim they integrate with your school calendar and attendance system, but they really just provide links in their app that takes the user out of the app and onto your website,” he says. “Real integration is giving parents one login and giving them access to everything they need in one place.”

Most districts have separate newsletters, emergency notification systems, and social media pages, says Adam Bushman, marketing director for ParentLink, which builds parent engagement apps for districts. With ParentLink, parents can view their child’s lunch balance, receive emergency notifications, set up “low test score” alerts, and contact teachers and administrators. “A single vendor that provides all of these products in one system, like ParentLink, makes sense in terms of customer service and tech support,” he says.

If district leaders are considering a platform that comes in app form, such as ParentLink, they should look at the app store ratings of different platforms—if many parents rate a platform highly, that’s an indicator of a successful product, Bushman says.

Kylie Lacey is special projects editor.