Sunday, June 14, 2020

Upgrading Family Communications

As technology continues to evolve, it will continue to become an even more embedded component of society. With that being said, it is essential for school leaders to meet their stakeholders where they are at and engage them in two-way communications. Digital leadership calls for a multifaceted approach using both traditional and new-age strategies to ensure that the right message reaches stakeholders in a timely fashion. We can't assume communication staples such as snail mail (i.e., paper mailings), newsletters, or websites are the most effective or the only way to get information out.

In an article for ASCD, I laid out three specific areas that are critical to effective communication:
  • Transparency - Leaders can tackle the constant perception battle by providing more frequent and accurate updates about the daily work occurring in schools. 
  • Flexibility - A multifaceted digital communications strategy allows all stakeholders a choice as to how they want to consume information and interact with the school.
  • Sharing the good news and important information - In a time when the good news about schools is hard to come by in the mainstream media, school leaders can now become the storyteller-in-chief. It is also vital to get needed information to stakeholders quickly and seamlessly.
The COVID crisis has laid bare opportunities to improve how we communicate between schools and parents. Budgets are under stress, so why invest in a mess of multiple communications applications and paper? I'll tell you that I have personally experienced this as a principal and seen in many districts school staff who are asked to print, collate, distribute, collect, read and process all kinds of paper forms and documents. Often these are in multiple languages! School teachers and other staff spend countless hours on this work, and it is taken for granted. Students are then asked to act as couriers carrying paperwork to parents during the school year. The whole chain of communications, when paper is used, involves staff, students, and parents. Is this even effective? It sure is costly in both money and time.

What do parents experience? Almost all districts and schools have multiple ways to connect to parents, including paper, email, phone dialers, portals, websites, etc. Is it any wonder that parents are often confused and frustrated with how their districts are communicating? What is this all costing? Now in the COVID era, keeping parents informed and engaged is more important than ever. Furthermore, given the need to reduce costs and unnecessary labor, districts and schools must commit to simplify and become fully electronic in their communications. It is now possible to finally simplify and enhance parent communications, get rid of all the paperwork they have to complete while saving time and costs. But how do we get to this utopia of simplicity, lower costs, and achieve more effective communications? It may not be as hard as you think. Of course, you will hear and face a number of issues within your district or school:
  • You may be told or feel that parents won't use an electronic system. This is inaccurate. Yes, there are always a few that will not adopt new technology, but smartphone statistics show that 95% of adults with school children have at least one smartphone at home. Are these really the people who won't connect electronically?
  • What about parents with no internet? The good news is that parents with smartphones do have internet even if they don't have cable internet at home.
  • You have staff that are reluctant to change. Yes, there is always inertia. On the other hand, who likes paperwork? Does this push-back outweigh the costs?
  • You may have too many apps already. Many districts and schools over the years have indeed adopted multiple systems, each solving a specific problem. It's also true this has led to higher costs and more confusion amongst parents and staff. So, the opportunity here is to clean house, simplify, and save costs.
I am reminded of a school communications application I discovered years ago as a principal that directly speaks to these issues. ZippSlip is a cloud-based, mobile app that supports all communication sent from the school to parents like student registration, athletic waivers, permission slips, mass notifications, dynamic use of video, and the list goes on and on.  ZippSlip in one platform that includes multiple types of communications: electronic forms, multimedia, text, and recorded voice, all in multiple languages. The broad set of capabilities will help you consolidate and simplify.

ZippSlip saves costs in three ways:
  1. Eliminating paper, printing, and distribution.
  2. Replacing other applications such as the mass/emergency notification system, survey tools, email tools, workflow apps, and other communications tools. ZippSlip provides a comprehensive set of communications features for administrators and teachers.
  3. A considerable reduction in time spent on paperwork by staff.
There are other issues you may be dealing with consistently. While many schools now commonly use social networks to inform the community, these come with drawbacks. Some adults shy away from social media, making it tough to get high adoption rates.  I am not saying that you shouldn't use these valuable tools, but the goal should be to connect and engage with as many stakeholders as possible.  As a robust alternative to social media, ZippSlip supports ZippGrams. These are multimedia, multilingual newsletters, which include text, video/images, and polls. A regular newsletter complemented with digital assets such as video sent by the principal or superintendent will go a long way in keeping the parents involved. You can even include a poll to elicit quick feedback.

Just as teachers differentiate instruction for a variety of learning styles in the classroom, schools should differentiate their communication efforts if we want true partnerships between home and school. Leaders have the power to shape the culture of our schools. Using a solution like ZippSlip as a lever, you can open the door to new ways of learning, thinking, financial savings, and communicating for all members of your community.

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