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Parent engagement is a popular topic these days, but it’s one that too often lives in the abstract. Statistics, research, and anecdotal evidence all back up the claim that engaged parents have a direct impact on student achievement. But tried and true practices aren’t always easy to come by.
Garland Independent School District (GISD), home to about 58,000 students in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area, is looking to buck that trend. Here, parent and community engagement is more than just an idea; it’s a deep-rooted part of the district’s culture.
“We’re trying to reengage the parents to the level of what it used to be like 30 to 40 years ago,” said Dr. Bob Morrison, GISD’s superintendent.
You don’t have to dig too deep to see that they are well on their way.
GISD’s demographics, including a minority population of nearly 80%, with about 60% economically disadvantaged, add a number of challenges to community engagement efforts. To proactively address these issues, the district has taken the rare step of creating a defined Parent and Community Engagement department, which includes liaisons for both the Hispanic (52%) and African-American (17%) communities.
Some district leaders might balk at the logistical challenges of focusing an entire department on engagement efforts, but Dr. Morrison made it clear that the move did not involve adding any new staff. “I had a lot of people who were duplicating services throughout the district, but there wasn’t a coordination. I just took existing people who were already doing pretty much the same things, and put them under one person.”
That person, Dr. Ramona Morin Aguilar, became the Director of Family and Community Engagement. The department now has 13 full-time positions, none of which required GISD to allocate additional funds.
Technology as a Front Door
“I think there’s going to continue to be a consolidation of resources so that more of what students need [to have] to do their work and more of what parents need to support their students will be online,” said Dr. Doug Brubaker, associate superintendent of administration.
While the most tangible parent engagement efforts happen within the walls of community forums or individual schools, districts still need to get their families to show up. That’s where technology can fill an important gap.
Babetta Hemphill, executive director of student services, said, “I see our information management system as being sort of that front door, and if we can get people to walk through that, then we can introduce them to a lot of the other things that we have going on there at the school.”
Dr. Brubaker concurred, “It’s really a matter of trying to give information to parents in a format that they’re accustomed to at a time that works for them.”
Parent portals are a key factor in driving family engagement. As school districts conduct ongoing reviews of their technology infrastructure, it’s becoming more important than ever to look at how that technology is being used. Are parents logging in to the system to identify upcoming assignments? Are teachers using the portal to send personalized communications on a regular basis? Do administrators even know how to find the answers to these questions?
Results that Speak for Themselves
Butch Sloan, executive director of data and administrative systems at GISD, has seen the impact of engagement efforts firsthand. “Parents in our school community are becoming more engaged when they log in to our SIS and see information about their child. Every assignment and grade a teacher gives is viewable and, as a result, parents and students are keeping teachers accountable.”
To raise awareness of Family Access, the district’s new parent portal, GISD held an open “digital resource carnival.” Sloan raved about the event’s success. “We originally thought we’d have 300 to 500 parents show up, but it ended up being 3,000… The overwhelming feedback was that parents were excited about the access they had… We have had better attendance at the activities we’ve offered for parents, and schools are reporting increased involvement. In some campuses, parent access rate is above 90%.”
Atticus Wisener, principal of Garland High School, has experience with the district’s parent portal as both a school leader and a parent. “I have three children in the district, and it’s nice to get timely and immediate feedback on how your children are doing in class… It’s something that is very aligned with what we’re trying to do here at Garland High School, and that is to have this open, dialogic relationship with the people that we serve.”
GISD’s technology was recently put to the test when a tornado hit the area the day after Christmas and damaged or destroyed around 1,000 homes. “The communication system became very important,” Sloan recalled. “We were able to take notes in student records, manage where they were staying, and keep them in school for the rest of the year.”
When a family’s life is turned upside down by catastrophe, the school needs to be a safe haven, not a source of stress. By keeping the dialogue open with parents and making use of one clear, centralized communication channel, GISD was able to take at least one worry off their community’s plate during a time of distress.
Seize the Opportunity
Parents want to be involved in their child’s education, but red tape and outdated communication tools have traditionally stood in the way. Our children are the ones who stand to benefit most when these barriers are removed.
Dr. Morrison put it best. “A lot of times, people buy programs and they think it’s about student attendance and discipline and grades… It’s much, much more than that.”
As competition continues to mount throughout the education community, parent engagement has become one K-12 leadership challenge that can no longer be put on the backburner. The right culture and the right tools can make all the difference.
To learn how Skyward’s solution can bridge the gap between your community and school walls, contact us today.
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