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Report: Parents have high expectations for district communications

Nearly a third of school administrators say finding effective ways to communicate with parents is so important it can “wake them up in the middle of the night.”

That’s according to a new report from education nonprofit Project Tomorrow and Blackboard, and based on survey responses from school leaders and parents.

The report, “Trends in community engagement,” takes a hard look at school district strategies for communicating with parents and other stakeholders–and asks whether those strategies are effective.

It also pushes back on some popular assumptions about how and what parents want communicated to them, how parents perceive their local schools, and how they make decisions about their child’s education.

As school leaders move to up the ante for family engagement, the findings are both encouraging and eye-opening.

Here’s five important takeaways:

1. Overall, parents are satisfied with school communications, but there’s more work to be done.

When it comes to ranking how satisfied they were with their school or district’s communications strategies, only 32 percent of middle school parents and 30 percent of high school parents said they were “very satisfied.” Most middle school (43 percent) and high school parents (42 percent) said they were “somewhat satisfied” with how administrators communicated with them.

Satisfaction levels were even lower when middle and high school parents were asked to rate teacher-to-home communications. The report’s authors say the discrepancy is due, at least in part, to the fact that middle and high school students have multiple teachers–making it more difficult to ensure quality communications with each one.

2. School leaders prioritize social media, but parents still prefer other modes of communication.

The vast majority–88 percent–of school administrators said their schools used social media tools to engage parents. School social media use is the highest it’s ever been according to the report. Sixty-one percent of respondents say a focus on social media helps to engage and inform parents.

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But when asked via what channels they preferred to hear from their child’s teacher, parents at every grade level put email at the top of the list, followed by text messaging and phone calls.

Regardless of channel, parents say they want communications that are personal. Here’s what the report’s authors said about that:

“The key to classroom-to-home communications is that the parents are looking for highly personalized and individualized outreach efforts even with traditional communications channels…Parents want a personal email that details their child’s academic status not just an email directing them to an online class site for grades or test information.”

3. Facebook is the primary social media tool for parents. Twitter, not so much.

Overall, Facebook is the preferred social media channel for school districts, according to the report. Seventy-eight percent of administrators polled said their district mainly uses Facebook to communicate general information. Sixty-nine percent said they use Facebook mainly to alert stakeholders in times of crisis.

This aligns with parental Facebook use. Facebook was by far the most-used social media channel by parents, with over 60 percent of parents under 49 years old and over 50 percent of parents aged 50-59 saying they used Facebook “all the time” or “often.”

Twitter, on the other hand, was not as prominently used by parents. For parents under 39 years of age, Twitter was the fifth most used social media channel behind Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and video messaging tools.

This stands in contrast with the fact that 37 percent of school communications officers said they prefer to use Twitter for sharing general information.

The report recommends that school administrators re-evaluate the effectiveness of their social media strategies in engaging parents. One key: pay attention to how young parents communicate to better forecast the landscape of school-to-home communications.

4. Parents know less about school performance then administrators might like.

In a time of increasing school choice and competition, school districts are looking for ways to improve their brand in the eyes of current and potential parents.

But the research suggests that most parents aren’t aware of how well their schools are performing.

According to the report, less than 40 percent of parents in small, medium, and large-sized districts know the graduation rate of their local high school, the percentage of students who go to college, which schools were identified as needing improvement, or the qualifications of teachers in that school.

These findings align with other recent research that found that parents often don’t base school decisions on academics.

5. As new learning tools are implemented, parents want and need more information.

Nearly half of the principals surveyed said their schools are implementing at least some blended learning in classrooms. Such new approaches–many of which did not exist when parents were in school–require a different level of family engagement.

According to the report:

“This new interest in classroom models may be a good testing ground for exploring innovative ways to use digital tools for communications because of parents’ high interest in these new learning environments. Parents want to be involved in their children’s learning, but the quality and sustainability of that involvement is often predicated on the efficacy of the communications between classroom and home.”

How is your school or district working to improve family engagement in your district? Do these findings ring true in your classrooms? Tell us in the comments.