The days when teachers pinned notes for parents to children’s jackets or stuffed them in student backpacks is gone. Today those notes may reach parents before their children ever leave school, as Marion County districts embrace Internet-based tools to make communication with parents better and faster.
Districts have scrambled to embrace rapidly-changing technology, weaving together websites, e-mail service, social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, streaming video, and smartphone apps.
“Our attempt is to reach out to families in every way that we can,” said Goessel Jr./Sr. High School Principal Scott Boden. “We work very hard to keep up with everything and try to reach everyone so that our students can excel.”
“It makes the messages that we would like to get to the community and the information the community wants accessible anytime, anywhere,” Centre Superintendent Jerri Kemble said. “It’s there for their convenience.”
The majority of families in each district have Internet access, either at home or through places like public libraries. Centre may be the most connected, with all district families last year reporting they had Internet access.
Hillsboro Superintendent Steve Noble said the district does a majority of its communication online, and families must opt out to receive paper communication.
Technology has drastically reduced the importance of parent-teacher conferences, Noble said, because parents can get the same information much more often.
“It’s good for education, and it is — and must be — the way things are and should continue to be,” Noble said.
Centre, Goessel, Hillsboro-Durham-Lehigh, Marion-Florence, and Peabody-Burns all have websites that promote interactivity, as well as providing access to information such as event calendars, parent handbooks, newsletters, important forms, and district policies to minutes of school board meetings.
Marion completely redesigned its website over the summer. Superintendent Lee Leiker said the site is more user-friendly and interactive. With only a few clicks, pages can be shared via e-mail and social media, or translated into any language supported by Google Translate.
Leiker will be interacting with the website more frequently, too.
“I’ve started a superintendent’s blog,” Leiker said. “It’s a way to communicate things people might not otherwise know.”
Web-based services such as Skyward in Centre and Hillsboro, Go.edustar in Peabody-Burns and Goessel, and PowerSchool in Marion allow parents real-time access to a wide array of information about their children. Depending on the district, grade reports, attendance, lunch balances, and discipline may all be available online.
Parents can see what’s being taught in some classes where teachers have created their own webpages. Districts differ in how those web pages are administered.
Peabody-Burns Superintendent Ron Traxson said some teachers may have pages on their own, but he would like to see those pages linked on the district website to give parents easy access.
“Not all the teachers will utilize them the same,” Traxson said.
Every teacher is able to submit information to the Goessel website, Boden said.
“Donna O’Neal in our science department has her entire syllabus for the year online already,” he said. “She has her own website for each block of classes and puts lessons and assignments up for students and parents.”
“We want all our staff to have a webpage,” Leiker said.
Some districts use their websites for enrollment. Noble said enrollment in Hillsboro this year is completely on computer, and parents started online registration Tuesday. Parents without Internet access may enroll face-to-face, but even those will be done on computer.
“Social media has changed interaction in all facets of society,” Leiker said, “and it’s no different for education.”
Kemble was even more emphatic.
“The website is old news,” she said. “Our community and parents really do like Facebook. The information comes right to them and they don’t have to go to the website. They don’t have to wait until a newsletter comes out.”
“We try to make Facebook interactive and fun,” Leiker said, “but informative. It’s an informal place to congratulate students and staff. We want people to know about their success.”
Each district maintains a Facebook page, and the benefit of immediate access to information is a recurring theme.
“That’s probably, for those with Internet access, the best thing to ‘like,’” Noble said.
Traxson said Facebook also allows for instantaneous feedback, although he said that can be good or bad. With negative reactions, the district reserves the right to take down any offensive material.
“It’s not like writing a note in class,” Traxson said. “That’s for the dang world to read.”
Facebook has come under criticism for its privacy policies, and has upgraded controls users have to limit access and provide feedback.
Kemble said one of her teachers learned at a conference how teachers can set up a “secret” Facebook page for their classes.
“A kindergarten teacher was in a session where she heard about another teacher who was using a secret Facebook page,” Kemble said. “She heard about it in the morning, and by noon she already had it set up and contacted all the parents, and the response was overwhelmingly yes.” Kemble said she expects other Centre teachers to follow suit.
Parents, relatives, and community members who can’t attend athletic contests, concerts, or other activities may still get to enjoy them through the Internet.
One service used extensively by Peabody-Burns, Hillsboro, and Marion is iHigh, an Internet video broadcasting and archive site which is free to participating districts.
“With iHigh we can video and stream it live as the event is happening,” Leiker said, “or we can record and upload for people to view at a later time. Maybe they’re out of town for their job, or they don’t live close enough to attend those activities.”
Boden said Goessel had some technical issues to work out when they started using iHigh last year, but the response has been positive.
“People really appreciated it,” Boden said. “I look forward to using it to broadcast music concerts, scholars’ bowl, and many other things in addition to sports.”
An app for that
Centre has taken parent-school connectivity one step farther by becoming the first district in Kansas to use the TeamInfoApp smartphone application. It allows parents to download the district calendar and other information to their phones.
“We’re really excited about that,” Kemble said. “With the app, you don’t have to sit down at a computer to get it, you can get it on your mobile device.”
The district pays a fee to make information available through the TeamInfoApp service. The application is free for users, and is available for Apple iPhone and Android-based smartphones.