With the contract for our previous school-to-home messaging solution nearing its end, we started looking for a school communications platform that would serve all of our district’s communications needs.
Our previous contract included a set number of licenses, and was primarily for principals and administrators, and not for our entire staff. It was also based on one-way communications and was used primarily by administrators who needed to broadcast crisis communication or upcoming school information (e.g., testing, school dances, PTA meetings).
As a student-information programmer analyst and PR executive for Hampton City Schools in Virginia, we knew that we needed an all-encompassing platform that everyone could use in a K-12 environment where communication, collaboration and transparency have become more critical than ever. Our teachers, coaches and guidance counselors had to be able to communicate, but we hadn’t been giving them the right tools to be able to do that. Instead, they were using multiple platforms.
We decided to interview several companies and invited them to our campus for a series of product demonstrations. After going through that comprehensive exercise, we selected our new school-home communications platform.
Getting everyone on board
We were right in the middle of finalizing our contract with ParentSquare and our implementation plan when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Despite the extreme circumstances that we were all dealing with, we were able to train our principals on the system that summer. Our teachers piloted the platform during fall 2020.
The expectation was for everyone to be using the new platform at the start of the second semester of the 2020-21 school year. Because the training was self-paced, everyone had the flexibility they needed at a time when we all had a lot on our plates.
The district had 500 early adopters of the platform and an Innovative Professional Learning department (which focuses on instructional lesson development) who embarked on the implementation. This helped even more teachers learn and use the platform.
Making the connections
Fast-forward to 2022, and we now have an all-in-one platform in place that all staff members, teachers, administrators, principals and even our transportation department use on a regular basis for school communications needs.
We can post graphics, links and visually appealing content that recipients will open and engage with. We can send electronic report cards to parents using Secure Documents. We also use the platform’s contact verification feature, which allows parents to correct contact details or related information right in the app. This cuts down on phone calls to the school (to fix incorrect information) and ensures a higher open rate.
With our unified communications platform, Hampton City Schools also can translate messages into many different languages for its increasingly diverse population. Previously, we pre-recorded messages about school closings, weather events and other news, and then families had to use Google Translate to get the information in their preferred language.
From the IT perspective, the school-home communications platform integrates directly with PowerSchool, our student information system. Any changes we make to contact information in PowerSchool are uploaded nightly, or even on demand, and we also can upload our own data to send specific information to groups of parents.
With the platform tied directly to our student information system, we can send both period and daily attendance notices and summaries to parents at a time we choose each day. Our old system required calls to our service provider for simple changes like these, but our new school communications platform has this all available at our fingertips. Our transportation department uses the system to announce late bus arrivals and other information to keep parents updated.
Shopping around for school communications?
To other schools that are shopping for a new platform to manage all their school-home communications plus other functions, we suggest looking for a single communications platform that integrates with some or all of your existing systems. This is important because if you’re using too many different solutions, the family with multiple students in different grades will have a hard time trying to keep up with all the information that’s flying at them from products used by different teachers, coaches and other staff.
With a single, comprehensive platform in place, districts can give families an app where they can receive and interact with information for all their children, and provide an easy way for teachers and administrators to share relevant information around the clock.
Kellie Goral is the executive director of PR and marketing and DeWitte Wilson is a programmer analyst for student information systems for Hampton City Schools in Hampton, Va. The district uses ParentSquare for comprehensive communications.