Jul 09 2021

Communication Keeps Families Engaged with Students’ Schooling

Mariel Milano, director of digital curriculum, makes bite-sized technology lessons available where and when parents need them.

One of the first aspects of remote and hybrid education that Mariel Milano noticed last year was the increase in parent involvement. Parents became co-pilots in their children’s education, says Milano, director of digital curriculum for Florida’s Orange County Public Schools.

Families of K–12 students had a front-row seat to learning for the first time. With many students in a hybrid or fully remote environment and more schoolwork being completed at home, parents were able to take part in their children’s education in a way they couldn’t previously.

As a result, 71 percent of parents had a greater appreciation for their children’s teachers following the onset of the pandemic last year, according to a Learning Heroes report by Edge Research. The report captured responses from more than 3,600 parents and guardians of K–12 children, and also found that only 33 percent of parents felt they had regular access to their children’s teachers.

When Milano noticed the disconnect between parents and educators in her own district, she worked to set up systems that would support families. She worked to meet parents’ needs in a forum and on a schedule that worked for them, even when that wasn’t easy or convenient for her.

“When it comes to understanding the right way to support parents with technology, the key is to be where they are, not where you want to be,” Milano says. “I have to be there when they need me, not when I want to be needed.”

She used these tactics to set up an engaging, thorough parent communication system.

Technology Roadmaps Help Guide Families

Milano understood that, for families to take part in their children’s education in a meaningful way, they had to first understand what students were using. She created a way for parents to learn about the tools, the technologies and the systems students used every day in class.

“Our lens was really on elementary and middle school parents and where they needed that support the most, because their students might have been less familiar” with technology, Milano says.

The district created tech tours that walked parents through the basics of how to use the technology their children had in front of them. The goal was to give families an idea of how to navigate the platforms, what the buttons do and how to locate different components, among other knowledge, as a baseline for moving forward.

WATCH NOW: Mariel Milano discusses parent engagement in the Focus on K–12 podcast.

When she realized most of the parents were on Facebook, she created a Facebook group for the school and began hosting the tech tours there.

“Every Tuesday or every other Tuesday, we would do these tech tours on our top five to 10 platforms that were being used the most often,” Milano says.

The district created tours for its videoconferencing software, classroom portal, learning management system, e-textbook website and other vital technology with which students might need assistance.

Milano says she saw the most engagement with lessons on videoconferencing software, because it has so many more tools in a classroom setting than most families are used to seeing when calling a friend via video on their smartphone. She notes there was also a lot of interest in accessibility tools and how to communicate with teachers in ways other than email.

Tech Tips Keep Parents Engaged Year-Round

Once families had the technology map in front of them, Milano’s next step was to give them tips on how to navigate it efficiently.

“They needed some tips on how to get through that space, very similar to how, when you open your navigational system, it may say ‘turn here to avoid five minutes,’ or ‘there’s a speed trap up ahead,’” she says.

But instead of speed traps, the school focused on potential challenges for parents that tied into the time frame of the students’ classes. During the first week of school, the district provided tips on getting kids logged in and set up in the school’s platforms for the first time. When the district started synchronous learning, they pushed out tips on troubleshooting audiovisual problems.

The school’s tech tips were two- to three-minute videos sent out via email. In the first semester, the emails were sent weekly. As families grew more familiar with the tools, the school focused on pushing out tips tied to upcoming exams, projects or changes the students might experience.

“Everything felt timely, and that helped us to keep the engagement high,” Milano says.

The videos were also shared via Facebook and Twitter. This allowed Milano’s team to cast a wider net and reach more parents.

Mariel Milano, OCPS
When you have a school that does a great job with family outreach, it feels like you’re there every day even when you can’t be.”

Mariel Milano Director of Digital Curriculum, Orange County Public Schools

Additionally, each time tech tips went out to the parents, the school created a similar tip for teachers. That way, if a parent asked their student’s teacher a question, the teacher would have the most accurate information with which to answer it.

WATCH NOW: One ed tech specialist discusses ways to create engaging online PD for teachers.

What Comes Next for Family Engagement Practices?

Looking ahead to the next school year, Milano plans to continue building out the resources her team has created thus far. One of her goals is to translate the videos she’s already produced — and anything new she records — for the multilingual families in the district.

While many students will be returning to classrooms in the fall, Milano sees this as a way to grow family engagement.

“We’re really connecting those dots so that they can have those dinnertime conversations, so that parents don’t feel like they don’t know what’s happening just because they can’t walk into a school building,” she says, speaking from her experience as an educator and a parent. “When you have a school that does a great job with family outreach, it feels like you’re there every day even when you can’t be.”

Once students return to the classroom, schools can continue to educate parents on technology by including them in device rollouts. When a district is purchasing new laptops or other devices that students will be using daily, the communication with the parents should be part of its consideration.

“When we have a school that calls and says they want to order 5,000 Chromebooks, we often ask them what their rollout plan is going to be and how they are going to communicate that,” says Doug Konopelko, an education strategist for CDW•G.

“What people are seeing now is that we have to be much more deliberate about, not just the messaging to parents, but also the involvement of the parents in the journey,” he says.

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