Whether it’s parent-teacher conference time, a grading issue or a new school policy, word tends to get around among the families at a school. But administrators might not always hear what parents have to say — both positive and negative.
That’s the communication gap that a new online tool called “Possip” — short for positive gossip — is trying to address. The platform allows principals to send out weekly requests for feedback, just a short survey in the form of a text message.
“It's helped us to identify when a family feels frustrated by specific assignments,” Charlie Friedman, the founder and head of school at Nashville Classical Charter School, said in an email. While parents and teachers often sit down together during fall conferences, Friedman says he can use the system to follow up and see if parents have additional questions. He added that he’s also learned that report cards are “a sensitive time of year for families.”
At the same time, the tool has helped him identify the good things teachers are doing to build connections with families, such as sending notes home, making phone calls or even attending students’ Sunday soccer games. “Now they become best practices,” he said. “We can thank our teachers and we can share what they’ve done.”
As with student test data, which is sometimes released too late in the school year for teachers to make any adjustments in their instruction — input from parents, in the form of annual surveys, might not make it to school leaders in timely way. A mild concern shared among parents at morning drop off or posted in a Facebook group might escalate into a full-blown problem before principals know about it.
‘A snapshot of how parents are feeling’
While parent surveys can help school leaders identify overall trends, response rates are typically low and, they don’t provide real-time input on what students and their parents are experiencing that particular day or week. Parents are also likely to start ignoring requests to complete surveys if they receive too many. Principals can monitor social media for posts related to their school, but those comments might not be an accurate reflection of the school community.
Shani Dowell, a parent and former educator, developed the system to give administrators an easier way to tap into what parents have to say, and it still takes advantage of the mobile technology that most parents are already checking consistently throughout the day.
“Any comments that come through during the week, Possip helps assess the urgency — and surfaces the more urgent questions for the school,” she said in an email. “The report provides a snapshot of how parents are feeling overall and also flags specific comments that require immediate follow up.”
Each Monday, principals receive a summary of parents’ responses from the previous Friday. Principals can also designate another administrator in the building to receive the reports. So far, 80 schools across 16 states have implemented the system, and Dowell expects more to sign up throughout this school year. The start-up is also developing a version that will allow high school students to participate.
Watechia Lawless, the principal of Napier Enhanced Option Elementary School, also in Nashville, used the system to ask parents what topics they wanted to learn about at “family suppers,” which also increased attendance at the gatherings. Through the system, administrators also learned that parents needed after-school programs for their children in pre-K, so now the school is providing after-school care for those students in collaboration with a community-based partner organization.
The positive comments from parents help to build teacher morale, and the program has allowed the school to work toward its goal of “improving the quantity and quality of communication with our families,” Lawless said. “Not only did we need to improve how we provided information to families, we needed to establish two-way communication that allowed families to provide feedback on current practices.”
She added that parents are also now less likely to come to school “emotionally charged” over an issue they feel isn’t being addressed because now they have frequent opportunities to share their concerns.
Multiple methods needed
In her work with the National Network of Partnership Schools, Johns Hopkins University professor Joyce Epstein finds that schools are now using a variety of apps, email programs and other digital tools to communicate with families.
But like Dowell, she finds that most methods are a one-way conversation.
“It is pretty common … for information to flow ‘out’ to parents, but few parents responding in any way,” Epstein said in an email. “Thus, principals (or teachers, or others) must understand that they will have a skewed sample of respondents and an incomplete set of reactions to a question or comment period.”
While many families will appreciate the ease of sharing their feedback with a text, Epstein recommends that schools continue to use multiple methods, adding that the range of responses will be “more diversified when connections are made using the parents’ preferred communication systems.”
Principals using the program, however, say it has helped them hear from parents that might not have spoken up before. Lawless, for example, said she’s now hearing from more Spanish-speaking parents.
And Friedman said he thinks Possip could be “a tool for equity.” While some parents, he added, are never shy about sharing their opinions, others might be more reticent.
“Every parent deserves to be heard and, more importantly, deserves to feel like their school wants to hear from them,” he said. “I think engagement starts with that mindset from schools and families.”