Last summer, my district, Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts, was looking for a way to consolidate school-home communications to a single technology platform across all 18 schools. We’d been using a number of different applications to manage our communications, none of which met our quality or responsiveness expectations.
We also wanted to be able to automatically translate the correspondence into different languages, including Amharic, Bengali, and Arabic. Our families speak 37 different languages, and while some translation was available in our previous tool, what we really needed was a communications system that came with automatic, built-in translation capabilities.
Student data privacy and security were other key concerns, and we wanted a platform that ensured high levels of both. After evaluating several options, we selected ParentSquare (opens in new tab) as our communications platform of choice in large part because of its commitment to safeguarding student data. The company has earned iKeepSafe Certification and recently reaffirmed its declaration to the K-12 edtech industry’s Student Privacy Pledge.
Here are five steps that we took to ensure a smooth implementation process and to also ensure high usage levels:
1. Prioritize student privacy and security
We’re legally obligated under FERPA (and ethically), to protect student privacy, especially in the current environment. We know that student data is leaking out of the ecosystem, and in many cases—especially with free applications—that data is being reused for other purposes that the districts, families, and students aren’t aware of.
2. Do the early legwork and training
Before rolling out our new unified communications platform, we invested time and resources into training teachers and staff on how to use the new tool. This not only ensured everyone was ready to use the solution, but it also eliminated any “surprises” that can impact the success of implementation. The initial training period went well, and the district took a methodical approach to ensuring that its core users—principals, assistant principals, school clerks, and family liaisons—got hands-on experience with the platform. Then, all teachers and specialized groups received their training.
3. Get everyone onboard with using the platform
We also did extensive outreach to ensure the highest possible levels of usage across families, parents, and caregivers. You have to give people time to know this is coming and happening, especially if you’re moving from one system to another. We were very thoughtful about that and really proud of our registration data. We worked to get as many families as possible registered on ParentSquare, which is currently being used by about 85% of parents.
4. Use a phased-in approach
We chose which functionalities of the communications platform that we wanted to roll out first. We picked the most important elements to implement initially and made plans to gradually introduce the other features over a three-year period. We implemented the core capabilities during the fall of 2022, and then revisited the options before rolling out the rest. We started using Secure Documents at the district level first, for example, and then extended the capability to a few schools that are now using it to deliver report cards.
5. Open up those lines of communication
Knowing that a few 15-minute conferences per year are not enough communication between a parent or guardian and a teacher, we see our new platform as a great way to bridge that gap, keep everyone in the know and on the same page, and ensure that everyone has access to direct messaging with teachers. These access points are particularly vital for multilingual students, whose families may not have been able to act on information due to language barriers.
When it comes to new technology, school districts should focus on bringing people along from the start and providing context as to why the new platform is being implemented.
Ultimately, getting that buy-in is key. Even with the level of support we had, there were still challenges. Implementing a new communications system in a gradual, planned way with families on board is critical because the platform is essentially for them.
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