“I didn't know that event was coming up!”
“Oh, the school changed their policy on that?”
“How do I sign up for (insert program here)?”
Do your school faculty and administration members get comments along these lines from parents?
Let me guess; your most common response to these types of questions or statements is: “We sent an email about it!” Or maybe, perhaps, “It was in last week's email newsletter.”
Your parent community's apparent lack of knowledge about your school's programs and happenings belies a fact that we can't ignore any longer: people don't read your emails.
I'm not saying that all of your parents aren't reading your painstakingly-composed email messages. True, many are. Some of our clients boast a 60%-plus open rate for many of their email communications. But even with that high of an open rate (which is atmospheric, considering the industry average of about 32%), that still leaves nearly half of your parents in the dark about your school happenings and updates.
So, while we're not saying that email is dead – it is still a viable and effective means of communication, even despite its shortcomings - we'd like to give you some other tools to consider adding to your parent communication arsenal that may help get your messages across.
We often hear the argument that it's the parent's responsibility to open their emails if they want to hear from you. That they have no room to complain that you're not communicating enough with them. But the truth is, we all get so many emails each day. Our schedules and inboxes are packed to the brim, with dozens of obligations and organizations vying for our time and attention. Your school messages can so easily get lost in the shuffle.
You may think it doesn't matter if many of your parents seemingly choose to be out of touch with your school. But, for most of them, it does matter. Your parents have invested thousands of dollars into your school, and they (as normal, relational human beings) value communication – perhaps even more than they realize. How many times have you heard in exit surveys from families who have left your school that they either felt like they didn't receive enough school communication, or they were sorely uninformed about the things your school offered that might have made a difference in keeping them there.
Yes, it’s true that when a dissatisfied parent who is considering leaving your school tells you they haven’t received enough communication, you could pull up your email lists and show them all the emails you sent to their email address that they never opened and YES, YOU WOULD BE RIGHT. However, as a school administrator, if you’re right but the family leaves due to their inability to communicate effectively with your school, does that help the school?
So, sure, you can go ahead and wash your hands and move on...but I challenge you to ask yourself and your leadership team if you’re simply stuck in old ways and need to change how you communicate with your parents.
There is a saying I love: “Over communication leads to success, but a lack of communication makes a mess.”
Is your school OVER-COMMUNICATING OR UNDER-COMMUNICATING?
I’ll say it again: yes, you can be right but you will still lose in the battle of retention and overall morale with parents if you are not figuring out ways to connect with them where they are. It takes real leadership to climb over this wall, and few schools have the desire to figure this out. I encourage you to take on this matter.
Match Your Media to Your Message
An important note before we begin: always be sure to consider the type of messages you need to communicate when you decide what medium you're going to use to send them. In general, most school messages are likely to fall into one of these categories:
- school events/happenings
- individual students info/academic & behavior updates
- school policy/plans
- time-sensitive info: weather closings, safety notices
- admissions/enrollment/financial information
- human interest (fun stories about the school day, encouraging articles, etc.)
Remember that not all media is appropriate for every type of message. Vary your choice of messaging according to what you need to say. For example, text is probably not the best way to announce an event coming up in a month, and email is not usually best to announce weather-related closings. Be discerning about your communication medium choices.
As a school administrator, I recommend you get your leadership team together and have a meeting solely on this topic, where you create a task group and assign them the project of coming up with Standard Operating Procedures for each of these types of communications. Having the ownership and engagement of your leadership team is crucial so they work diligently on a system and process that makes sense for your school.
The challenge I would lay out to them is that their solution must be CUSTOMER-FOCUSED, not SCHOOL-FOCUSED. This means not choosing what is most convenient for your staff members, but instead adopting a mindset that seeks out what is most convenient for your customers (that is, parents).
Give it a try, see what your task force comes up with, and allow them present their solutions to the whole leadership team for critique and refinement. The result will be that your team will have collaboratively built SOPS (Standard Operating Procedures) on a Parent Centric communication strategy.And now, here are 7 ways for private schools to communicate with parents other than email:
Everyone texts now. In fact, texting is now most parents' preferred method of communication. Brief, accessible, and powerful, they are a quick and easy way to reach parents right in their pockets.
Use text messaging for short and sweet reminders, emergency or safety notifications, and weather-related closings, or to let parents know when a new e-newsletter is published (with a link to the webpage version of the issue). Texting can also be used with discretion to remind parents of upcoming events and programs with approaching deadlines. Check out this helpful article from Education Week for some things to consider regarding texting your families.
There are several texting platforms from which schools can choose to provide texting services. A short list to get you started in your research includes:
All have similar basic service offerings, with different twists, features, and pricing structures to meet various school needs.
There are two important notes to remember regarding the use of texting in your parent communications. Number one: use them sparingly. Try not to send texts more than once a week (with the exception of weather and safety/emergency notifications). Don't annoy your parents with daily, inane announcements. Number two: segment your audience! Most of the above platforms offer the ability to categorize your contacts, so that you don't send a middle school basketball practice cancellation to the high school and elementary families.
Allowing certain leaders, faculty, and coaching staff the ability to group text the classes, teams, or organizations they are in charge of can add to the convenience and practicality of this tool so that every text doesn’t have to come from the administration office. Delegating out the texting responsibilities and privileges can have many benefits, but you will need to train these leaders, faculty, and coaches on expectations and frequency for this type of communication.
2) Mobile App
Most of your parents have smartphones. An app can provide a convenient one-stop shop for information and tasks for both your school staff and families. If you've got the budget for it - or maybe even some tech-savvy parents or alumni - develop your own custom app, or sign on to a school mobile app developers like School Messenger, Blackboard, or Campus Suite (who also provided a handy list of 20 mobile app developers for schools here).
Parents can use your mobile app to:
- Get important announcements via push notifications. As with texting, be careful not to over use this feature to not dilute your message and be sure to segment the audiences who receive certain notifications.
- Pay for events, field trips, lunches, tuition, etc.
- Check grades and student progress
- Sign up to volunteer or for other classroom duties
- Give school feedback (consider offering an electronic “comment box” to allow anonymous suggestions or concerns to be voiced)
3) Social media
For all the buzz that social media receives, please know that this should not be your first line of communication, nor one that you rely upon heavily for tangible effectiveness. While a well-managed social media presence can boost the feeling of school pride, involvement, and community in general, it is not a parent's preferred method of practical school information.
That being said, social media does still have a place in your school's communication mix. Remember, of course, that different platforms serve different purposes. We suggest that our clients focus on no more than one or two social media platforms, and do them well. Don't stretch yourself too thin; an abandoned or sparsely utilized social media page may do your school's online reputation more harm than good.
Here are some suggestions on how you can use some of the most popular social media sites:
Post videos and photos from your school day, use hashtags to create conversation and enhance community, and create memes and stories to add a dose of fun, humor, or inspiration to your families' feeds.
Post ideas from teachers about how to extend classroom learning at home (articles, suggestions on products/toys to buy, encouraging resources), favorite devotional links, printables to aid with student learning, words to elementary school memory songs.
- Facebook and Twitter
Pictures and videos from your school day and events (don't forget about Facebook live!) links to upcoming events, blog posts, announcements.
- Facebook Messenger
Though it requires an opt-in by parents, There are convincing statistics showing that people open and respond to a Facebook Messenger conversations at over 80% open rates! While this may be a gold mine for parent communication, be aware that it hasn’t been explored comprehensively yet by most schools. Sure, the reality is not all of your parents are on Facebook, but this tool can be helpful. Test the waters and see for yourself!
4) Written and Printed
Sometimes, having something palpable in your hand is the most powerful way to receive a message. While our days of printing out hundreds of packets, brochures, and flyers are mostly gone for many schools (and the forests are thanking us), written communication can go a long way in reaching your parents.
Some examples of wise use of printed or written communication include:
- Parent-teacher communication. Teachers should have a schedule of when each student's parents will receive written communication (perhaps twice a month – one being a general class update and another a personal note about the student). These messages can include:
- Academic progress – notification if child's work is slipping, as well as praise for good things
- Behavior & social updates
- Curriculum information and foresight
- Important event promotions
- Crucial school policy changes
- Financial or tuition information
- Handwritten thank you notes to volunteers, donors, or simply to thank a parent for their trust in and general support of your school.
5) Phone calls
Just as with written communication, the more antiquated method of phone calls can be an effective way to get parents' attention, and also to provide a much-appreciated personal connection that doesn't come through mass emails and texts.
To best utilize phone calls to communicate with your parents, try:
- Automated phone calls (“robo-calls”). Similar to mass texting, these can work for time-sensitive, quick notifications.
- Personal calls from teachers and administrators. As with teacher-parent communication, you may want to have a schedule for teachers to call parents and chat about their students' progress. We mentioned the power of a personal call from the Head of School in an earlier blog post about retention; you can't deny the immeasurable value of that kind of personal connection.
- Parent-to-Parent to calls. Whether you have a class phone tree, “room mothers,” or utilize your Word of Mouth team ambassadors, have some trusted parents call their peers to pass on class and school announcements and the like.
Your online storefront to the world should also be a go-to resource for both current and prospective parents. As such, ensure it is frequently updated, intuitively organized, and comprehensively populated so that your community knows they can trust it to have what they need.
Keep these items easily accessible for parents on your website:
- Events on your calendar (be sure your calendar offers a feature that allows parents to subscribe and receive automatic updates on their mobile calendars).
- Handbooks and forms
- Breaking news and press releases when applicable.
7) Face to Face
Lastly, don’t neglect the classic, most basic and yet most powerful form of communication: face to face conversation.
Provide intentional forums and moments that parents know are available to connect with school faculty and administrators. Consider posting specified open office hours, when parents in your community know they can stop by to chat with the Head of School (bonus if you offer coffee and snacks during those hours as well). Make sure your key administrators are visible and accessible at school events, mingling and connecting with parents and making an effort to talk to those who they don't know as well. Bottom line: let parents know you value their friendship, their trust, and their ideas by being an open and available listening ear.
One final thought regarding email
Now, we did say this post would cover communication avenues “other than email,” but realizing that schools will (and should) continue relying on email to communicate with parents, we'd like to offer one crucial tip to make it more worth your while.
Your school should use a reputable email marketing platform (such as HubSpot or Constant Contact) to enhance security, deliverability, and metrics. Not only do these platforms help you not get flagged as a potential spammer, but there are incredible insights you can gain into your parents' habits and interests. With the immediate open and click rate results, you can find out what times are best for sending, which types of emails your parents are opening, what parents are engaging with your emails.
Finally, we realize that each community is different, so find out what the preferences of your parents are. Whether through a survey, focus group, or simply talking with your involved parents, discover how they want to hear from you and talk with you, and then follow through to ensure that your messages are received. After all, good communication is the foundation of any healthy relationship!
We at Schola are here to help you as you take on this challenge of effective communication with your families! We encourage you to engage on our Facebook page or comments section on this article with some ideas you have had that might help other schools who struggle with this issue.