Using Electronic Mail to Improve School-Based Communications

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Many of ouruniversities and colleges know something about the uses of electronicmail that we public school administrators have not caught on to,namely that e-mail is a powerful, dynamic medium that can transformthe manner in which people interact, especially in educationalsettings. The technological jump that higher education has on usbecame apparent to me once I began enrolling in courses at a nearbyschool of education. Everyone in the university community (or nearlyso) was linked online to everyone else: students, professors,administrators and so forth.

Today, theexpectation is that once you become a part of the universitycommunity you will have the capacity to communicate via e-mail asrequired. Whether it involves individual feedback from professors,group projects at the classroom level or memos sent outinstitution-wide, electronic mail is integrating even the largestuniversities by adding another layer of communication and bringingpeople together in unique ways.

If institutions ofhigher education have integrated this new technology into the fabricof their respective communities and done it so successfully, onequestion to ask is why are we at the primary and secondary levelslagging so far behind? The purpose here is not to answer the "why" inwhy haven't we been as successful as our higher education colleaguesin utilizing this new technology, but rather to answer the "how" inhow can we begin to take advantage of electronic mail in new andimportant ways. Despite the clear technological disparities, we needto look more closely at the positive effects electronic mail ishaving on the university community and begin to incorporate the moreuseful and applicable elements for ourselves.

The Project'sModest Goals

Inspired by example,Salem High School's e-mail project began in September 1997 with amodest and straightforward aim: to create an electronic mailing listof as many parents as possible so that the school's administratorscould communicate with them on a regular basis and keep them informedof school-related news and information. If we could replicate at thehigh school, even to a small extent, the degree of interconnectednessthat electronic mail has brought to the university community, thenour goal would be reached. The purpose, however, was not to replacethe traditional methods of communication, but to supplement them withan additional medium. The e-mail project has been in place longenough now that some preliminary observations can be made about itssuccesses.

First, we founde-mail to be a speedy, informal, cost-effective way to ensure thatparents obtain information they might not have received through moretraditional channels. For example, students may not bring noticeshome or parents may not receive mail from children who "intercept" itin transit. What better way to supplement the letter sent home thanto deliver it via electronic mail as well? Another factor is the highcost of printing and postage that precluded communicating withparents as periodically as we would have liked. Because electronicmail is a low-cost alternative, we never thought twice about sendingout short memos on relevant topics. Lastly, in an age of the quick,instantaneous sound bite, electronic mail transforms the traditionalmemo into an informal correspondence that need not be any longer thanjust a few sentences or a short paragraph. Mail sent electronicallyis quick to compose, easy to send and even faster to read.

A second observationis that e-mail ties into the larger aims of both promoting positivepublic relations and increasing our responsiveness to the community.Salem's general e-mail list includes not just parents but centraloffice personnel and other interested community members who want tokeep abreast of events. Being an e-mail subscriber connects people tothe school in new and exciting ways. Thus far, the feedback has beenoverwhelmingly positive because subscribers feel as though they arebetter informed and are "the first to know!"

It is not uncommonto receive thank you replies after sending out informationelectronically. Some subscribers take the opportunity to draftlonger, more thoughtful responses in reply to our correspondence,while others just have simple questions and now know where to go foranswers. All of this demonstrates, at least initially, thatelectronic mail is less intimidating and more user-friendly on bothends. Subscribers feel comfortable asking questions and expressingtheir views because the high school, with this new layer ofcommunication, is more accessible and personable to larger numbers ofpeople than it was previously. Electronic mail is also a boon topublic relations: we included on the e-mail list those localnewspaper reporters who cover educational issues.

The finalobservation is that Salem's e-mail subscribers are themselvesbecoming an interesting subset of the local community. This selectgroup is experiencing first-hand the limitless possibilities that theInternet holds for the future of education, and they like what theysee. As a result, electronic mail is unwittingly creating advocatesfor expanded technology in the high school because of its"stepping-stone" effect. It works like this: parents enjoy thebenefits of receiving electronic mail sent to them by theadministration because they feel better informed on school-relatedmatters. Next, they want individual teachers to do the same andcorrespond with them in more detail about their child's progress andbehavior.

Some parents thenwant the school, the district (or their child) to create a Web page,have better access to the Internet, and so forth. All of these areeducationally sound goals, but each requires a greater commitment totechnology in the budget. By default, electronic mail is creating apro-technology lobby in the district, and the more parents andcommunity members who enlist the better off we are.

Reaching Out toAll

One criticism of thee-mail project is that it is empowering the already empowered and notreaching out to those who have been traditionally disenfranchised.The parents who are connected online, say the critics, areproportionally wealthier, more influential, more involved andgenerally more informed than their counterparts who have no access tothe Internet. In short, Internet-based projects such as Salem's arewidening the gap between the haves and the have nots even further,critics say.

On the one hand, itis difficult to argue with this other than to hope that the price ofcomputers and the fees charged by Internet access providers decreaseenough so that more parents will gain access over time. With pricesfalling, the trend seems to be moving in this direction already. Onthe other hand, it would be foolhardy to wait until everyone isonline before undertaking Internet-based projects such as the onebeing described here. Using this reasoning, should we discontinueOpen Houses because some people do not own cars? Of course not, theanswer is to move forward, expand access wherever possible, andcontinue to enlist new subscribers after they receive onlineservice.

Using electronicmail to communicate with parents is clearly having a positive impacton the school community; however, there are some questions that otherschools seeking to create their own electronic mailing lists willneed to consider before setting out. Below are some suggestions andideas that should make the transition easier.

 

1. Compiling the central list of e-mail addresses
  • Revise or update the student information cards sent out to parents at the beginning of school. Include a section for parents to add their e-mail addresses. This is an important initial step, but as we have learned, every day more and more people are getting online. E-mail information collected in September quickly becomes outdated.
  • At the initial Open House, followed up at the Parent-Teacher conferences, advertise the new e-mail service by placing an accessible box in the school lobby with information about the e-mail service and encouraging parents to join. Also use these opportunities to make a pitch for the e-mail service over the public address system or when addressing the parents as a group.
  • Advertise in the parents' newsletter or community newspapers. Most will gladly do an article on something as new as an e-mail subscribers group. Better still, write your own article and make the pitch that way.
  • Ask existing subscribers to spread the word to others who are online.
  • Use school bulletin boards, PTA meetings or school councils to spread the word.
  • All traditional correspondence mailed home or sent home with the students &emdash; report cards, letters, progress reports &emdash; should include a word or two about the service and encourage parents to sign on.

At Salem High Schoolmore than 10% of the parents are now e-mail subscribers, and ifnational statistics and our local Salem demographics provide anyclues, we have signed up just about everyone who is already online.As more and more households get online access, it is important tocontinue spreading the word, publishing the efforts underway andenlisting new members.

 

2. Types of e-mail correspondence sent to parents

Salem High Schoolaverages one to two e-mail memos per week. The types ofcorrespondence fall into four broad subject areas, and under eachcategory below are examples of what has been sent out to parents andpossibilities that have been discussed. The examples below containsuggestions for possible use, they are not intended as an exhaustivelist encompassing every contingency.

A) Time sensitiveinformation

  • All upcoming events on the calendar, especially those that have had a change of time and/or place. The following is a partial list of announcements and important dates: end of quarter/semester, report card and progress report distribution, state testing, college board testing, mid term/final exams, committee meetings, parent-teacher conferences, open houses, parent coffees, early release days, vacation days, financial aid nights, school assemblies, school concerts, orientation days and curriculum bazaars.
  • All meetings of the School Board and School Council, including agendas, meeting times and places.
  • Changes in the bell schedules for upcoming early release days and possible delayed openings.
  • Online information about new committees, fundraisers, the local education foundation and school council. Announcing School Council elections along with their results.

B)Solicitation

  • Calls for volunteers for fundraising, sports and band events, alumni association events, substitute teachers.
  • Calls for donations of equipment, in-kind contributions or participation for the local education foundation. Announcing various fundraisers to benefit the school sponsored by different groups.

C) PolicyAnnouncements and Clarifications to Frequently AskedQuestions

  • Changes and/or clarifications to attendance policy, discipline code, extra curricular probation, transportation, policy on grading and incompletes, mid-term exam schedule and credit requirements.
  • Announcing a new student identification card system for purchases in the cafeteria.
  • Answers to questions about calendar changes, state testing requirements, graduation requirements and grade level transitioning.

D)Feedback

  • Polling parents to find out the best meeting times to hold parent-teacher conferences, parent coffees, open houses and so forth.
  • Soliciting helpful suggestions on creating new forms, calendar items and agenda issues for upcoming council meetings.
  • Feedback on new innovations, such as a change in the format of the Open House or parent-teacher conferences.
  • Encouraging further questions and viewpoints from parents.

3. Issues ofPrivacy and Confidentiality

Initially, somee-mail subscribers expressed concern about where their e-mailaddresses will end up and who will have access to them. Below aresome guidelines that we have adopted and may be worthconsidering.

  • Treat the central e-mail list as you would any other school-related record. Consider limiting the number of computers that will store the data, especially avoiding those computers to which students have access. Another possibility is to keep the addresses on a computer at home and mail correspondence from there.
  • When mailing general correspondence, use the Blind Carbon Copy function. Most e-mail software packages come with this feature now, and it prevents multiple recipients from knowing who else received the same correspondence. Blind Carbon Copies prevent subscribers from collecting lists of e-mail addresses and using them for outside purposes.
  • As with any other school record, access to the e-mail addresses should be limited, and subscribers should be made aware of this if they have concerns about having their e-mail addresses published.

4. Communicationsby Web site or by e-mail?

There is no shortageof school Websites one can find browsing the Internet, and onequestion that has been raised is why not post information on aWebpage and be done with it. Why send out correspondence by e-mail?In fact, it appears that most schools are taking this approach. It istrue that the kinds of information sent out electronically can alsobe posted on a Webpage for viewers to read. The two approaches arenot mutually exclusive, nor are they equal. Both serve differentpurposes.

First, electronicmail, at least for this writer, is a more personal approach if it isdone correctly. Even though a correspondence might be mailed out todozens of readers, if it is blind carbon copied it arrives in theform of a letter or memo, which gives the appearance of beingpersonally sent. Electronic mail is also proactive in thatcorrespondence is sent to specific individuals; a Webpage is passiveuntil the reader g'es in search of information.

Second, sendinge-mail correspondence is a faster and often less involved undertakingthan modifying a Webpage, especially one containing complex graphicdesigns, links and detailed artwork. Webpages are more suitable forstatic information that d'es not require constant updating andmodification; electronic mail is a better medium for time-sensitiveinformation that changes often or demands more immediate attention.The two technologies are complementary in that both can serve to keepthe school community better informed.

Looking Into theFuture

Overall, Salem HighSchool's electronic mail project has been very successful thus far.Looking into the future, however, it is difficult to predict with anycertainty the sustainability of these type projects &emdash; Web ore-mail &emdash; because most subscribers have been online less than ayear and some of the initial enthusiasm derives from the novelty ofthe Internet. What is important is that e-mail not turn into a hightech form of junk mail that subscribers quickly delete into theirdesktop trash receptacles. To avoid this, communication by electronicmail (or the Web) must continue to grow and develop so that it meetsthe needs of the consumers it serves. If it has worked sosuccessfully at institutions of higher learning then there is noreason to believe that we at the public school level cannot learn byexample.


Alan Bernstein isthe Assistant Principal of Salem High School in Salem, Mass. He iscurrently a doctoral candidate at Boston University's School ofEducation.
E-mail: albern@tiac.net

Manuscript of Alan Bernstein: "Using E-mail To ImproveSchool-Based Communications."

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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