Building Consistent Communication for Student Success

At San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District in Central Texas, transparency and communication are critical to student success. The district serves 8,300 students across 12 campuses and has had its share of communication challenges — from technology access issues, to language barriers, to out-of-date contact information. We spoke with Andrew Fernandez, chief of communications and technology for the district, about how technology can help overcome those barriers and how consistent communication between educators and families builds relationships, trust, and a foundation of student support.

THE Journal: Your role at San Marcos CISD brings together communications and technology. Why is that combination important?

Fernandez: We are a one-to-one district: Every student and every classroom teacher has their own device. We've spent a lot of money and a lot of hours training our staff on how to use different technology platforms, including our SchoolStatus communication platform. So we just felt like communications and technology, they really go hand-in-hand. In order to be an effective communicator as a district, you've got to have the right foundation of technology in place.

THE: What have been your biggest challenges with communication? What keeps you up at night?

Fernandez: We have a lot of families that move in and out of San Marcos, so the biggest struggle for us was having active phone numbers for our families. Two years ago, we moved all of our registration online — and now we have active e-mail addresses; we have active cell phones; we get reports when cell phones are not in use. So that helps us stay up-to-date with contact information for our families.

Another challenge has been the language barrier. A lot of our teachers don't speak Spanish, and we are a predominantly Hispanic school district. For a good chunk of our population, Spanish is their first language. What kept me up at night was that language barrier: We don't want to neglect that 20% of our population. We want them to feel just as important as our 80% of population who speak English as their first language. Are we getting ahold of everyone in our district? There's no way that we can have our families included in their students' academic success if we're not able to communicate with them.

THE: Does language impact what families' communication preferences are?

Fernandez: Yes. This is my 10th year in school communications, and I've seen the growth of e-mail, but text messaging has become so second nature to us now. And our Spanish-speaking families are used to text messaging now.

I remember when I started, unlimited text messaging was something you had to pay extra for. Now, unlimited text messaging is just standard across all networks. So that has helped bring down the barriers as well. Last school year, I think we sent over a million text messages back and forth. That number is huge — a million text messages in one academic year. That just shows how much we are communicating with our families, and how comfortable our families are communicating with our teachers.

THE: Is there such a thing as too much communication? What messaging strategy is the best way to engage parents?

Fernandez: Our biggest thing is consistency. When it comes to a tardy or an absence, that's a phone call. We want our parents to be able differentiate: If you got a call, it's probably about your kid not showing up to school or being tardy. The text messaging piece is more about maintaining the relationship between the teacher and the parent. If we're messaging you, it's because there's an academic concern or an academic success. Something we say at San Marcos is: Don't just reach out to families to share concerns, but share the wins as well. If parents are just hearing the concerns from teachers, then they see it as a negative connotation. But if we're preaching the successes too, then it's a relationship.

A big misconception that I had to get our principals on board with is transparency. For example, if there's a gun on campus, our safety protocols go into play, and the gun is confiscated within minutes. That's a win that we need to communicate with our families. We don't want a weapon on campus, but if it's confiscated within minutes, that means our safety protocols worked. If something bad happens at our school, we can't be the one to decide, should we tell the parents this or should we tell them that? We really have to be transparent and tell them the good, the bad, and the ugly. That just builds trust.

The SchoolStatus platform helps us communicate with our families with transparency and consistency. It provides that relationship piece.

THE: Can you walk through how you onboard parents on the platform?

Fernandez: We tell our teachers to send an initial text at the beginning of the year. And on our back-to-school nights, even prior to school starting, we verify parents' contact information and let them know this is a number you're going to receive a text message from. Text messages go straight to your cell phone inbox, and the relationship starts right there.

For example, yesterday I got a text message from my child's art teacher. And it says, "This message is powered by SchoolStatus from San Marcos CISD." The message pops up, and the teacher had sent me a picture of my son with paint all over his shirt. She was nervous that I was going to be upset about the paint. So something as simple as that — she's just letting me know, "Hey, you're going to have to do an extra little laundry tonight." And I said, "Hey, you can't make you can't make a masterpiece without getting a little paint on your shirt." It's that relationship that we've built that has torn down any barriers and makes you feel part of the classroom.

THE: How do you see communication and transparency linked to student success?

Fernandez: If you think about the old model of communicating with parents, there's a parent-teacher conference either once every nine weeks or once every progress report. But with SchoolStatus, we're able to communicate with our families on a weekly basis. I get a weekly check-in from my child's teacher, and it takes me to a link where I see what assignments they're working on and what upcoming tests and assessments they have coming up. For example, my daughter was recently diagnosed with dyslexia. That's very brand new to me, and something that has been a cloud over my head is, what can I do to make sure that she's successful in class? Now I'm getting weekly updates from her dyslexia teachers. I got my child's progress report, and I was able to give immediate feedback to her teachers to ask, what can she do to make sure she gets an A next over the next four or five weeks? And then boom, they sent me examples of her work. They sent me examples of test questions that are coming up, what assessments I should be looking out for, what booklets they're sending home. I don't have to wait every four or five weeks to get an update on her learning. I get that every day.

As a parent, your biggest fear is the unknown. And at San Marcos, there is no unknown because of how well we communicate with our families.

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].