Expert Viewpoint

How a Poor District in NY Leveled the Playing Field with Better Communications [and Lightened the Load for School Staff]

As the poorest school district in Long Island, N.Y. — one of the wealthiest suburbs in the U.S. — our district faces some unique challenges. Ninety-five percent of our families live below the poverty line, our entire district is eligible for free lunch through the community eligibility provision, and two of our schools have been identified for improvement.

Fortunately, our team never backs down from a challenge. In assessing the current situation and our options, we saw an opportunity to strengthen our local and parental ties. We made reciprocal community and family engagement a top priority. We knew that achieving this goal would require a unified school-to-home communication platform that was safe, secure, and engaging.

We were previously using another platform to send messages to families, but we weren’t getting much response back. Our middle and high schools weren’t using a communication platform at all, which basically forced teachers, students, and parents to share their cell phone numbers to communicate. We knew this was a failed approach and that something needed to be done.

Our intermediate schools were using yet a different app, but that solution wasn’t in compliance with the state’s student and privacy law. In effect since 2014, the New York State Education Law 2-d (also known as EdLaw 2-d) focuses on the privacy and security of personally identifiable information (PII) of students, classroom teachers and principals. It says New York education agencies must publish a parent’s bill of rights for data privacy and security, and that bill of rights must be included with every contract with a third-party contractor that receives PII.

Closing the Disconnect

When a colleague mentioned the ParentSquare school-home platform as a possible option for the district, I wanted to learn more about it. She worked for a district with a similar demographic makeup to ours, which serves a student body that’s 60 percent Hispanic. A lot of our families are Spanish speaking, and while those students can communicate in school, we’re a highly monolingual staff. There’s a big disconnect with the families.

If we wanted to send out a message using our previous communications solution, for instance, we had to create that message in English and then pay four different translators a stipend to translate it on demand for us. Then, a district translator would have to do the reverse when a report or message came back to the district in Spanish. It was a whole process.

We decided to move forward with the implementation of our new school-home communications platform using a grant from our Boards of Cooperative Educational Services consortium in February 2021. BOCES did the EdLaw 2-d compliance work for us, effectively endorsing the platform as one that complied with our state’s privacy standard.

This is critical because as a district privacy officer, I have to make sure that we have an agreement between my district and the company saying we are compliant with EdLaw 2-d. When I buy through BOCES, it acts as the middleman and has that EdLaw 2-d contract nailed down for us.

No More Stuffing Envelopes

Serving a large number of transient families, we were also spending a lot of time stuffing and addressing envelopes, adding postage, and mailing out correspondence, only to have roughly a quarter of those letters returned.

Today, we’re sending bus passes, report cards, progress reports and other correspondence right through the Secure Documents feature of our ParentSquare communications platform — a method that also helps ensure that parents actually receive the documents.

This is useful for building administrators, and for me. My dashboard tells me who opened what, and when, and I can see that they have the app on their phone, and that they viewed it. We now know which parents that we are and aren’t reaching, versus waiting for 25 percent of our mailed correspondence to come back to us days or weeks later.

Being a district that’s in need of improvement, we now have a powerful technology tool that helps us broadcast our accomplishments (i.e., a high school valedictorian who has earned 33 college credits) and investments (brand new furniture for classrooms) to parents and stakeholders in the community.

We can use this “sharing” to change the narrative and show that it’s entirely possible to improve if students, staff, and families are involved and working toward common goals. We wear a lot of hats in our district, and having a tool that can save us time and just let us move on to the next thing is priceless.

Leveling the Playing Field

Not everyone works 9 to 5, and not every student lives with their parents. With our communications platform, we can reach the dad who has a question at midnight or the mom whose child’s attendance record has suddenly tanked.

With our platform, we not only have two-way communications with our families, but we’re also meeting them where they are. There’s a lot that goes into running a district like ours; we have to do a lot of anticipating and staying out in front of things. Our school-home communications platform levels the playing field for us.

About the Author

Christine Jordan is the assistant to the superintendent for administration & instructional accountability at Wyandanch Union Free School District in Wyandanch, Long Island, N.Y.