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My kids head back to the classroom in about two weeks. So far I’ve received nine emails, five text messages and two newsletters from their schools, some of which directed me to other sites to fill out forms. I’ve received notifications of numerous Facebook posts but haven’t had the bandwidth to look at them.

Schools deliver information in multiple ways in an effort to keep families informed…but do they need to do this much communication? For parents and guardians, already crazed at work, managing school chatter can feel like another full-time job.

Students do better in school when their families are involved, according to multiple childhood-development studies. But our brains can only handle so much digital multitasking before we miss information and make mistakes. What if there were one place through which to funnel all school communication?

There can be—if only schools would agree to adopt one.

Apps such as Remind, ClassDojo and TalkingPoints—messaging tools with extra features such as calendars, school forms and volunteer sign-up sheets—can free teachers from having to stick notes in kids’ backpacks, and help parents avoid missed emails. But ed tech doesn’t always live up to its promise of solving problems, especially if it’s too complicated to use or is implemented unevenly.

The Remind app was studied in a school in North Dakota and shown to be most effective when the communication was concise. There was a higher response rate from parents when they replied to a short prompt from a teacher than when they were asked to give more thought to a reply.

A study of another such app’s implementation in 132 New York City schools found that buy-in from all sides is necessary. Without training from the app developer, assistance in signing up parents, and incentives for teachers to use it as a primary communication tool, adoption and engagement were low.

Getting everyone to use a new app isn’t always easy. Administrators and parents say once schools adopt and get into the habit of using a singular app, the streamlined communication is worth it. The apps are also more equitable, say their advocates, because built-in translation tools can bridge communication gaps with parents who aren’t fluent in English.

‘All Over the Place’

A Florida mom told me that some of the teachers at her child’s middle school use Remind, some use ClassDojo and some only use email. She says her district sends out information by automated phone messages and email, yet the school principal and staff only post information on social media.

Another mom in Pennsylvania says that in addition to school emails and websites, she has to follow separate Twitter accounts for the school band, the individual band instructors, each grade’s band class and each instrument section. She often misses things because she can’t keep track of all the different channels.

“When parents are getting information from all over the place, it can get confusing and taxing," says Christine Elgersma, senior editor of learning content for Common Sense Media.

She reviewed several free school messaging apps, some of which charge schools or families for additional features. Ms. Elgersma recommended TalkingPoints as the best overall app. Sure, many teachers who reach parents via these apps still use other websites or tools for tracking assignments and posting grades. But following just two places is better than five, Ms. Elgersma says.

VaRee Harrell, principal of Matt Arthur Elementary School in Kathleen, Ga., three years ago had all of her teachers and staff move to ClassDojo, which allows teachers to share videos and photos of kids’ activities with parents, to post information and reminders about school events and to direct-message parents. She says 90% of the school’s parents actively use the app.

“Email was never the best form of communication," she says, explaining that parents often missed the missives. When updates are posted in the ClassDojo app, parents receive a notification on their phone.

Making the Switch

Moving to ClassDojo also eliminated the physical folders that went home with students each day filled with graded papers, behavioral reports and permission slips.

Dr. Harrell says it took parents a while to get used to not receiving their kids’ folders.

Jamie Dickson, who has a third-grader at Matt Arthur Elementary and a sixth-grader who used to attend the school, notes teachers had a learning curve, too.

“It took teachers a while to get into the habit of using it versus texting or emailing," she says. One teacher didn’t respond to her on the app because she didn’t get the alerts on her Apple Watch, Ms. Dickson says.

When Ms. Dickson messages a teacher through the app at night, a pop-up message says the teacher is offline until the next day. “It’s a reminder to parents that teachers have lives too and don’t respond all the time," she says.

A spokesman for ClassDojo says it grows classroom by classroom, rather than school by school. The company doesn’t spend money on marketing, he adds, relying on word-of-mouth promotion. He says that the app is in over 95% of K-8 schools in the U.S., and that one in six U.S. families with kids under 13 use the app everyday.

Ms. Dickson says she’s now used to having ClassDojo as a central hub for school communication. She’s not sure things will be so streamlined anymore with her older son starting middle school. One of his teachers has already asked parents to sign up for the Remind app, and the school maintains a website through which parents can message teachers, sign forms and check grades.

Even when the communication works, parents can still miss things. (Trust me, I know.)

The elementary school Morgaine Ford-Workman’s son attends in Morrisville, Pa., uses ClassDojo. She says that last year, she ignored a pop-up notification about Spirit Week. “He came home and said, ‘Mom, everyone was dressed up like a superhero and I wasn’t.’"

 

 

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