Ever notice how many parents are using smartphones? the principal and the Home & School Association leaders at Knapp Elementary in Lansdale, Pa., did. After a survey distributed at back-to-school night by the HSA revealed that 94 percent of Knapp families were able to access email or texts at home or at work, often through their phones, the school and its parent group focused on using technology to reach out.

Their ability to engage parents at the 600-student, K-5 school in multiple ways—through social media, a mobile app, an e-book newsletter, and streamed meetings—led to Knapp’s HSA being selected as the Judges’ Choice winner in the 2013 Parent Group of the Year search.

“The rise of cell phone use has really helped us,” says Knapp principal Joe Mazza. “It was really just about listening to our parents and soliciting them for feedback.” Mazza, a self-professed geek, has offered several technology training sessions for parents to expose them to Twitter and other digital communication formats.

“A handful of people show up, but it’s new people each time,” says HSA president Gwen Pescatore.

The school’s teachers have been encouraged to tweet about what is going on in their classrooms, and parents can follow these posts, either on Twitter or on the school’s website. At least half the staff participates, briefly describing the day’s science experiment or book chat, for instance.

“It builds a huge amount of conversation at home at night,” Pescatore says. “My kindergartner doesn’t remember what he did that day, but I ask about a tweet I read, and he expands on it, like how he learned to count by twos by tossing a beanbag back and forth.”

The number of tweeters continues to grow, with parents also chiming in, especially when they chaperone field trips. And Twitter has allowed for summertime communication, with many teachers and families posting about their vacation adventures, building connections and generating excitement for the coming year.

The mobile app was designed to foster additional two-way communication with parents. The HSA worked with Mazza to decide on its content and to test it out. A free download, the “Knapp App” makes it very easy for parents to quickly email the school’s teachers and staff as well as HSA officers. Other features include links to photos taken at school, the HSA newsletter (which is in an e-book format that is very visual and easy to read on a mobile phone), a calendar, links to volunteer and to report bullying, and an “eBucketFiller” to recognize students for positive behavior (with the kudos also posted outside the school lobby).

There are also 60-second podcasts from student clubs. Clubs make a recording using Audioboo after each monthly meeting with the principal to summarize their ideas for school improvement, such as making use of an unused rock climbing wall in the gym. These podcasts are then uploaded to the app.

As with all of the technological approaches, the app was the result of close cooperation between the school and parent group. It was funded by the HSA at a cost of roughly $3,000 and took about six months to be published on iTunes and the Android marketplace. “The first year we used a free app builder,” Pescatore says. “It was extremely simple and basically a link to our webpages. As we built the capacity in our school for more use of technology, we decided in our efforts to continue to improve our family engagement communications, it was worth it for us to pay for an app to get something with more options.”

HSA meetings, which have been held at varying sites, including a local mosque, the Boys & Girls Club, and an area middle school, are streamed live so that parents who can’t attend can still participate. Laurie Spencer, the HSA’s “connected parent” coordinator, logged on twice from home when she didn’t have a babysitter. “It’s a convenience,” she says. “You can’t go wrong with giving another way to get information, and it has only gotten better with improved technology.” The group uses AnyMeeting, a free videoconferencing tool, with someone at the meeting switching between a camera and slides and monitoring participant comments.

As with anything new, there are issues to consider. For example, to protect privacy, children’s names are never used, and parents have the ability to opt out by signing a publicity refusal form. It was also necessary to abide by school district policies (though perhaps also to question some that might be outdated).

If you offer parents lots of options, you have to make sure they don’t feel overwhelmed by the data streams. When one Knapp parent objected that there was too much information to keep track of, leaders worked to make clearer to parents that the many resources overlapped. They told parents not to look at everything but instead to choose from multiple options to get the same information. It’s also important that individuals in leadership positions monitor public posts and spread awareness that these are places for positive information (whereas concerns should be addressed privately).

Surprisingly, the use of multiple platforms to reach parents has not created a lot of extra work for parent group leaders. The short bursts of information can be accessed during free pockets of time, such as while waiting for a dentist appointment, Pescatore says. Preparation time for the monthly newsletter has been cut from four hours to one or two—“It’s less work because we don’t post as much text,” she says. And newsletter contributions are made easy through a document in Google Drive where parents and staff can add information and a Dropbox account where contributors can deposit photos.

The result of the new e-book format is that parent interest has increased. The click-through rate on the newsletter has grown from 60 families per month to 200.

“I think the one message I want to be sure isn’t missed,” Pescatore says, “is technology cannot replace the personal, face-to-face interactions and relationship-building opportunities; it simply builds on them. We use a lot of technology in our family engagement efforts, but we don’t use it because it is the new and upcoming trend....The reason for so many different tools in our school is because what works for one family won’t necessarily work for another.”

Although some teachers and some parents were initially skeptical of Knapp’s “techno blitz,” they have grown more comfortable with the technology, and word of mouth has helped generate enthusiasm. “People who say they’re not tech-savvy are missing the boat,” Mazza says. “There are people in your community who are ready. Don’t make them wait on you.”

What To Post on Social Media

To entice parents to follow the HSA on social channels, Knapp leaders post student-focused information that parents need and want. Here are some examples:

School Life

  • Details about classroom activities such as what one classroom studied today
  • Photos from field trips
  • Photos of student work such as art, essays, and projects
  • Information about student clubs and after-school activities
  • Student podcasts about club activities or ideas for school improvement
  • School service opportunities for children

Informed Parents

  • Answers to common questions, such as the meaning of educational acronyms
  • Explanations of what appears on standardized tests and interpretations of standardized test scores
  • Reminders of upcoming events
  • Volunteer opportunities
  • Results of parent group fundraisers
  • Vacation highlights from teachers and families
  • Short profiles of teachers

Learning at Home

  • Apps for kids
  • Educational TV for kids
  • Tech tips
  • Summer activities for children
  • Ideas for supporting students’ learning at home
  • Tips for how to encourage children to read and reading suggestions