In our increasingly digital world, there’s an app (or a dozen) for every need and/or want we can imagine. Education technology is no different. Every week, it seems like there is a different app for behavior, communication, attendance – you name it. With limited direction from the school or district, teachers are left to sort through and drive these apps to try and find the best tools that work for their students’ families. But when is enough enough? When does one more app become too much for families? Why are we placing more burdens on our teachers, families, and students with too many single-purpose applications? Are we trying to use an app when a platform is needed? A resounding “YES” is the answer when it comes to family engagement.
Family engagement is the number one driver of student success, leading to increased attendance, better behavior, and improved academic performance. Yet, when it comes to technology, we’re letting the two-way conversations flow on public social media or offering classroom-level private social media that teachers, families, and students set up and manage themselves. Maybe we’re even doing single-direction notification apps instead of anything that approaches a conversation. These methodologies change from year to year, and there’s a lack of consistency from classroom to classroom within a school, and campus to campus within a district. We lose parents and families on the sheer basis of confusion and time to connect. Families become frustrated and experience “app overload” when there are too many places to check for information about their child. This then results in teachers become frustrated with the lack of participation and amount of time required to upkeep all the information.
At Livingtree, we created the technology to solve this. Taking a school or district-wide platform approach resolves the engagement barriers of time and consistency. Livingtree takes care of the set up for staff AND families while integrating with the school information system to keep classrooms up to date daily. This takes the time burden away and allows our educators, families, and students to focus on positive conversation and partnership. Providing a school or district-wide platform with engagement features (two-way conversation and messaging, translations, media sharing, volunteer and event management, etc.) can truly take family engagement to a whole new level.
Based on what we know from sixty years of research, it’s not uncommon to see family engagement strategies incorporating things like Family Academic Socialization, Home Learning Support, Home Visits, Live Phone Calls, Parent-Family Conferences, Academic “Nights”, School Events, etc. A common missing component that allows families to consistently engage in their child’s learning in meaningful ways at home is a district-wide platform that promotes engagement.
As communication has evolved and changed in our ever-growing technological society, many schools and districts often forget to evaluate how their communication methods move the needle on family engagement and consequently end up using one-way communication methods that don’t provide families the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations about their child’s learning.
For districts to further their family engagement efforts, it’s important to recognize that in our increasingly digital society, families are expecting to communicate with their child’s teacher through technology in a way that is familiar and safe. Using a district-wide platform that allows this type of interaction provides a space for families to engage with educators and promote better learning outcomes for their students. This type of technology can help districts: conform to the needs of our younger-generation family populations, eliminate “app overload” and the sporadic usage of different tools, eliminate the burden of educators having to manage the setup of their own technology, and provide everyone with a tool that is unified with the district’s overall family engagement strategies.
One of the growing benefits of using a district-wide technology is that it is becoming one of the easiest and most impactful ways to engage families. We cannot overlook the changing family culture as generations shift away from Baby Boomers and into later Gen Xers and Millennials. Society is now in a time where 95% of people in the United States own a cellphone, nine-in-ten or more adults younger than 50 say they go online or own a smartphone, and young adults report preferring texting to phone calls. By accounting for these changes and adapting family engagement strategies, school districts can establish an impactful way through technology to have more meaningful two-way conversations with families that promote efficacy and engagement.
By accounting for these changes and adapting family engagement strategies, school districts can establish an impactful way through technology to have more meaningful two-way conversations with families that promote efficacy and engagement.
As Dr. Steve Constantino, a national family engagement expert has said: we don’t need to do extra to engage families, we just need to “do what we already do, only differently.” In this case, a family engagement technology can help districts sustain their family engagement efforts, but through a new channel that is familiar to families. (Read our previous blog for more on how technology improves family engagement)
Another benefit of a district-wide family engagement platform is being able to provide a consistent place for families to engage in their child’s learning from classroom to classroom, school to school, and year to year. Regardless of the classroom, grade, or school a child attends in the district, a family will always remain on the same unified platform. Without a district-wide platform, both schools and teachers are typically faced with using one of the many “teacher-parent” communication tools out there such as Remind, ClassDojo, or even social media, thus resulting in a number of sporadic tools and apps throughout the district.
This is important in regard to the concept of “App Overload.” If one teacher is using a free EdTech app, and the next is on Instagram, and the school administration uses Twitter in addition to a website, it can be harder than ever for families to stay engaged. While these apps are typically helpful in providing messaging, behavior reports, or classroom pictures, their sporadic teacher to teacher usage consequently causes an “App Overload” effect on families which leads to disengagement over time. By providing one consistent place for families to see what’s going on in the classroom, have conversations with their child’s educator, and view upcoming events from the classroom, school and district, engagement in their child’s learning increases (click here to learn more about App Overload in our Family Engagement Tech Guide).
By establishing a district-wide family engagement platform, the entire district benefits by saving teachers from the upkeep of classroom setup, rostering, and the adoption associated with the number of free teacher communication apps. However, when schools and teachers resort to using free apps or programs, they are often tasked with having to set up their classroom, upkeep the roster of students and families, and most of all push for families to onboard and adopt the platform. This is a lot of time and energy that educators don’t have, nor is it something they should have to do.
By partnering with a family engagement platform like Livingtree Engage, classroom networks are built for every school, rosters are created and updated with SIS integration, and families are automatically onboarded through emails and text messages at the beginning of every year – thus eliminating the burden and saving time for educators throughout the district.
The final benefit of using a district-wide family engagement technology is being able to provide everyone with a platform aligned with the district’s family engagement strategy. Years of research, planning, and development typically go into a school district’s family engagement process, and being able to sustain those efforts over time is crucial. With so much time and money going into providing professional development and family engagement training for district members, it’s important to be able to use a single platform that they can then effectively use. So much of that can be wasted if families are becoming frustrated and disengaged due to the overwhelming number of apps. But when educators understand how to engage every family AND have a unified platform to do so, then meaningful conversations that lead to the trusting relationships crucial to family engagement can occur.
Livingtree Engage is a district-wide platform designed to provide a safe, secure space for educators and families to engage in a child’s learning – because engaged families ultimately produce better learning outcomes for every child. So, if families have one consistent place to see what’s going on in the classroom, have conversations with their child’s educator, and view upcoming events from the classroom, school, and district, school districts will see increased family engagement, and ultimately student success.
Every model of reform in education has as a necessary component: the idea that families need to be connected to the process of learning. Family engagement then, is not a “nice to have,” but a “must have” if we are to once and for all meet the goals we have for all of our children. As leaders in education, we can no longer ignore what sixty years of research has told us, and instead should focus on developing strategies and practices to engage families, because this is what is going to ultimately increase the success and achievement of our students.
Family engagement strategies will typically incorporate a mix of Family Academic Socialization, Home Learning Support, Home Visits, Home Phone Calls, Family-Teacher Conferences, Academic “Nights”, School Events, etc. One of the biggest components we often see lacking in family engagement strategies is the technology. In a time when 95% of people in the United States own a cellphone, nine-in-ten or more adults younger than 50 say they go online or own a smartphone, and young adults report preferring texting to phone calls, it seems that technology is making one of the greatest impacts in society, as well as education. While we know that technology can make communication with families easier, can it improve family engagement? To answer that question, let’s first take a look at a key component of family engagement: Meaningful Two-Way Communication.
For school districts to further their family engagement efforts, it’s important to truly understand the role that meaningful two-way communication plays and how it leverages the necessary engagement that promotes better learning outcomes for all students. Research has shown that schools which place an emphasis on effective two-way communication are more likely to create environments that are conducive to engaging families because of the trust that is restored and the relationships that are built. It’s those very relationships that promote family efficacy which are the key ingredients in supporting learning outside of school, resulting in positive impacts on student learning outcomes.
There are an abundance of ways to communicate with families, but we forget to evaluate how these methods move the needle on family engagement. Many schools and districts are adept at one-way communication, resulting in only providing families with information that may or may not be understood. Often, there is little or no mechanism for families to engage in meaningful dialog about the information received. Weekly folders home, website posts, newsletters, blogs, social posts, mass texts and emails are all examples of one-way communication that at best, ask a family to verify that they have received the information. In order to actually register positive change and create meaningful dialogue with families to improve student achievement, we must empower families and provide them the opportunities to have conversations about their child’s learning.
In order to actually register positive change and create meaningful dialogue with families to improve student achievement, we must empower families and provide them the opportunities to have conversations about their child’s learning.
According to Dr. Steve Constantino, a national family engagement expert: “family engagement is a process, not an event or a series of events.” Families do not become engaged or stay engaged through standalone school events, but instead the relationships that are built. With family engagement hinging on the relationships that are built with families, it’s important to realize that our educators are the catalysts of the relationships. Families depend on the educators of their children to keep them informed, answer their questions and involve them in the learning process.
In today’s technical society where we have new generations of families that are consistently connecting online, it’s now possible to “go to” families and reach them anywhere, at their convenience. With the right online platform, educators can move beyond information sharing to meaningful two-way conversations which promote both family efficacy and engagement.
To promote the active engagement of families, Dr. Constantino suggests educators can “supply [families] with information about what is happening in school before it happens; prompt them with questions (and answers) they can ask their children…provide a mechanism so that families can share with teachers how their children responded to questions.” Another idea is to even “integrate families into homework assignments and maybe even projects.” Not only are these proven techniques that promote the efficacy of families, but when facilitated through a secure family engagement platform, they effectively start meaningful conversations that engage families in their child’s learning.
So can technology improve family engagement? The answer is yes – we can definitely improve family engagement by providing families a family engagement platform, such as Livingtree Engage. By accounting for the family cultural shift around technology, and adapting family engagement strategies, school districts can establish an impactful way through technology to have more meaningful two-way conversations with families that promote efficacy and engagement. At the root, providing a safe, secure space for educators and families to engage is what sustains relationships that create engaged families, and ultimately student success.
At the root, providing a safe, secure space for educators and families to engage is what sustains relationships that create engaged families, and ultimately student success.
Every family, regardless of their station in life, desire that their children exceed them in their quality of life. If we pursue family engagement just for the sake of family engagement, then we’ll never be able to truly change the lives of our students and we will quickly dash the hopes of families everywhere. Engaged families produce better learning outcomes for every child.
We’ve put together a feature recap from the Fall of 2018 for all of our Livingtree Engage users. Here are the updates that went live this fall:
New “Share A Message” Design
Sharing a post has a new look! At the start of the school year, we updated the design and feel for users sharing messages, photos, videos, files, text messages, or phone alerts. This is just one of several new designs we are rolling out to give Livingtree Engage a cleaner look and feel.
You no longer have to login to share a post. Now you can schedule posts ahead of time! You can plan out the upcoming week, month, or even year if you’d like… This was a popular request that is now in place to help create a more convenient experience for our educators!
Livingtree Engage Fundraising
We’ve removed the need to enter any bank account information. That’s right, principals and admin can now skip ahead to simply creating fast and easy campaigns by going to your ‘Give’ feature inside of Livingtree Engage and we will send you a check at the end of your campaign.
Want to learn more about our fundraising feature? Go to our Fundraising FAQ
Text-To-Join User Onboarding
We’ve added in the Text-To-Join feature for our school and district customers with SIS Integration, allowing us to send a text message to staff and families prompting them to join Livingtree during the onboarding process. Now users can receive welcome emails and text-messages, helping districts and schools increase their adoption rates across the board!
Want to know more about what’s new with Livingtree as a company? Click here to read our last blog: Livingtree: Always Growing
Livingtree was created by a family in 2013 as a solution to keep families connected to the academic lives of their children through technology. As a company, we are on a mission to bring the best tech platforms and practices to schools and families, and believe that together we can bring out the best outcomes for students and families.
One of the first steps in that direction was to acquire Class Messenger in 2016 to keep the tens of thousands of educators and families connected. The acquisition kept the app operational and also provided Class Messenger teachers with access to free Livingtree Engage accounts. Since then, we’ve continued to provide support for Class Messenger users, while assisting many of them in transitioning to Livingtree Engage.
At the beginning of 2018, we grew even more by announcing the acquisition of district fundraising tool, Edbacker, and appointing Edbacker’s founder, Gary Hensley, as our new CEO. The addition of Edbacker helped us continue to fulfill our mission of connecting schools with their broader communities, while also providing districts with a much-needed solution to crowdfunding that fills the education funding gap.
We grew again in the month of June when we hired Dr. Steve Constantino, the nation’s leading expert in family engagement and former Virginia State Superintendent. As a member of the team, Dr. Constantino is helping to shape the Livingtree Engage platform through his research and best practices, and ensure that educators, schools, and districts have the appropriate tools they need to actively engage families.
In the month of August, we launched a new website with the rebranding of our products under Livingtree. The original Livingtree product became Livingtree Engage, while Edbacker became Livingtree Give. And with that, we made enhancements and launched new features in each product for the new school year (which we will take a deeper dive into in our next blog posts).
We’ve had extraordinary growth, and we continue to develop new partnerships with districts across the country to provide family engagement and fundraising solutions. We are continuing to develop Engage and Give, so that school districts have the best tools to help every student succeed.
In our next blogs, we’ll cover the most recent enhancements to the Engage and Give platforms. To learn more about the individual products visit Livingtree Engage or Livingtree Give, or follow us for new and updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.
With the number of teachers and school administrators that have increasingly embraced social media as a way to better connect with parents and families, we must address why it’s time to STOP using social media in the classroom.
Problem 1: App Overload
The first problem goes back to the idea of families becoming disengaged through what we refer to as “App Overload.” For schools to continually inform, involve, and engage families, there needs to be open lines of communication among teachers, families and administrators. But if one teacher is on Instagram, and the next is on Facebook, and the school administration uses Twitter, it can be harder than ever for parents to keep up with the latest news.
It’s also easy for important messages to be lost amid all of the photos and status updates (not to mention the different formulas that determine what information a user sees). While private accounts and groups can work, managing who is requesting access and who sees the information year to year can be a hassle.
Disparate apps and social networks make it especially hard for parents to find out what they really want to know: how their child is doing. These different social media channels, combined with different apps, pages, emails and websites can ironically end up fracturing the K-12 community, rather than bringing it together.
Problem 2: Privacy
The second problem revolves around the privacy of social media, and complying with privacy regulations at the local, state, and federal levels. Knowing whether your school or district has policies around social media use and how to comply with them is important. Social media usage in the classroom has the ability to clash with both FERPA and Copyright Compliance. Educators should be aware of FERPA policies, and what they can and cannot share in posts and photos (did you know that student handwriting is personally identifiable information?). A teacher posting public photos of students working on classroom projects has good intentions, but can pose certain liabilities if it’s not carefully reviewed.
Additionally, social media limits the oversight of schools and districts. When teachers are using a number of different social accounts, tools and apps, it makes it difficult for school and district administrators to stay involved in the communication streams. It also doesn’t give schools or districts the ability to see actual data and report on the levels of engagement within each classroom. These analytics would certainly make it easier to find break-downs in communication before a family becomes disengaged.
Solution: One Private K-12 Solution
To be clear, social media should absolutely be used on the school and district levels for the purpose of PR and Community Outreach/Engagement. This is an important tool for engaging the outer community. However, educators should be using a classroom-only tool to safely share information about their students with families.
Parents should have one place to look for everything they need to know about their children’s education, not five places to look for bits and pieces of information. That’s why K-12 school districts need a unified communications solution that gives parents the equivalent of a front row seat or a window into the classroom.
So when evaluating a solution that you can use to engage with families, consider the following:
– It should connect educators, schools, and the district together in a private and secure space (one that is FERPA compliant at minimum).
– It should allow for two-way communication on every post (regardless of whether it’s a message, announcement, media file, or an event) so that families can respond, coordinate, and know what is happening every day with their children.
– It should allow educators to post messages that allow families to truly understand daily events and reinforce learning at home.
– It should have one central, shared calendar so that families can easily find out what’s coming up in the classroom, at the school, and in the district.
– It should be capable of translating posts within the platform or network, as well as the notifications that go out to families.
As the leading engagement platform provider for K-12 schools, we are excited to announce the hiring of the nation’s leading expert in family engagement and former Acting Virginia State Superintendent, Dr. Steve Constantino who joins Livingtree after an esteemed career in the K-12 education space.
“Through the Engage Platform, Livingtree is shaping how teachers and parents communicate in school districts across the country,” said Gary Hensley , CEO of Livingtree. “Adding Dr. Constantino’s breadth of expertise to the Livingtree team will give parents and teachers the tools they need to be actively engaged in the academic lives of their children.”
Dr. Constantino has dedicated his career to sharing with audiences around the world the importance of engaging all families. As a result of his experiences and his practical approach to engaging families, Steve has authored four books on the subject. His first book, Making Your School Family Friendly (NASSP, 2002) was published after being selected by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the MetLife Foundation to create the first-ever family friendly schools workshop, held in Washington DC. His second book Engaging Every Family (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003) soon followed. This book expanded on the conceptual framework of the four domains of family engagement. In 2008, Steve released his third book 101 Ways to Create Real Family Engagement (Engage Press, 2008). Steve’s fourth and newest book, Engage Every Family: Five Simple Principles is published by Corwin (2016) and quickly became a bestseller.
As the SVP of Strategic Accounts, Dr. Constantino will direct the focus of our training, implementation and sales team as we strive to meet the needs of every family and school district.
“I am thrilled to be joining the LivingTree team. I am impressed with LivingTree, their visionary CEO Gary Hensley, their product and their heartfelt commitment to family engagement. They are changing the face of family engagement and I am so very pleased to be part of this fantastic journey. I am excited to roll up my sleeves and get to work on ensuring every family has the opportunity to be engaged with their children’s learning through advanced, state of the art technology. This truly is Family Engagement 2.0!”
Dr. Constantino began his career as a teacher and moved through the ranks to award-winning principal and school district superintendent. At the State level, Steve served first as Chief Academic Officer and was then appointed to Acting State Superintendent by former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. Today, Steve continues to accept numerous invitations to speak and consult with schools, districts and educational organizations around the world and is also an adjunct lecturer at the School of Education, College of William and Mary where he teaches doctoral level classes in executive organizational leadership and planning and evaluation.
We’re thrilled to announce our participation in upcoming conference sessions. We’re sharing best practices and frameworks based on millions of conversations and points of engagement. The focus of these sessions will be using technology to create positive and inclusive environments. We hope you’ll join us in these important discussions!
Engaging the WHOLE Community with Technology – Monday, 10/16 – 2:45-4:00 – Ballroom D
Using Technology to Develop a Culture of Positivity – Saturday,12/2 – 8:30–9:45 – Alamo 2
Using Technology to Develop a Culture of Positivity – Thursday, 2/8 – 11:30-12:00 – Room A
Closing The Engagement Gap – Using Technology to Build Trust and Partnership – Monday, 4/9 – 8:30-9:45
If you’re not attending the conferences but are interested in scheduling a webinar session for your school or district, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Hurricane Harvey came ashore August 25, 2017, an estimated $180 Billion in damage across 300 miles resulted. The damage included 200,000 homes and over 300 schools. As the school year progresses and the initial and incredible rush of support depletes, there are still many educators and families in need. Many students have lost everything and are trying to start a new school year with no supplies and limited clothing. This is near and dear to our hearts as many of these school communities have been part of our LivingTree family for years. At this point in time, these communities are asking for gift cards and/or funds to help students in need return to a sense of normalcy. Allowing these students to purchase uniforms, choose their own backpack, and select school supplies will help them return to the classroom ready for the year. A few communities have shared their needs with us. Please see below for requests and more details.
Crosby ISD – Crosby ISD has a few unwanted distinctions from Hurricane Harvey including the highest rainfall ever recorded for a storm – 55”. They also had the ARKEMA plant where evacuations occurred due to chemical explosions. 51 student families and 9 staff members were severely impacted by Hurricane Harvey – many have lost everything they own. The district has been able to help with food and is beginning to address clothing needs. However, they still have students existing without roofs or beds (tents). They’re working to pair each family with a sponsor – the need is that great. Contact: Karen Walthall, Principal – email@example.com
Calallen ISD – Calallen ISD is in Corpus Christi, TX close to where Hurricane Harvey first came ashore. Calallen has had an influx of new students who lost everything in the storm. These students are in need of uniforms and supplies. Calallen ISD has requested Wal-Mart gift cards in $25 increments to provide to families as children come back to school. The local Wal-Mart carries uniforms and supplies needed by these students. Please send the gift cards to the address below:
Attn: Annie Swetish-Rivera
4205 Wildcat Drive
Corpus Christi, TX 78410
Port Aransas ISD – Port Aransas had damage to the majority of homes and structures. They’re looking for gift cards and funds to help students return to school. Donations can be made directly to the district:
Houston ISD – Houston ISD had 200 school facilities sustain damage from Hurricane Harvey. As some students were welcomed back to school September 11, 2017, many facilities were still inoperable. HISD has asked for funds to be donated centrally at: http://www.houstonisd.org/Page/164281
Mandarin Immersion School – The Mandarin Immersion School is part of Houston ISD and has many families who lost everything in the Houston flooding. They have set up a fund to provide these families support for clothing and supplies as families wait for up to two months to work with insurance adjusters to chart a path forward. Donate here: Youcaring.com/MIMS
Horn Elementary – Horn Elementary is located in Houston ISD with many families impacted by Hurricane Harvey flooding. Their Parent Teacher Organization is distributing funds to families in need to purchase clothing and supplies: http://hornpto.org/sunshine-fund/
Msgr. Kelly Catholic HS – Msgr. Kelly Catholic HS in Beaumont, TX is a co-ed school of 440 students. The school sustained water damage in nearly every classroom resulting in all the carpeting and floor tile being removed. The school has 6-8 staff and about 25 students/families who sustained significant flood damage to their homes. They’re seeking financial assistance in the form of money or gift cards to help families rebuild. Contact: Roger Bemis, Principal – firstname.lastname@example.org
Katy ISD – 75% of Katy, TX flooded during Hurricane Harvey. 15,007 students and 2,600 employees of Katy ISD are recovering from direct impact of the storm. Funds are needed to rebuild schools (16 flooded campuses) and immediately to help families with clothing and supplies. Donate here: http://tinyurl.com/pledgecentskatyisdfamilies
Diocese of Beaumont – Diocese of Beaumont is a mission Diocese with five schools. The high school and two schools PK3 – grade 8 had floodwater. About 50 staff members lost everything to flooding along with 130+ families. They have removed floors and wet walls, abated asbestos, sanitized and cleaned everything. It’s not pretty, but they’ve worked hard for students to return to school the week of 9/12. Many of their families still need significant financial help. Contact: Marcia Stevens, Superintendent of Catholic Schools –email@example.com
As we work together to support communities in need, please let us know if Hurricanes Harvey or Irma impacted your school community and you have specific needs by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We share specific needs on our public social media channels – Facebook and Twitter. Thank you!
Unsharpened pencils, fingerprint free devices, clean notebooks, perfect crayons, unused erasers, clean desks, new class decorations – ahhh, the sights and smells of a new school year. It’s hard to believe a new one is already upon us. As a parent, I have the typical worries about what new teachers and a new school year will bring. Will the class be a good fit for my child? Will he stay on track in all his subjects? Will he continue to love learning? Will he make new friends? What can I do to make sure all of these things are ok? So many questions at the start of a new year…. It’s a time when parents are eager to begin anew and a perfect opportunity for schools and teachers to set a pattern for engagement that will positively impact campus culture and student achievement. Based on our work with educators around the globe, the LivingTree team has put together a quick list of best practices for building on the positive energy of a new school year. Here’s to taking family engagement to the next level in 2017-18!
BONUS: Want families to download an app (like LivingTree 🙂), accept an invite, etc? Do a homework pass, free dress day, family recognition wall, or something that pairs students and families in connecting with your classroom. Students will help you connect their families if there’s something fun in it for them! Be sure to follow the consistency and media sharing suggestions to keep them engaged!