LivingTree Pride – Lori Genzer, LivingTree Senior Relationship Manager
Teaching has always been a passion for Lori Genzer. “Nothing beats that light bulb moment when you see those eyes light up with understanding.” Because Lori’s elementary school served many ESL students and parents, communicating with her parents was a major challenge, and two-way conversation with a parent was nearly impossible. Relying on her students to share information to their parents in a correct and timely manner (even if it was handing over a translated flier) did not work. Lori’s interest in using technology in the K-12 world developed as she sought programs that would help engage her students and parents. After ten years of teaching, Lori accepted the position as a technology integration specialist for Texas Region 2’s Education Service Center. Throughout her ten years at the ESC, parent engagement remained top of mind. Lori joined the LivingTree team because she understands the obstacles that hinder communication between the home and school, and she believes LivingTree is the answer. Lori’s district adopted LivingTree in the fall of 2015; she shares her story as a former teacher, and now a LivingTree parent of four children attending three different schools.
How did teaching develop your interest in using technology in the K-12 environment? “When I was asked to apply for a technology integration position at the ESC, I was excited to see where my next adventure would take me. Technology has allowed us to streamline our processes to make things easier and run more efficiently. This allows us to spend more time where it matters. We all know that parent engagement is a huge success factor for our children. Our globalized society means that families are unique. They are unique in their customs, their values and their languages. What is not unique however, is how much we all value our children. “
What attracted you to LivingTree as an employee? “LivingTree addresses so many of the challenges that I faced as a teacher and a parent of four. After ten years of serving districts in my role at the ESC, I decided to try and make a difference on a broader scale. Parent Engagement has become my new passion. LivingTree has given me an easy to use tool that streamlines many of the day-to-day processes our schools carry out – It handles translation for all of its users, volunteer management, and the calendar is life changing for me. I get to put this tool in the hands of every teacher, administrator, and parent. My new role has allowed me to reach schools from the southern most tip of Texas to the Big Apple. I am so excited to see the success of so many of our schools, because we all know that engagement equals achievement.”
What are some of the obstacles you had with parent engagement & involvement as a teacher? “So many of our parents and students are new to the English language. I sometimes had to depend on the student to convey my message to their parents, and that message was not always conveyed correctly or timely. This meant that the parents were not aware of the information they needed in order to help their child. I was at the mercy of whatever free translation program I could find on the Internet. I spent hours trying to translate all of the information into the languages that my parents and students spoke at home. It was time consuming and sometimes impossible. It was also disheartening to find the information crumpled up in a backpack, never having made it home.”
Describe your schools’ parent engagement strategy and methodology prior to LivingTree: “Prior to my own district adopting LivingTree, the information that I received was either by email or robo-call. I didn’t receive a lot of information from the campus or classroom level. What I noticed was that so many of the emails and messages really didn’t apply to my children. Because I came to expect that it was not applicable, I found myself tuning out and turning off. Sadly that meant that I missed the messages that did apply to me and I grew frustrated. Sometimes I would find a flyer in the bottom of my children’s backpacks. I received more information from my elementary child than my Middle or High School children. I was clueless about what was going on at the campus. The district used news stations for emergency messages; but sometimes it was incorrect, so I began skimming Facebook waiting for someone to share what was going on. This is frustrating at 7:15 on a school day trying to decide if I needed to pack lunches and drive my children to school or not. The PTA used to place flyers in the Friday packets at the elementary, but at the Middle and High School I only saw PTA at registration selling shirts. Beyond that, I never saw them again.”
Why do you believe the district decided to use a new method or tool for parent engagement? “I think our school was very interested in building relationships with their parents. They know that parent engagement is a huge factor in the success of their students, and that is very important to them. After adopting LivingTree, I have seen the “us against them” mentality turn around completely. I now see more parents at events, and I’ve seen more ‘THANK YOUs’ in LivingTree than ever before in our community. LivingTree has changed the culture in our district.”
What has the district’s transition into LivingTree been like for you as a parent? “While the district did offer to help any parent who needed assistance with LivingTree, a training was not necessary. I now feel completely connected and aware of what’s happening at all of my children’s campuses. In one easy to use app, I found organization and preparedness. No more 10 o’clock trips to Wal-Mart to get a poster board or glue!”
What are some of the results you have seen since your district started using LivingTree? “As a working parent, I really feel like I am more aware of what is going on at each school. With the calendar, I can stay on track without second-guessing when events are happening or when due dates are approaching. I’ve been able to attend more volunteer events and really be a better partner in each of my children’s education. Having all of the information that I need from all 27 of my children’s teachers in ONE place is a game changer!”
How has a better method of engagement affected your relationship with teachers and fellow parents? “I now have conversations with my children’s teachers all of the time and it is so much easier. I’ve also been able to reach out to other parents for help on assignments and events – It’s really nice having a directory of parents who are in my child’s class to turn to for help. I get excited when I see pictures of projects or labs that my children are doing in class. It’s the next best thing to actually being there. I feel more trust and appreciation for each of the teachers when I actually see what’s happening in the classroom.”
How has better engagement affected your children? “My children are more on task than they were before because I have time to prepare for projects and help them plan ahead and use their time more wisely. I no longer have the “How was school? – Fine” “What did you do today? – Nothing” conversation. We have an actual discussion about what they are learning. Bringing the classroom discussion into our home has really brought about a huge change in my children’s thinking about school. We’re able to discuss how what they’re doing in class applies to the real world.”
What feature do you use or appreciate the most? “Because I speak English and can understand all of the information, I truly love the calendar. It helps me stay on task with all of my children’s teachers and I only have to look in one place. I do sometimes catch myself changing the translation of the feed just so I can imagine how hard it must be to not speak the language. I imagine that if I were a non-English speaker, the translation feature would be my safety net.”
What would you do if LivingTree were taken away? “If LivingTree were taken away, I would feel so lost! I don’t ever want to go back to 6 different apps, 20 websites or crumpled flyers in the bottom of the backpacks ever again!”
What one thing would you say about LivingTree to teachers, fellow parents, and district leaders? “It is a game changer, a field leveler for all parents and students. It streamlines all of your processes and makes it so easy, so that you can spend your time where it matters most, with our children.”
Our mission at LivingTree is to build trust and partnership between schools, families, and communities. Why is this so important to us? Because we’re educators and parents ourselves and parent engagement is the number one driver of student success. The increased national conversation we’re seeing around parent engagement is exciting to say the least. With the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 calling for two-way conversation, we’re hopeful that we’ll see more strategic plans calling for real parent conversation and engagement.
Christina Torres’ recent blog post was a wonderful insight. In her words: “The definition of student success should not come from a small group of passionate people. Rather, real progress and effective change will only be realized through the collective voices and efforts of all of us.”
The question is, how are we including everyone such that we have a collective voice? How are we bringing every voice to the table regardless of previous experience with education, language spoken, socio-economic status, etc.?
We believe that technology can and should be used to bring every voice to the table. Laying a foundation with technology can build and enhance relationships such that every community member is more encouraged to engage in person and each face to face interaction is more meaningful. We worked in partnership with many schools to develop a platform and feature set to enable these interactions. After four years of working with our education partners in building digital engagement, we’ve seen consistent success in four key areas:
It’s an exciting time to move engagement forward. Technology should be a key piece of this strategy in both building base relationships and augmenting face to face interaction. Again, the words of Ms. Torres: “I encourage all teachers and states to take measures that allow students and families to share their voice.” We couldn’t agree more!!!
After Gretchen Kasper-Hoffman’s first year of student teaching in one of Houston’s inner-city schools, Gretchen knew she wanted to continue her career educating students in urban school communities. Gretchen chose the k-12 education field because she desired to make a difference in the world, and she firmly believes “education is the most important thing.” Gretchen is in her 10th year as principal of Grady Middle School in Houston ISD. Grady adopted LivingTree in the fall of 2013 – before translation, directory, group code, and student user functionality. As principal of one of the first schools to implement LivingTree, principal Gretchen Kasper-Hoffman can speak to the critical relationship between parent engagement and student success.
Describe your parent engagement strategy and methodology prior to LivingTree: “We used our school website to post school-wide announcements and happenings, but our website platform was (and still is) hard to navigate. Teachers would also do weekly posts on the site. Teacher to parent correspondence would happen through emails and phone calls, and teachers would send letters home along with report cards. Alongside that, our PTO would send a weekly email blast out to parents.”
Why did you decide to use a new tool for parent engagement? “Well, the website was hard for us. It’s clunky, takes a long time to get into, and the results are never great. It was hard to make a blurb or post look pretty. I was initially attracted to LivingTree because it’s so much easier to drop a quick announcement or post of photos or files.”
What was your implementation of LivingTree like? “For our first year, we had a few LivingTree reps come out to lead a teacher training. This last year, one of our teachers who is very comfortable with LivingTree, led a training for the rest of the staff. For parents, we give out packets explaining what LivingTree is and how they can connect to the network. Our data system has outdated information for our parents, so we use group code to invite parents and students into their classes – we love the group code feature! I would like to have 95% of our parents and students on LivingTree next year. It helps that we are a feeder school to Briargrove Elementary, who also uses LivingTree. This means many of our parents are already on LivingTree when their students come to our school.”
What were your results using LivingTree? “LivingTree makes it so much easier to share information. Because we share so much, parents who missed the group code invitation will ask to be connected. I can see that our relationship with parents has improved. I do believe we have better engagement in our community since using LivingTree.”
What feature do you use the most? “We use inbox a lot. Our parents use inbox to communicate one-on-one with me and the teachers.”
What would you say to teachers who are hesitant to use technology for engagement? “We are able to get more information out with technology. After using LivingTree to communicate with parents, I encouraged LivingTree to add students as users because our students also want to know what is going on – they want to keep up on their grades, check their assignments, homework, etc. Now my kids are very active on LivingTree.”
What would you do if LivingTree were taken away? “I guess I would have to rely on Twitter…. Though it’s not easy to share information on Twitter.”
What one thing would you say about LivingTree to others? “LivingTree has the best customer support! When I contact support I know I will receive a response within seconds, and usually support will do the task or resolve the issue for me, so I don’t have to do anything! In fact, I’ve been meaning to reach out and see if I can set up an incoming 6th grade group to begin communicating with my new parents and students over the summer. Our district’s school messenger system does not roll over until August and that is too late for me. With LivingTree, I can start communicating with new Grady families now.”