Community engagement is more than just a goal for Garland Independent School District (GISD), located just outside Dallas, Texas. It's a tightly woven thread in the fabric of GISD’s culture.
Founded in 1902, GISD has had a “unique bond to the community through generations,” according to five-year high school principal Atticus Wisener. “We have a unique intersection of kids and programs,” he explained. “It really starts with the culture you build in the school – real, authentic and sincere.”
"WITH PHONES AND SUCH WE STAY CONNECTED TO OUR KIDS, BUT WE DON'T STAY CONNECTED TO OUR KIDS."
Like many districts, GISD faced the hurdles involved with engaging its parents and the broader district community. As the second largest district in Dallas County, GISD’s diversity in language, culture, socio-economic standing, and access to technology presented some communication challenges.
Another barrier they faced was re-engaging district parents, especially those with students at the high school level. “With phones and such we stay connected to our kids, but we don’t stay connected
to our kids,” said superintendent Bob Morrison. “I think parents do a really good job in elementary school, but as students get older, I think parents start to disconnect. And I’m a firm believer that it’s more important in high school than elementary, so we are trying to re-engage.”
GISD adopted Skyward’s Student Management Suite in 2014. Its applications such as Family Access, which allows for regular communication between teachers, parents and students, have played a vital role in furthering the district’s culture of parent and community engagement.
With the new system in place, the district was also able to restructure and create a new department to drive its engagement initiatives. Morrison explained the process of creating GISD’s community engagement department.
“We had a lot of people duplicating services throughout, including special education staff working with families of at-risk students and English as a Second Language (ESL), but there was no coordination,” he said. “So we restructured student services – at no cost to the district. We took existing people and put them under one person to organize and lay out goals for the year.”
"I SEE [SKYWARD] AS BEING SORT OF THAT FRONT DOOR, AND IF WE CAN GET PEOPLE TO WALK THROUGH THAT THEN WE CAN INTRODUCE THEM TO OTHER THINGS GOING ON AT THE SCHOOL."
Two-way communication through multiple mediums
GISD administrators have benefited from increased communication with parents and stakeholders. Wisener said he has received a lot of positive feedback on Skyward’s Family Access.
“The days of sending home letters is slowly fading away,” Wisener said. “Parents want more instant messaging. It’s nice to get timely and immediate feedback on how your kids are doing in school. I’ve had nothing but positive feedback on the Family Access component of Skyward.”
The district also utilizes social media in its communications, and Wisener’s high school has the largest Twitter following in the district. Twitter is used to share announcements, information, and district accomplishments.
“I think it’s very important to be consistent and model what you want in communication with parents,” Wisener explained. “It stems from a core philosophy that you serve these children and families. Everyone values feedback, timeliness, and intelligent communication. Tools like Skyward and Twitter allow for that.”
Babetta Hemphill, executive director of student services at GISD, focuses her attention on attendance, enrollment, discipline, and language services. GISD’s attendance rate is currently an impressive 96 percent. Hemphill knows two-way communication is an important component in keeping it that way.
Parents receive an automated phone call through Skyward’s SIS if their child is absent. Hemphill said that having an initial conversation with students and parents is a great way to kick-start re-engagement. “After that, their interest is piqued,” she explained. “They come to the school or call back and find out what’s going on with their student. The more involved the parents are, the better we see the behavior is and, of course, the higher the attendance is going to be because that involvement just trickles down to their kids.”
She added that it’s important for the district to initiate conversations with parents and families to talk about school issues, so administrators can get to root concerns of students and their families and help make improvements.
“The plus of having Skyward as our student information system and the level of Family Access is truly the word ‘access,’” Hemphill said. “I see our information management system as being sort of that front door, and if we can get people to walk through that then we can introduce them to other things going on at the school that will hopefully make their child’s career there even better.”
GISD’s associate superintendent of administration, Doug Brubaker, added that technology’s role in opening up two-way communication avenues is key to the district’s success.
“I think that technology can help support community and parent engagement,” Brubaker said. “By keeping parents in the loop with things that are going on in the schools and with their kids – giving information in a format they are accustomed to and that works for them – I think that’s one of the things Skyward has been helpful with.”
"A LOT OF TIMES, PEOPLE BUY PROGRAMS AND THEY THINK IT'S ABOUT STUDENTS' ATTENDANCE, DISCIPLINE, AND GRADES... [SKYWARD] IS MUCH MORE THAN THAT."
Involvement in courses and the community
Engagement has increased throughout the district, especially at the high school level. Wisener said he strives to make himself as accessible as possible to stakeholders while serving the district and its community. “I relish opportunities to meet with parents and students,” he said.
Community service is required in advanced coursework at the high school, which has had a positive impact on the district and its surroundings. “The effect it has on the community and people of the community is very real and significant,” Wisener explained. “We feel we have to support the community. It’s not the community supporting us always – the school wants to take on the role of supporting the community.”
GISD has multiple programs at the high school to help fortify its relationship with the community. Its Achievement Academy for students and their families meets every-other Saturday and is staffed by teachers.
“We teach kids and help them prepare for college,” Wisener explained. “We invite parents to teach them computer literacy skills, English language skills, and we also feed them all. It’s been greatly successful.”
In addition to Achievement Academy, he said the district has started a mentoring program to target students in the middle school who are currently lacking role models or could use another. “I have kids that still come back and talk to me about how the mentoring program has affected their lives,” Wisener said.
Joseph Walker is a mentor specialist at GISD and facilitates the high school’s Youth Achievement Foundation. The program identifies and mentors students who may need assistance in planning their futures.
He explained the importance the district places on training students to think critically, problem solve, and work well with others. “Training students to compete in the 21st
century is the focus,” Walker said.
GISD’s Youth Achievement Foundation also works with local businesses in the community that often come into the school, give presentations, and talk with students. Walker said there is a need for area businesses and organizations to see what students are learning in classes and for students to see what jobs may be available after graduation.
“It’s about getting kids to see there are great careers they can go into,” Walker said. “We’ve got business classes and computer skills that we’re teaching kids, but the business community doesn’t know the skills that we’re teaching, so that’s part of what we are working to do – so they know the quality of the employee we are putting out.”
Student achievement through parental participation
GISD has been able to better support its students in learning through increasing family involvement. Wisener explained that there is plenty of research available showing the correlation between parental involvement and student achievement. He emphasized that logic alone is enough to realize that increasing parent engagement is one of the best ways to improve student success rates.
“I wouldn’t have to look at any of the research to know that that’s true – there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests the more parents are plugged in, the more accessible you make things for parents and families, logic will tell you parents can react quicker, more intelligently, and customize solutions for their kids,” Wisener said.
“It’s very important, and now that I have a child as a freshman this year, you see how important it is to give young people direction,” he added. “It really takes a village to raise children.”
Morrison added that it’s important for GISD to also engage parents and families when it comes to technology access. “We have some students without wireless at home, so we make wireless hotspots for parents to check grades and students to do homework,” he explained.
Like Wisener, Morrison can also speak from experience as a parent. He added that Skyward’s applications make it easier for parents to re-engage in their child’s learning. “The moment the teacher posted a grade, I would get an update sent to my phone,” Morrison said. “I’d also be notified about AP study sessions, etc. A lot of times, people buy programs and they think it’s about students’ attendance, discipline, and grades … [Skyward] is much more than that.”
Community makes up the foundation of GISD’s culture, a fact Morrison reminds parents and families of throughout the school year.
“I tell parents, ‘You have a gift that’s been given to you for 18 years and after that it’s either going to walk away to work or to college. Take advantage of the gift that was given to you – don’t just put it on the shelf when they’re 13. You have to invest. You’ve got a short amount of time in your life to make that impact – make it
Garland Independent School District has expanded parental involvement, community engagement, and two-way communication with the help of Skyward’s Student Management Suite and Family Access. This large Texas district continues to be a shining example of what proactive engagement can look like in the digital age.
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