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When parents fill out registration forms for Sigler Elementary, they sometimes write in “Sigler Nation” instead. Students print it across the tops of their papers. Teachers hashtag it on Twitter.
In just a year, #SiglerNation has gone from being a vehicle for sharing student work to an identity the community can rally around.
“We’re trying to get the work we do beyond the walls of our school and out into our community,” says Matt Arend, principal of the elementary school in Plano, Texas. “It’s a movement, something people have pride in.”
Rebranding the Title I school — where nearly 80 percent of kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch — as a place where parents want to send their kids is part of Arend’s strategy to connect with the families in his diverse school community, where three in five students are Latino, nearly a quarter are African-American, and many don’t have technology at home.
“Our kids walk into school every day and have access to technology at their fingertips,” Arend says. “But the challenge of getting technology into the hands of our kiddos outside of school is something we’ve had to get creative about.”
Arend has worked to overcome this problem by effusively reaching out to parents and relentlessly breaking down the barriers that often exist between teachers and families from underrepresented minorities.
Extending a warm welcome
Before educators can do anything to help parents cross the technology divide, they have to build trust. Arend wants parents to feel as welcome at school as they are at home. They’re always allowed to walk their kids to class, and there’s no limit to the number of days they can eat lunch with their child.
But many of today’s parents have had a very different experience of school than their children, and they’re hesitant to even walk through the door.
To help get them acclimated, Arend starts by going where they are. Over the summer, school staff visit local churches, nearby apartment complexes and the neighborhood Boys & Girls Club. They bring ice cream, shake hands and pass out information cards marked with important dates. They send out automated phone reminders. They sit down with parents at the computer and walk them through the online registration process.
By the time the school hosts its annual open house, “parents and families are legit excited,” he says. “They know they’re coming to a place where their kids will be taken care of and parents will be respected and they’ll always be welcome. That’s the culture we try to establish.”
He also invites parents to school twice a month for coffee in the library — one day for moms, one for dads — so they can get to know each other through “intentional conversations.”
“Once we have parents in the building, we can start further developing that relationship and getting them to step into volunteer roles,” he says. “Even if it’s just showing up to help the teacher cut out things, they can start small and start to get comfortable being in a school environment.”
Keeping parents connected
So much of students’ work is digital these days. They make videos, post them on YouTube and want their families to see them. Using the #SiglerNation hashtag, students and educators share their work across multiple social media platforms and celebrate their school’s identity as a place that amplifies kids’ voices.
But parents who don’t have access to technology have a hard time connecting with #SiglerNation and all the amazing things their kids are doing in the classroom. Some have never even held a mouse before; they may feel alienated by their children’s growing technology skills.
“It’s very humbling to watch families come in who have never had a computer before, and to watch them put their hands on a mouse for the first time and not know how to use it,” Arend says. “Our kids today intuitively know how to pick up a mouse and move it around, but many parents need to learn how to double click and right click and move the mouse. It’s easy to forget there are folks who’ve never had that opportunity before.”
To expose parents to the types of technology their kids are using, the school hosts a “tech and taco” night every spring. It’s an opportunity to encourage families to get online, get an email address, start using Facebook, and “get plugged into what their kids are doing on a day to day basis,” Arend says.
“Without having access at home, parents often get taken aback by what their kids are doing. We show them how we’re using technology in the classroom and expose them to certain apps we’re using. Our biggest goal is to continue to educate families on what technology is available and how to use it as learning device.”
Building parent capacity
More than 40 percent of Sigler students are English learners, and seven in 10 are economically disadvantaged. That means many students are learning a new language on top of learning how to use technology.
Students from immigrant families who are new to the school — about 20 percent of the population each year—can take home an iPad loaded with software to help them improve their English language skills. During a how-to night, they learn how to access phonics instruction at home so they can work together with their parents to further their language development.
Making the program work requires significant follow-up to ensure parents are holding up their end of the bargain.
“Ultimately, as fancy as you make it, there are some families with kids who still perceive that to be school. It’s still learning. We’re trying to encourage kids to learn outside of school, but many parents don’t necessarily have the education themselves or don’t understand the value in that.”
Investing in parents’ learning helps send the message that Sigler Nation cares about helping the whole family succeed. Whether they’re taking typing lessons and learning English in the district’s mobile computer lab, taking home a free refurbished computer through the Computers@Home program, or getting one-on-one instruction on how to find public Wi-Fi access, parents have opportunities to learn and grow right alongside their children.
“I think it’s an education piece for parents,” Arend says. When they understand how technology can help them learn, they’re better able to see how it benefits their children.
“The value has to be there for them.”
Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.