Peabody Charter School parent Anupama Vaid thought there had to be a better way for elementary school parents and teachers to communicate so she created ParentSquare, an online portal that combines announcements, calendars, fundraisers and wish lists in one place.
People use the Internet for almost everything, but school communication with parents is often still handled through fliers sent home with students in their backpacks, explains Vaid, a computer programmer.
After some development, Vaid brought in Maria Fisk, a parent with a doctorate in policy and education administration, to get schools on board. The program has been well-received in the pilot schools: Peabody, Washington School, Evergreen Learning Center and Starr King Parent-Child Workshop.
“It takes a village to raise a child and ParentSquare is where the village meets,” Fisk said.
The goal is to foster communication and encourage parents to get involved at the preschool and elementary level, so they’re prepared to help their children for the rest of their K-12 careers when there’s less individual attention, she said.
To keep information secure, ParentSquare is invitation-only: Principals invite each teacher and teachers invite each parent via email. Everyone involved can comment, post their own information and sign up for specific email bulletins, but only for the class their child attends, Fisk explained.
The concept, she said, is based on the assumption that most families have computer and Internet access, especially with the proliferation of free wireless service and the success of Computers for Families, a joint project of Santa Barbara Partners in Education and the Santa Barbara County Education Office that provides students from low-income local families with computers, Internet access, and technical training and support.
Most school websites don’t provide two-way communication and they contain public content, while ParentSquare requires users to log in. With that security, parents and teachers can post pictures or announce things to the school community that they wouldn’t want the whole world to see, Vaid said.
ParentSquare all started as a messaging project and was built largely around parent and teacher feedback at Peabody after then-Principal Kate Ford launched it in February, Vaid said.
Teachers have used it for paperless homework, fundraising and coordinating wish lists, among other things.
Many Peabody parents used the fundraising plug-in, which goes through PayPal, to contribute to the school’s current campaign, which raised $235,000 this year. Vaid said two-thirds of Peabody parents made pledges online.
“It’s been wonderful,” said parent Jay Klanfer. “Before, when you’d pick your kids up, they would have five to 10 pieces of paper in the backpack: homework, permission slips and teacher correspondence.”
This is an organized way to communicate with parents without “reply all” emails and wasted paper, he added.
Washington sixth-grade teacher Jackie Bluestein is one of the enthusiastic “super-users,” as Fisk calls them, who is on ParentSquare almost every day.
She uses it for weekly newsletters, event reminders, posting pictures and letting parents know what’s going on in class.
“The more I involve them, the more I communicate with them, the more they’re willing to help,” she said.
With updates on reports and assignments, there are no surprises for parents come report-card season. In fact, some parents end up scanning and posting homework for someone else’s kid who forgot it at school, Bluestein said.
Bluestein got all her parents on ParentSquare by the second month of class — after the room parent told them they would miss out on things otherwise — and said her only hope would be a Spanish translation in the future. The site is in English, although all user-entered information can be any language and some classes have parents who have volunteered to translate.
Washington’s sixth-grade GATE teachers, including Bluestein, team up to send out grade-wide messages, too.
“It’s a great way to see how teachers are collaborating and how their students are all getting the same love and attention,” she added. “One teacher isn’t doing more than the other.”
At least 12 South Coast schools have signed on to use ParentSquare in the fall, at a cost of $400 per school excepting pilot schools.
Parents have been the strongest advocates so far, Fisk and Vaid said.
“It’s taking off like crazy around here,” said Fisk. “We’re thrilled.”
ParentSquare’s next challenge is to move outside Santa Barbara, and they just booked their first school in the Santa Ynez Valley and are meeting with Orcutt schools later this month.
Schools participating next fall include:
» Evergreen Learning Center (preschool) in Goleta
» Los Olivos School (K-8) in Los Olivos
» Starr King Parent-Child Workshop (preschool) in Santa Barbara, sponsored by SBCC’s Continuing Education Division