Communicating with diverse families

A teacher, warmly greeting students and parents, stands outside her classroom door on the first day of school.

“Hello,” she says to the English speakers, “hola” to the Spanish speakers.

In some districts, that covers everyone. However, the ever-increasing diversity in schools is making it more challenging to communicate with families.

For example, in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District in Alaska, 60 languages are spoken in 33 schools. One school in Oregon’s Beaverton School District is home to more than 30 languages and dialects. In the San Francisco Bay area, 112 languages are represented in different communities.

So how do schools overcome these language barriers?

It can be a daunting task, so it’s essential to remember why communication is so important. According to research, parental engagement leads to higher grades and higher test scores. Students attend school more regularly, complete more homework, demonstrate more positive attitudes and behaviors, graduate from high school at higher rates and are more likely to enroll in higher education than students whose families are little engaged in their education. But it’s difficult for parents to get involved or even know how to help their children without strong, regular communication with teachers and the school.

Here are some ways to build an ongoing relationship with parents.

  • Communicate in their native language
    Even if you don’t speak another language, attempt to learn some words of greeting. Then, you can welcome parents in their native tongue. The emotional connection is much more important than the correct translation. Parents appreciate the extra effort by staff to try to communicate with them.
  • Translate written communications sent home
    Some larger districts have departments with a multilingual staff that provides translated letters and other documents sent home to parents. Others use professional translation services that can convert documents into an array of languages.
    In using staff members for translation services, it’s best to set standards and test skills to make sure they can translate accurately using good grammar. Some districts also rely on Google Translate, but this isn’t ideal because the service doesn’t always get the nuances of phrasing correct. It’s a functional tool for non-targeted communications, such as general website content, but it has limitations. It is important that your translations meet the same high standards as any other communication sent home to parents.
  • Find fully bilingual interpreters
    Professional translation services can provide interpreters in multiple languages. Depending on your location, the interpreters can provide translation face-to-face, via telephone or through online tools such as Skype. Schools also may use bilingual staff for parent meetings or events like back-to-school nights and PTO meetings. Some schools will ask a child to interpret for their parents, but this isn’t the best solution. It can be awkward or embarrassing to the child and can disempower the parent.
    Many districts have purchased transmitters and headsets so they can provide simultaneous interpretation at school and parent meetings. The interpreter quietly talks into the transmitter; parents with headsets can sit anywhere in the room and listen to the speaker through their headsets without slowing the pace of the meeting.
  • Hire bilingual staff
    Two-way communication is a key component in offering a welcoming environment. It’s especially important to have bilingual staff in front of ce positions to answer the phones and interact with parents on a daily basis. In hiring new staff, make it a priority to hire quali ed bilingual applicants. Give parents a list of names and phone numbers of bilingual staff in the district so they know whom to contact with educational concerns. It’s frustrating for parents to call their school and not be able to communicate with the person answering the phone.
  • Use online tools
    Many online communication tools have options for viewing content in another language. Google Translate, which allows users to select from about 90 different languages, is a free option. While the Google translations typically aren’t as good as those done by professional translators, the messages are understandable. Many free texting tools, like ClassDojo and Remind, have recently added translation features. Some mobile apps, like ParentLink, also offer translation for multiple languages.
  • Build connections between families who speak the same language
    It’s valuable to connect parents with other parents who speak the same language and who are more familiar with the school. Some schools recruit parent mentors who help orient new families to the school and staff. They check in with the new families on a weekly basis and see how things are going. Parent mentors also are asked to help greet families at parent nights and other school events to make them feel welcome.

Translations are not providing a favor, but are an essential way to connect families with the information they need to engage better in their child’s education.

Contributed by Connie Potter, chief of staff, Forest Grove School District, Forest Grove, Ore.

Develop a strategic communications plan to reach your goals

“Strategic communications” is a great-sounding phrase. We all like to think we do strategic communications. But what does it mean?

A strategy is a course of action taken to achieve a major aim or goal. Strategic communications are those actions that lead to a major achievement.

What major goal or aim are we trying to accomplish with our communications? In school districts, it seems that there are three basic types of strategic communications objectives: district goals, department goals and initiatives.

District goals

Your district should have a strategic plan. That is not the same as a mission statement, vision statement or slogan like “Achievement for all.” None of those will give you specific targets to make your communications efforts strategic. A strategic plan should have clear, meaningful, measurable goals that you can support via communications.

For instance, your district may have a strategic goal that says something like “Increase parental involvement to boost student achievement.” Thinking strategically, you would set a course of action to use communications to help your district achieve that strategic goal.

Start by using the RACE (research, analyze, communicate and evaluate) system. This process would help you develop a communications plan to support the strategic goal of parental involvement. Research the issue, use a team to analyze the results of the research and write a plan. Then, implement the plan and evaluate it for effectiveness.

Your plan would not simply tell the world that the district is trying to increase parent involvement. It would find and  fill communications gaps that hinder progress within the strategic objective. For instance, your research might find that some parents are not involved because they don’t know how to become involved. To address this problem, you may work with teachers and counselors to develop communication materials that would help parents understand how to become more involved.

Strategic communication is not something the communications department does alone. It is important to let the other members of the executive team know how you are supporting the district’s strategic goals for two reasons: to encourage their cooperation and to help them understand why you would say “no” to requests for projects that don’t support the strategic goals.

Department goals

District departments also have goals to support strategic communications. Communications department goals such as increasing public understanding of district operations and creating more pathways for patrons to connect with schools are examples of typical public relations or communications goals.

Information systems departments may have annual goals or a set of performance targets that can guide newsletters, blogs and other internal communications. Tech tips are great, but you could expand your content to let your internal customers know that you have a computer replacement goal every year, and they can help you achieve it.

Determine the diversity of your internal audiences and tailor messages to each of them. For example, does the computer replacement goal have a different impact on school office managers, compared to maintenance workers or teachers? If so, plan out what you need to tell an audience, and how or when you are going to get the messages to them. Think about what an audience needs to know versus what they need to do.


When your district is embarking on a bond levy or some other initiative, there should be a strategic communications plan in place. The strategies and tactics will depend on the kind of initiative.

For internal projects, such as a major software change, the main audiences and communications channels will be internal. The chief challenge in internal communications is in making sure the right people have the right level of information. Overwhelming people with information they don’t need will simply make them ignore future communications. Also, assuming people received the message because it was in the summer newsletter is not a good tactic.

Feedback loops will help you evaluate your efforts and refine your audience targeting. Quick surveys and phone calls can help gauge whether the right information is getting through to the right internal audiences.

For external projects such as levies, it is especially important to conduct formal research to set the right strategic communications course and to stick to it or adjust as necessary. In this case, you should consider paying for scientific surveys and analysis to help identify information gaps and strategize accordingly.

Side benefits of strategic communications planning

The main bene t of strategic communications is that your district will have greater success in achieving its business goals. But there is another bene t for the communications professional. It will help show your worth to team members. When they think of communications, it will not just be something abstract or distant. They will be able to put their fingers on something you helped them accomplish through the power of strategic communications.

When planning your work, you can prioritize activities that promote one of your strategic communications goals. If a colleague asks why you publicize some things and not others, you can share your strategic goals.

Contributed by Jay Remy, communications director, Salem-Keizer Public Schools, Salem, Ore.

Is your writing readable? Tips to help your audience understand what you are saying

An in-demand skill in nearly every field is the ability to write effectively. Successful written communication is accessible to the widest possible audience, including what most people can read and what they will read.

That sounds easy, but poorly written communication is a common obstacle to communicating with the public. Important issues can get lost in complicated texts. Highly educated leaders have a greater tendency to write complicated sentences that reflect their advanced degrees. While it may be tempting to demonstrate intelligence with large vocabularies and complex thinking, the best writers — the most fluent writers — know how to translate issues for the entire audience.

Write for your audience, but aim for an eighth- grade level

We communicate because we want someone to know something. When we target the message to a particular audience, we also should target the reading level. The general rule is to write so most people can read it, typically an eighth-grade level. Consider an audience- speci c approach for groups such as professionals, media representatives and people with limited English skills.

Some writers bristle at the idea of “writing down” to an audience, but research shows most people prefer easier reading materials. Readability scholars have found that best-selling books have a surprisingly low reading level.

Journalist Shane Snow analyzed best-selling authors, popular fiction and nonfiction books and academic papers for readability. In his article, “This Surprising Reading Level Analysis Will Change the Way You Write,” (, he found that the most popular books — the ones most people preferred to read — had the lowest reading levels. In one analysis, he used the young children’s book “Goodnight Moon” as a reference point. He also found that books by Ernest Hemingway were only nominally more challenging to read.

“The initial surprise from my little data experiment is that writers whose work we regard highly tend to be produce work at a lower reading level than we’d intuit,” Snow said. “Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen and Hunter S. Thompson join J.K. Rowling in the readability realm of pre-teens. The content of McCarthy’s and Thompson’s novels isn’t meant for children, but these writers’ comprehensibility is rather universal.”

“I wasn’t shocked that academic documents rank difficult,” he said. However, I was surprised that the ones I studied were only 12th- and 13th-grade reading level. Most of us don’t read at that level, it turns out. (Or if we can, we hate to.)”

The last point is an important one: Even if we have the comprehension abilities for higher-level reading, most of us do not want to work that hard. As communicators, our goal is to make understanding easy. Dif cult-to-read communication can become part of the problem we need to solve in addition to the issue at hand.

If you can’t read it, it must be good writing

In education, where leaders have years of academia under their belts, there is a greater temptation to write at a higher level. What’s ironic is that convoluted sentences and greater use of jargon equate to a less-educated writer.

Good writing shows fluency and the ability to express oneself easily and articulately. Easy-to-read writing does not make you seem less intelligent. According to Snow, “I did an informal poll of some friends while writing this post. Every one of them told me that they assumed that a higher reading level meant better writing. We’re trained to think that in school. But data shows the opposite: A lower reading level often correlates with commercial popularity and, in many cases, how good we think a writer is.”

Just because you can read it doesn’t mean you want to read it

The footnote to Snow’s last comment is, “Of course, just because your writing is fourth-grade level doesn’t mean your content is good enough for people to enjoy. It just means that more people could enjoy it if it was interesting enough.”

Writing something people want to read is another skill entirely. It’s a skill to develop with practice and coaching. But the first hurdle is to write so people can read it, an easy hurdle to get over.

Resources and online tools to measure and improve readability

If you wrote it down, you want your audience to know the information. Written communications that do not reach the intended audience are ineffective. Poor communication also can cause a loss of trust and credibility.

“We should aim to reduce complexity in our writing as much as possible,” Snow said. “We won’t lose credibility by doing so. Our readers will comprehend and retain our ideas more reliably. And we’ll have a higher likelihood of reaching more people.”

With today’s online readability checkers, there is no reason to write above your audience. Run your text through a readability tool before publishing to check readability, and then revise if necessary.

Flesch and Flesch-Kincaid tests — which test for reading ease and grade level and can be found online — are the most common readability checkers. The Flesch Reading Ease test measures the difficulty of the writing. It should have a higher score for better readability — aim for 65 or higher (65 is about the level of “Reader’s Digest”). If the score is low, the writing is difficult to read. An easy fix is to shorten words and sentences to raise the score.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test estimates the appropriate grade level for the writing. The lower the score, the better.

The Flesch tests are part of the standard grammar checking tools in Microsoft Word. The statistics show the length of words, the length of sentences and paragraphs and the number of passive sentences.

Readability tools also are available online

The Gunning-Fog Index is a good alternative to Flesch-Kincaid and may be useful for a second opinion. The score, measuring sentence length and syllables, also is based on grade-level readability.

The SMOG Index, developed before the Internet, is the Simple Measure of Gobbledygook. Initially, it was a mathematical formula measuring syllables and sentences. The lower the score, the more readable the text. Like the other indexes, it is available online as a digital tool. provides SMOG Index scores, as well as Flesch and Gunning-Fog.

For more information or to test readability, see the Readability section in

Writing for the Web

When you are writing primarily for online audiences, content must be even easier to read. Readers tend to scan the page and pick out specific words and phrases. Most people read slower and get fatigued faster when reading a screen. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scores should be even lower for online content.


Contributed by Marcia Latta, communications consultant

What parents want from school communications

Communicating with parents may be one of the most important aspects of a school’s success. Parents need to know how their child is doing in class and homework assignments. They need to know which forms to return for  eld trips, when sports practice begins and when to sign up to be a volunteer.

When communication goes wrong

Sometimes schools miss the mark. When schools struggle to get notifications out to parents, there are rami cations down the line.

Jack, a parent who has three school-age children in a Los Angeles County school and prefers to stay anonymous, is fed up. “They never post things on their calendar,” he said. “We sometimes get flyers the day of the event. Sometimes there is no notice at all.” Because his family maintains a budget, paying for something at the last minute is disruptive, he added.

Jason Salzenstein, guardian to a fifth-grader in a district in Washington, says communication from his child’s school is “abhorrent. ... I get a call during dinner about important events happening the next day,” he said. “And if I pick up, I’m left scrambling for a pen and paper to make a note.” He would like the school to have an active campaign to distribute information on a timely basis, including Facebook or a website so he could view the school calendar.

Many parents prefer electronic communications to printed materials. Elizabeth Springer, a parent in Washington, noted that even when schools are on the ball, kids are unreliable in delivering paper newsletters. “Most of the time they collect dust in lockers or (end up at) the bottom of a backpack,” she said.

Spring Roll, a parent who works in a school district, also mentioned the late notice, “until I realized it was usually a teacher that volunteered to put together the flyers from home in his or her off time,” she said. “They are doing their best with what resources they have.”

Technology is a good thing, right?

Parents are as unique as kids with very different approaches to technology and communications. Springer appreciated how her son’s new school handles it. “They send regular e-newsletters and emails with links to check on student grades or daily homework assignments as well as reminders about  eld trips and in-service days.”

Jacob Pickett, who has two children in Washington’s Shoreline School District, prefers paper flyers since his email inbox typically has 50-75 new emails a day. “It is easier to accidentally delete or ignore one of 10 emails that I get from any given sender than it is to pick up a piece of paper and throw it away,” he said.

However, most parents preferred technology when it was available, according to a survey. Roll loves her school’s interactive site, Skyward. “It shows all homework assigned and turned in, along with test scores and announcements from teachers associated with my son,” she said. “They also send home his folder with the same announcements for the families without Internet access.”

Roll also prefers the digital tools.

“The website is great, especially when my daughter was in high school,” she said. “The answer to, ‘Do you have all your homework done?’ was always a resounding ‘yes’ ... which was not always the truth. It was another way to hold her accountable.”

Leah Finneseth-Meyers, a parent and first-grade teacher, recommends the program PowerSchool. “Parents can log on and see all the grades,” she explained. “For upcoming events, we get text messages, emails and paper copies.”

Focus on the basics

To find the best tools for your school community, know your audience and focus on the basics. Make sure you have the right contact information and that parents can update that information when it changes.

“I would say the biggest hurdle was getting equal communication in split homes,” Spring noted about her stepson’s school. “It took a few years to get them up-to-date with all of the new parent contact info and we found one house was always out of the loop with school schedules. It never fully got resolved at his elementary school.”

Starting fresh when he graduated to junior high was the only thing that finally solved the problem, she said.

Parents understand that teachers and staff have a lot of responsibilities

While all of the parents in this article pointed out what their schools could do better, they also recognized that there are other factors at work. Pickett recognized that schools make decisions that affect all families and need to include those who don’t have the same access to resources.

Finneseth-Meyers has parent volunteers make the paper copies for families who want flyers.

Knowing what combination of tools work best for your specific community of parents and what resources are available leads to effective communications.

Parents also can be a source of help you may not know you needed. Jacob Livshultz, a high school history teacher in the Bronx (N.Y.), noted, “all school communication is because someone needs money, time or assistance concerning something that they do not have the time, resources or wherewithal to do without.” School communications are essential in finding parent help for school needs.

As someone who works in marketing and design, Salzenstein suggested that a marketing-oriented parent might be able to update templates used for creating flyers.

Whether your school is using all the up-to-date technology for communications or lags behind, parents appreciate the effort and are supportive of any methods used to improve the way they interact with their child’s school. When asking whether to send flyers or texts, maybe the best answer is to ask the parents.

Contributed by Megan J. Wilson, freelance writer and communications consultant, Los Angeles, Calif.