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More principals e-mailing parents

Police are at the school . . . a snowstorm causes early dismissal . . . a last-minute meeting is scheduled . . . Instead of picking up the phone to call parents, more principals are tapping on their computer keyboards. Increasingly, principals are finding that e-mail is the best way to communicate -- for them and for parents. Included: Tips for setting up and using e-mail to reach parents.

When high school principal Dr. Gary Dunkleberger learned about a threat written on a bathroom partition, he alerted school security. In addition, he alerted the group from whom principals often strive to keep bad news: parents.

Using a list of parent e-mail addresses, Dunkleberger, principal of North Carroll High School in Hampstead, Maryland, sent a message explaining the situation at the school and the actions school officials were taking. (Security personnel located the student who wrote the threat and no one was injured.)

"Parents appreciate information that is accurate and first-hand," Dunkleberger told Education World about his decision. "Parents say the kids come home and say nothing happened or they have bad information. Now parents can tell them they heard from the school exactly what happened."

Communicating in the instant message age

Dunkleberger is among a growing number of principals who use e-mail to communicate with parents, not just about emergencies, but also about school news and events.

Shutting off rumors and knowing parents get accurate information quickly are some of the advantages of e-mailing parents.

"I think it's wonderful," said Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for the Howard County (Maryland) Public Schools. "We encourage the principals to use all the technology available to us. Communication has become instantaneous and we need to take advantage of that. And the community expects it of us. We [also] have the consistency of information getting out before rumors."

That was Dunkleberger's thinking when he decided to notify parents about the threat. The threat, which was date and time specific, warned that people in the school would be harmed.

"E-mail s a good way for schools to keep in better touch with parents, and it saves me a lot of headaches and grief in the community with parents thinking things are going on that aren't," Dunkleberger said about e-mail. On the day the threat was discovered, for example, some students went home and told their parents the school had a bomb threat. "There was never a bomb or a bomb threat."

One parent was upset enough by the e-mail that she came to school to pick up her daughter, then left without her when she discovered a calm and orderly school, Dunkleberger said.

Finding a better messenger 

Besides short circuiting the rumor grapevine, e-mail usually is a more reliable and accurate information source than the student messenger, who can bury must-see information in a backpack for months.

"Periodically, we have drug-sniffing dogs on campus, and we let parents know," Dunkleberger said. "Otherwise, the kids will go home and tell them something completely different."

"We try not to send anything home with the students," added Adrianne Kaufman, principal of Reservoir High School in Fulton, Maryland. Kaufman said she started developing a list of parent e-mail addresses before the school opened last year. She has e-mail addresses for about half of the 900 students enrolled. Some parents only have access to e-mail at work, and Kaufman said she has assured those parents that she only would send them important school information.

Marilyn Brewster, an assistant principal at Parkview Arts/Science Magnet High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, said among the ways she uses e-mail is to notify parents if a student is late for school or received a referral for a minor discipline problem.

"I have gotten back wonderful responses," Brewster told Education World. "Parents seem genuinely pleased to have a new, more secure way to communicate with school. Letters sent home can be intercepted by clever high school kids, phone messages deleted. E-mail requires the password so it improves the chances of it getting through!"

Quick updates

Principals also said e-mail allows them to update parents about news and events, or get out announcements in between regular school mailings.

"I communicate about events happening at the school, such as testing and meetings," said Kaufman. "I use it on an as-needed basis. I think it's made a huge difference in communicating with parents. I also have given the PTSA president, athletic director, and head of student services access to the e-mail list, so they send out messages as well. Parents really love it; they depend on it."

Kaufman said she is fortunate, so far, that she has not had to e-mail parents about an emergency, but if the need arose, "I would do it. I think it's better to communicate, and I would carefully word everything."

Dr. Frank Buck, principal of Graham Elementary School, a K-6 school in Talladega, Alabama, said he frequently e-mails parents, even though the majority of families do not have access to e-mail. "We send home a newsletter every six weeks," Buck told Education World. "When we have news to communicate to parents and the next newsletter won't be for several weeks, we send an e-mail. In the case of bad weather during school, we send an e-mail to let parents know what we are doing." The school also sends out a list of its Accelerated Reader test collection as a text file.

Talladega also is home to the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, and for parents who are deaf, e-mail is a better way to communicate than the phone, he added.

The school still provides information in traditional ways for families who do not have e-mail. "We have a newsletter, we send home the "Tuesday Folder," and teachers write notes to parents in their children's' planners," Buck said. "But just because the majority do not have e-mail, we don't want to overlook the benefits of it as a wonderful communication tool for those who do have it."

Jeffrey Johnston, principal of Mill Hall Elementary School in Mill Hall, Pennsylvania, said he has been communicating with parents via e-mail for the past two years, and uses it to forward announcements and other information to parents. "It is a good way to send reminders of upcoming events and early dismissals," Johnston told Education World. "I have found this to be a very effective way to communicate with them in addition to the regular newsletters and notices sent home in hard copy form with the students."

Several administrators hastened to add that they don't expect e-mail to replace all paper correspondence.

"We wouldn't abandon traditional means of communication," said Caplan. "We've found out that the more information we can get out, the better. The more informed the community is, the more it supports the schools."

Getting started

Collecting e-mail addresses at the beginning of the year, then setting up a listserv or e-mail group and adding to it as needed was recommended by some administrators.

Brewster, who is responsible for the 300 students in her school's 11th grade, said this year at August registration she distributed a form to collect parent e-mail addresses. "I had about 100 responses. I thought that was a good response for the first time," she said. "Our students are drawn from three districts in central Arkansas and come from all socio-economic levels. I'm sure many households don't have computers."

Dunkleberger purges and rebuilds his e-mail address list during the summer. He has 215 e-mail addresses for 1,600 students. Every time a newsletter goes out, he urges parents to send in their e-mail address.

"It takes a lot of time and effort," he said. "But then, you can invest a lot of time and effort dealing with rumors that are not true."