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How I Handled...

Improving Immunization-
Requirement Communication


Our students must meet immunization requirements several times during their school years. No matter, many parents are surprised -- and often angered -- when we tell them we can't allow a child to enter school because those requirements have not been met. We needed to do a better job of communicating with parents about those requirements.

The Problem:

In our state, seventh grade is a "catch" year for immunization records. If students' records (we call them "blue cards") are not complete and correct, they cannot enter school.

When I arrived at this middle school several years ago, I found that we had a poor system for communicating with parents about the requirements for compliance. It got so bad that we had to hire a police officer to maintain control on schedule pick-up day. (That is the day -- a day or two before school starts in August -- when parents and their children can come to school to get their schedules.) Some parents became enraged when they learned that their child would not be allowed in the school if their immunization records were not in order and up to date.

The Solution:

Since I arrived here, we have made a concerted effort to improve communication between the school and parents about immunization requirements. The information about those requirements is now delivered in many different formats, including the school newsletter, the local newspaper, TV spots, phone calls, letters, and more. We are fortunate that our school starts with the sixth grade; in that way, we can start bombarding parents with immunization information at the beginning of students' sixth-grade year. We have also dedicated one of our secretaries to track shot information for all of our sixth graders. In addition, we even inform parents of our elementary-level students of the upcoming requirement; but, judging from the fact that many children are still missing updated immunization cards when they are about to enter seventh grade, I guess parents hope we might forget the law.

The Reflection:

The need to improve communication about something like immunizations seems as if it should be simple to remedy. Most administrators would say, "Of course that's what we need to do." But, as a new principal to a school, changing the culture is not always so easy. In my school, I was breaking a tradition; it was just accepted that parents would be unruly for a few days, that we would have to keep some students out of school (we have more than 500 seventh graders, and usually a 100 or so would be in jeopardy), and that, by September, things would settle down and school life would return to normal. I had to meet for several hours with members of our staff to discuss how we might improve the immunization requirement communication/process. All parties affected had to be involved and come to agreement. Even solutions that seem simple on the surface must be carefully considered before a change in tradition can occur.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. How I Handled team members are anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.