Schools get word out with e-mailed newsletter

Parents find electronic delivery of info often more reliable than kids

February 21, 2007|By Lisa Tom | Lisa Tom,Sun reporter

Instead of rifling through a flood of papers, Natalie Janiszewski opens her e-mail to the eSchoolnewsletter - her family calendar by her side - and takes note of news and announcements from her child's school.

"I think it's nice to get it from the horse's mouth," said Janiszewski, mother of two children in the Howard County school system. "Ideally, we should be able to rely on every one of our children to bring home every single thing, but that's just not the case."

The eSchoolnewsletter, a free e-mail subscription service that provides a direct line of communication between schools and parents, has changed the way parents receive information.

After signing up, parents receive e-mail from their child's school as well as countywide messages from the central office. The content of the e-mail ranges from the mundane - a rescheduled PTA meeting - to the unexpected - the recent arrests of high school teachers at Glenelg, River Hill and Marriotts Ridge on charges of sexual offenses involving a minor.

"It's really one of the primary ways we communicate with parents and families because you can do it so quickly," said Mount Hebron Principal David Brown. Regarding his two elementary school-age children, he said, "I depend on eSchoolnewsletters for accurate and up-to-date information."

PTAs, boosters, guidance offices and clubs submit information to the school principal, who approves the content sent out in the school-specific newsletters. The schools' e-mail also congratulates exceptional students and staff members. At the high school level, eSchoolnewsletters frequently contain information on scholarships, college visits and extracurricular activities.

The eSchoolnewsletter's immediacy helps administrators effectively address sudden scheduling changes such as rained-out games and emergencies.

At Atholton High School, 92 percent of students have at least one family member receiving the electronic newsletter.

"I think it helps parents feel more a part of their students' education because they have more information about what's going on in the school, and it leads to more conversations," said Atholton Principal Marcia Leonard.

The eSchoolnewsletter has grown to about 200,000 subscribers in Maryland and 55,000 in Howard County since Lisbon Elementary School parent Douglas Parker started the service in 2002.

"This is a dream come true for me," said school system public information officer Patti Caplan. "We are able to [reach] almost everybody with this."

Caplan added: "If you can get each parent to take responsibility for connecting with the schools, then you get thousands. There's no way you could do that on that level before."

West Friendship Elementary Principal Corita Oduyoye described one incident in which the county supplied bottled water because of a temporary problem with her school's water supply.

"If children go home and tell their parents that they can't drink from the water fountains, they may leave out some details. ... By having access to the eSchoolnewsletter, parents can see this is what happened, what procedures the school took, so that they know we have assessed the problem and dealt with it," Oduyoye said. "The bottom line is that parents want to know their children are in a safe environment."

The possibility of instantaneous school-home communication motivated Parker, a father of four, to create the eSchoolnewsletter.

During the sniper attacks of 2002, Parker recognized parents' frustration with busy phone lines and started a small e-mail system at Lisbon Elementary.

That project developed into eSchool Systems LLC, now delivering to about 5 million e-mail addresses.

When Parker and Caplan decided to implement the electronic newsletter countywide, educators began holding sign-up sessions in media centers on back-to-school night. However, word of mouth proved to be the best advertisement.

Last fall, Caplan distributed guidelines for the eSchoolnewsletter, urging principals to consolidate messages and send targeted e-mails to certain grades so that the wealth of information does not become a nuisance. Still, parents appreciate the contact.

"The feedback I got was they would rather have too much information than too little," Leonard said.

While the eSchoolnewsletter has transformed school-home communication, administrators acknowledge that some families do not have Internet access.

In a survey of the student body at Oakland Mills Middle School, "about 27 percent of families did not have Internet access at home, and for me that's enough to warrant the paper newsletters," said Principal Cynthia Dillon, who provides a small quantity of paper newsletters in the front office.

Clearly, the eSchoolnewsletter has become the most effective, and popular, way to communicate between schools and parents.

"It really makes involving our community and staying in touch with our parents much easier, and that's one thing we really value - school-home communication," Caplan said.

To sign up for the eSchoolnews- letter or text messages, visit www.eschoolnewsletter.com.

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