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Tech tools to increase engagement: Introducing the YES Prep Family Portal

Guest Author: Chris Darville, Ed.D.

At YES Prep — a Houston-based 6th through 12th grade public charter school network — 89 percent of more than 14,000 students are categorized as economically disadvantaged. We believe that all our students, regardless of family income, deserve the opportunity to receive a world-class education.

Our focus is to prepare our students to be ready to attend and complete college. This is a unique opportunity since more than 90 percent of our school population will be the first in their families to attend college, and there are more than 20 different languages spoken in the homes of our families. To date, 47 percent of YES Prep Students complete a college degree in six years. This is nearly five times the national average for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and we’ve committed to providing our students and families with an equitable educational experience to increase this number to more than 80 percent. We aim to meet this goal by opening 10 elementary schools over the next five years, starting with two at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

We will also create additional opportunities for our families to participate in their child’s learning experience, as family engagement is critical to preparing students for a future beyond our walls. Thankfully, feedback from our families shows they want to play a more active role in preparing their children for the future. Engagement is most effective when families and teachers can have informed, data-driven conversations about what is happening in their child’s school lives in real time. That’s why our technology team created an easy-to-use family portal that provides the right information at the right time.

How We Built the Family Portal

We knew our technology solution needed to facilitate teacher to family communication while diminishing engagement barriers like complexity, language, and time. Parents need a single place to go to see and understand their student’s academic performance, to get to know the team that supports their student at school, and to easily communicate with the student’s teachers. 

While we could have chosen to turn on the parent-facing reporting in one of the many applications that produces student data, that means parents would have a fragmented experience having to visit many apps and still communicate with teachers via email. Instead we created a single destination for parents that knitted together information from all the systems that housed the relevant student information and enabled direct parent to teacher communication. This would have been impossible to do without our team committing to and leveraging the Ed-Fi Technology Suite. The Ed-Fi Data Standard allowed us to achieve these goals by providing a common way for data to be communicated to the Family Portal.

Today, families can visit a single place on their desktop or mobile and see the latest on their students’ grades, attendance, behavior, missing assignments, and details from each student’s “success team.” From the same place, they can communicate directly with their students’ teachers in their home language. The portal’s ease of use and single sign-on option creates a user experience that is familiar, quick, and seamless. All this helps families support their children toward success — an amazing return on investment for our solution.

The Portal in Action

As teachers and families use the portal today, one of its most beneficial features is the ability for seamless communication. By thoughtful strategizing and smart iteration, our Technology team made it possible for teachers and families to connect any day of the week, at any hour, and in the family member’s preferred language through instant translation.

Not only is this function valuable throughout the year, it is imperative in fast-changing situations. Take COVID-19 school closures, for example. Due to the consistent communication we’ve had with our families through the Family Portal, our schools already had updated lists of family contact information, and the ability to message our community with the latest information on schedules, coursework, and anything else they needed to know. The ability to provide quick and easy communications to our families during COVID-19 was a game changer, and allowed us to think through how we can add a communication stream for our principals and other school leaders to engage directly with parents (and vice versa) in the future. 

Lessons from the Tech Trenches

The process of building the Family Portal affected the Technology team in ways beyond what we imagined possible when we began this project. We now have stronger collaboration with our Programs and Schools teams, which has allowed others in the organization to see us as a partner instead of just a service provider. When people ask for my advice on implementing something similar in other districts, I emphasize the importance of collaboration among academics, school leadership, technology, and families. A collective effort is necessary to ensure high levels of adoption — no single team can help our children succeed while working in a silo.

To illustrate the impact of the Family Portal, I’d like to introduce you to Martha and Rosie — two YES Prep parents — as they share how it works and how it’s helped them stay involved in their children’s education.

Family Portal Highlight: “An Open Line of Communication”

Family Portal Highlight: “Just Log In And Know What’s Going On”

If you have a request for funding that is related to COVID-19, please know that we are committed to fighting this pandemic and its subsequent economic fallout. Our immediate available funding has gone to accelerating the development of therapies, increasing the supply of PPE in Texas, stabilizing small business, and assisting our portfolio of current grantees.