A Year in the Life: Communications
We are releasing a series of dispatches on the bright spots and challenges of the past year in Somerville Public Schools. We hope this in-depth look at one community can shed light on what students and schools across the state need right now and how communities and policymakers can support them.
Over the past year, the functions of school and community have merged like never before. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the role that schools play as community hubs, providing a range of essential services beyond learning (such as nutritious food and wellness checks). Additionally, with homes serving as de facto classrooms during an extended period of remote learning, the pandemic brought renewed attention to how family and community members work together to support the learning process. Both of these elements—schools’ increased role in delivering community services and family/community members’ increased roles in assisting learning—emphasized the need for consistent and clear communication among the diverse individuals and institutions that play a part in supporting students.
Understanding the past year, especially in light of the inequities exposed by the pandemic, requires examining how district and school leaders engaged with the community at large—including families, community organizations, and other city departments—and what lessons can be drawn from this time. These latest dispatches in our “Year in the Life” series examine two key components of community-school connections: communications and community services. They are grounded in a series of conversations with stakeholders from Somerville, but they are meant to elevate themes and ideas relevant to all schools and districts during this most unusual school year—and to point a way forward for the summer and beyond.
To write this dispatch, we developed targeted interview and focus group questions for various stakeholders and conducted a series of virtual interviews and focus groups over the course of several weeks. These conversations included interviews with five members of the Multilingual Learner Parent Advisory Council, five other district leaders, two school committee members, two City of Somerville staff members, and five out-of-school-time providers/community partners. We spoke with two parents to gather additional context, and we reviewed 44 responses from a parent survey conducted last month in English and Spanish. Following these conversations, we analyzed the responses to identify common themes.
Key Themes on Community-School Connections
The section below highlights our findings on communications in Somerville amid the pandemic. In this and our companion piece on community services, two key themes appear that came up consistently throughout all of the interviews we conducted: trust and coordination.
The pandemic brought inequities into sharper focus everywhere, and Somerville was no exception. School district and community partners were particularly intent to address inequitable access to information and resources for historically marginalized families, including immigrant families, lower-income families, and families of color. In order to build connections with these families, it was critical to have a baseline level of trust in place: much of the information that flowed out to families, as well as connections to essential resources, came through pre-existing relationships with other parents, school-based liaisons, the district’s Somerville Family Learning Collaborative (SFLC), and community-based providers. The SFLC had been empowering parents to step into leadership roles (such as parent leaders in English language classes) prior to the pandemic, and these individuals served as connectors and community liaisons over the past year, encouraging other parents to increase their presence and voice in their student’s education. The SFLC itself was also able to leverage a strong foundation of community involvement to serve as a central hub for parents looking for translation of district news, information on where to pick up food, and other critical connections.
Distributing information and resources to address family needs required not only trust, but also coordination between stakeholders. The old adage “it takes a village to raise a child” was extremely apparent in Somerville’s story over the past year. Collaboration was vital to meet the needs of a range of community members, especially given the added obstacle of not being able to gather in person. Leaders from the City and school district, as well as a wide variety of community partners, all had a role in Somerville’s response to COVID. Schools offered remote learning services, while out-of-school-time providers created enriching summer and after-school programming for students. Community partners provided anything from grocery gift cards to diapers to art supplies and toys for families. Streamlining the provision of services required significant behind-the-scenes organization, along with a commitment to leveraging the strengths of each partner in service of the whole.
Read on to see how these core themes of trust and coordination played out through Somerville’s communications during the pandemic.
In order to keep the community informed and up-to-date with news on the ever-changing virus and its effects on Somerville students, stakeholders across the city had to be in communication, and often. From virtual platforms such as Zoom and Talking Points to phone calls, emails, and social media, communication flowed through various channels, even in a particularly isolating time. However, the most consistent and effective examples of communication took place where community members had existing contacts and networks in place, which they could leverage to address needs exacerbated by the pandemic.
Communication to Families and Community Members
When it came to communicating education information out to families and community members, district leaders emphasized the need for a multi-modal approach. That is, not all families access information in the same ways, so multiple channels and means of spreading the word result in greater likelihood of reaching everyone. Along with the forms of outreach described below, which describe communications out from the district to families, many teachers and school leaders used additional methods of staying in touch with families. For instance, the district ensured that all teachers had an account for the Talking Points app, which allows users to send messages in one language that are received and read in another language. This and other methods of school-family communication are discussed in more detail in last month’s dispatch on building relationships during remote learning.
District staff used multiple methods to stay in touch with families and community members, including broader platforms like email and social media and individual touchpoints like phone calls and WhatsApp or text messages. When schools first closed last March, the district sent out daily emails (and in some cases voicemail messages) through the BlackBoard Connect system. After a week or two, they dropped the frequency to three messages per week, then later transitioned to one email per week (usually on Fridays), a practice that is still in place today. Whenever possible, these messages have been issued in the district’s four target languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole).
Because families had different needs based on their individual situations (i.e., one family may have been most interested in food distribution, and another in enrichment opportunities), district staff sought to provide as much information as possible in their messages. However, the volume of information communicated in this way sometimes felt overwhelming for families and school staff. Emails frequently included long lists of information about a variety of topics (meal distributions, tech support, resource availability, upcoming meetings and updated timelines), so identifying changes from one message to the next could be difficult. At the same time, the messaging focused heavily on accessing resources, with limited guidance to parents about academic expectations or support; these issues were largely left to schools and teachers, since schools and classrooms were operating on different schedules, with different learning platforms, etc. during remote learning. Uncertain and shifting timelines for a return to in-person learning (largely due to changes in when and whether buildings could reopen) also complicated the process of communicating with families and providing clarity on next steps.
Somerville Family Learning Collaborative
The Somerville Family Learning Collaborative (SFLC)—the district’s department of family and community engagement—served as the linchpin for a network of community connections that helped spread the word about important updates, particularly among immigrant and multilingual families. Currently in its tenth year, SFLC is the face of the district for many Somerville families and community members. According to one leader, “COVID put SFLC on the front page of the district,” because it was best-positioned to work with families during an isolating time. SFLC staff also maintain strong links with community organizations. For instance, SFLC partners with The Welcome Project, an immigrant-serving community organization, to provide Parent English classes, while staff from The Welcome Project participate in the Multilingual Learner Parent Advisory Council that SFLC staff help convene.
The SFLC also employs school-based family liaisons (co-supervised by principals and an SFLC coordinator) to serve on the front lines of the district’s outreach to families. In past years, liaisons worked part-time to answer questions from parents, support translation and interpretation, and connect students and families with resources and services. Last summer, after the pandemic exposed the tremendous need for these services, eight of the liaisons shifted to full-time roles, which one district leader described as a “game-changer.” From that point, liaisons were able to devote significant time and attention to planning more intentional and strategic outreach to families. With their help, schools became one of the most reliable sources of information on accessing essential services amid the pandemic—as one community partner put it, “parents were getting a lot more information than folks who were not connected to the schools.”
Family liaisons and other direct service providers spent many hours on the phone with parents (especially immigrant and multilingual families) to share information and help them connect with resources. And because one-on-one phone calls were time-consuming for staff, they increasingly turned to quicker methods of getting the word out; as one liaison commented, “I know many teachers and liaisons started using WhatsApp and texting to communicate faster and get families information they needed.”
With increased outreach to parents came new demands for information in multiple languages. Therefore, along with increasing its capacity for family outreach by hiring full-time liaisons, the SFLC also added several new staff members last year to support the growing need for translation and interpretation. In the past, Somerville relied mostly on contractors to provide translation and interpretation services, but last October, the district hired three full-time interpreters, one to support each of the three main languages of Somerville families (Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole). Having these full-time staff members to assist with simultaneous interpretation at town hall meetings, School Committee meetings, parent conferences, and other meetings—as well as to translate documents and notices sent through schools—has helped the district connect with multilingual families in new ways and be more responsive to their needs.
As communications went out through multiple channels, networks of parents helped facilitate the spread of information far beyond its original source. In some cases, as with the parents who came together to form Somerville Parents for an Equitable and Safe Opening (SPESO) or the Padres Latinos de Somerville WhatsApp group, these networks existed independent of the district. But Somerville Public Schools also supports parent networking directly: the SFLC team includes four parent leaders whose primary role is to work with the parent English classes, but who also take on outreach responsibilities within the community. As a SFLC staff member shared, “Parent leaders were a very important part of the team because they’re parents first. They know many parents, they’re navigating this school system, and they know the needs of the people in Somerville.” Community partners like The Welcome Project also helped communicate updates through their network of program participants, allowing information related to accessing essential resources or services to “spread like wildfire” through word of mouth.
Ultimately, comments from Somerville parents, staff, partners, and School Committee members point to both the challenges and the successes of communicating during the pandemic. On the negative side, increasing outreach also heightened the demand for additional information and clarity, in ways that outstripped the district’s capacity to respond and sometimes led to confusion or anger. On the positive side, schools were able to leverage their roles as community hubs to share essential information with networks of families who have traditionally been harder to reach through official channels, and who faced a greater variety of needs than ever before during the pandemic.
- Use multiple modes of communication (email, social media, text messages) to reach as many individuals as possible, and structure communications so that essential information or key changes are highlighted for easy review.
- Provide stipends for parent leaders who can serve as trusted connectors within the community and spread the word about key changes.
- Consider hiring school-based family liaisons (or elevating part-time liaisons into full-time roles) in order to ensure that communication with families is done in a systematic, thoughtful way.
- Where appropriate, encourage the use of text messaging or messaging apps to communicate with families, and offer guidance to school and district staff members on how to use these channels appropriately and effectively.
- Centralize family and community engagement within a single department that can forge strong connections with parents, caregivers, community partners, and other school and district staff.
Gathering Input from Family and Community Members
In general, two-way communication is a key component of family engagement with schools. In a crisis situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, feedback loops become even more essential. Putting information out to the community is insufficient—there must also be channels to gather information from the community to help identify concerns and target support.
As with outward communication, Somerville Public Schools used multiple channels to collect input from families and community members. Family liaisons and direct service providers were central to this process, particularly among vulnerable families seeking assistance with essential needs. Several staff and community partners described how a single trusted contact could help connect families with any information or resources they might need. Multilingual family members are more likely to reach out by phone or text if they know they’ll connect with someone who speaks their language. Then, once they find a person they feel comfortable talking to, they are likely to call on this person again in the future. As one staff member put it, “in various communities, when someone becomes known and trusted, their phone number gets passed around. It’s not always clear who’s calling or why or if they live in Somerville or have kids in Somerville Public Schools. The liaisons and parent leaders were getting calls at all times of the day and night with questions and concerns.”
On the back end, strong relationships with district, city, and community providers were critical as liaisons worked to respond to callers and connect them with individuals and agencies who could help address a multitude of needs. Throughout the pandemic, liaisons were a tremendous resource for many families, particularly immigrant and multilingual families, serving as a conduit to all manner of services and supports.
Surveys and Town Hall Meetings
Beyond school liaisons, the district also offered some formal methods of gathering information from the community. They issued a survey toward the end of the 2019-20 school year to hear from families about their experiences with remote learning, using these responses to inform the reopening plan released last summer. Additional surveys were used to gather input from families on their plans for the return to school. And in partnership with the city, district leaders hosted several virtual town hall meetings, held on Zoom and broadcast on YouTube. During these discussions, which drew around 300 attendees, families could ask questions of leaders through a Q&A function.
Yet district leaders also acknowledge that this was an area they could have improved, by building in additional processes to supplement the information received from families through one-one-one communication with SFLC representatives. Throughout the period of remote learning, many families worried about their children’s motivation, engagement, and academic progress, or lack thereof. Understandably focused on the wellbeing of their children, they sought an avenue for expressing their fears and concerns with school and district leaders—but the way to do so was not always clear.
In some cases, this produced significant anger and frustration, undermining trust in leadership. As one parent put it, “The school district has done a terrible job in communicating with families. They state that they did outreach. This one-on-one outreach was done to the most vulnerable families in the district, which is crucial and very, very important. There was no communication with the [rest of the] families. As parents we were only surveyed by the district about our thoughts about remote learning and experience with remote learning over summer 2020. They have not engaged us in a dialogue since.” For parents expressing similar sentiments, the limited opportunities to communicate about their child’s remote learning experiences made them feel disrespected and undervalued, given the huge role they were playing to support their children’s education at home.
Offering additional surveys and public forums may have defused some of this anger by serving as dedicated spaces for surfacing concerns. Expanding data collection could also have given district leaders greater insight into the range of perspectives among community members. On the other hand, gathering more public feedback can also set unrealistic expectations that leaders will respond in a certain way or on a particular timeline—and it does not necessarily guarantee that all voices will be heard. This is particularly true among historically marginalized populations who may face barriers to participation in surveys or evening meetings, such as language needs, limited internet access, and feeling uncomfortable or unwelcome in certain school or district spaces.
Families seeking an outlet to express their anger about remote learning and district decision-making frequently turned to members of the School Committee. Members reported receiving an enormous volume of emails and messages from families and other stakeholders—“tons of angry feedback from all sides at all times,” according to one. Those who sought to reply to every email found it difficult to keep up. Additionally, online communications tended to breed negativity that in-person conversations might have avoided; as one member put it, “I think there are people who will say things on social media or on email that they wouldn’t say to your face.” Public comment periods at School Committee meetings were also a popular forum for parents to make their case, especially a population of predominantly upper-middle class, mostly white parents advocating strongly to reopen schools. Virtual meetings helped lower the barriers for families to attend, making it easier for more individuals to share their thoughts (one of the changes worth keeping post-pandemic, according to several members).
Despite (or because of) this frequent communication with members, the families who joined together to push for a quicker school reopening saw the School Committee as having little power to promote their interests. School Committee members themselves describe their role as a difficult balance between the community and the school system, knowing what goes on behind the scenes while also representing community interests and needs. This year in particular, part of their function was also to take on some of these difficult discussions in order to build a sense of shared purpose; as one put it, “It felt like a huge amount of what I did, and my colleagues, was to have these conversations, and to say we’re part of the same community.” Above all, even in the face of hostility, members emphasized that they tried to remain empathetic and recognize that this year has been difficult for everyone.
- Look for opportunities to build a stronger network between family liaisons, other district/city officials, and direct service providers in order to ensure that families can get connected to necessary resources or information regardless of their point of contact. Deepening this network will also allow officials to share feedback and assess trends.
- Ensure families have multiple, regular opportunities to share their perspectives with school and district leaders, including through surveys, town hall meetings, and other forums. Collate responses and share them (and any district responses) publicly to promote transparency.
- To the extent possible under state Open Meeting law, offer virtual options to participate in School Committee meetings in order to encourage attendance and participation (as well as to allow more individuals to run for School Committee). Provide simultaneous interpretation at meetings for multilingual families.
In general, perspectives on Somerville’s communications are highly polarized and heavily dependent on who you ask. For some parents—predominantly drawn from upper-middle class white families within the district—the answer is likely to be negative, as with the parent who commented, “Communication was horrible. Literally could not have been worse.” On the other hand, many immigrant families expressed tremendous gratitude to the district for its consistent outreach; one parent leader noted, “In the pandemic, Somerville was amazing with the parents. We had a lot of resources for them, a lot of help. They support students at school with many things…parents say ‘Somerville is home for me.’” Those working in and with multilingual, immigrant communities of Somerville also tended to see district efforts in a positive light. For instance, one community partner commented, “I think the communication from Somerville Public Schools was probably some of the best I’ve seen it in the past years.”
Family liaisons served as critical connections to families, helping coordinate the distribution of essential resources and disseminate information through trusted channels. On the other hand, parents thrust into the role of classroom aide during remote learning encountered limited opportunities to provide feedback to the district on what was (or was not) working with their students’ day-to-day learning.
More broadly, over the past year, the diverse population that enriches Somerville’s community and brings enormous cultural wealth has also tended to exacerbate its polarization. Nearly half of Somerville’s students (48.2%) speak a first language other than English, and the percentage of economically disadvantaged students (44.7%) is only slightly below. These figures indicate a large, often politically marginalized, population of immigrant and multilingual families who benefit from connections with community services and efforts to amplify their voices. At the same time, with a median household income over $100,000—and a median home value close to $780,000—the city is also home to a number of wealthy, well-connected families deeply invested in their community and eager to make their voices heard in decisions about their students’ wellbeing.
Understanding and learning from Somerville’s communications during the pandemic requires an appreciation of these multiple interests. So too will building (or rebuilding) a sense of community post-pandemic. In this way, Somerville’s experiences with communications offer a powerful opportunity for reflection in cities and towns across Massachusetts, no matter their particular population or recent history.
Check out this month’s companion piece on community services in Somerville. Also, stay tuned for the third and final dispatch in our “Year in the Life” series, to be released in June, in which we will examine students’ transition to a new phase of learning (particularly for 2021 graduates).