This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It was near the end of the school year, and parent Heather McFadyen thought her honor-roll son Jonathon was doing fine as he cruised toward finishing 8th grade at LaBrum Middle School in the Northeast.
But then her phone lit up with a text message from his teacher, Sandra Knight.
It was a reminder to check her child’s grade book, where she saw Jonathon had missed some assignments. She got on his case.
He ended up doing the work, but turning it in late, which resulted in a B instead of an A and second honors instead of first honors. “But he would have received zeros if I hadn’t received a reminder,” said a relieved McFadyen.
A small thing that illustrates a larger trend: Teachers like Knight are narrowing the achievement gap, one text at a time.
Researchers at Stanford University have found that text messaging, given its widespread use, low cost, and ease of scalability, is an ideal vehicle for improving parents’ engagement in their children’s schooling.
And it has been proven that the more a parent is involved – by attending conferences, helping with homework, volunteering at the school, or a combination of these – the better a child will do.
A report from Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Texas shows that regardless of income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, attend school regularly, graduate and go on to postsecondary education.
Another ubiquitous finding, however, is that White, middle-class families, tend to be more involved than parents of Black and Latino students. So finding new strategies, like texting, to promote engagement is crucial in addressing the learning gap, according to the report.
Some schools in Philadelphia have already heeded this call — teachers and administrators are using the communication platform Remind to draw parents in.
Remind is among other platforms such as BuzzMob and Class Messenger that allow teachers to get in touch with parents for free through email or on any phone, not just smartphones, that have texting capability.
“Almost 100 percent of my parents subscribed this past school year,” said Knight, who last year taught 8th grade literacy, social studies, and writing at Labrum. “I used the [Remind] app to send out simple 140-character texts about homework assignments, field trips, and conferences right from my flip phone.”
Before using Remind, Knight said, she did not receive much parental support around her classroom. Communication was limited to packets sent home on Tuesdays that would often get lost.
But since being able to reach parents directly, she has noticed a big difference. Since Remind, more than half of her parents have shown up for evening report card conferences, a huge jump over past attendance.
Knight also found that parents attended field trips more regularly.
“We went on almost 20 field trips last year, and almost 50 percent of my students had a parent go on a field trip with them,” she said. “This is important because it showed that these parents wanted to support their kids all the way. The kids appreciated that their parents were there.”
She also said that some of her students “wanted to be on the list so that they could know what I was sending their moms.”
Joanna Hightower, principal at Alliance for Progress Charter School in North Philly, noticed similar growth in parent presence as a result of using Remind.
“I immediately saw the impact when I saw that we had a full house for an event this past school year,” Hightower said. Attendance at parent-teacher conferences jumped to about 85 percent. Hightower said that now, 90 to 95 percent of the school’s 450 families use Remind.
Text messaging allows teachers to communicate with harder-to-reach parents and has eliminated those moments when parents say, “I didn’t know about this.”
“There is less of a burden on our teachers and secretaries to make phone calls about things like snow days and meetings, and parents have more accountability because now they know what is going on,” said Hightower.
Some teachers use Remind to communicate with students and have noticed academic benefits as a result.
Rachael Sheehan, 11th grade civics teacher at Freire Charter School, saw grades improve after using Remind in her classroom.
“I would send out extra credit assignments through Remind and pictures of documents we used in class. Homework makes up a large percentage of my students’ grades, so it helped that more of them started turning it in when I used Remind,” said Sheehan.
She explained, “The year before I started using Remind, the homework class average was 78 percent. When I used Remind, I saw a homework class average of 83 percent.”
Knight, who uses Remind only with parents, has also seen academic gains in her classroom.
“After an assignment is due, I am able to check online to see how many students have submitted a file,” she said, “then I can send out a Remind along the lines of ’37 students wrote their essays. Did yours?’ Within minutes, students begin to turn in their work. These assignments directly affect their grades.”
Teachers also used Remind in other creative ways.
Principal Hightower strategically sent out messages on Sunday mornings to remind parents about a school fundraiser.
“For events like our harvest festival or Thanksgiving drive for the homeless, I send messages on Sunday mornings when a lot of our parents grocery-shop: ‘Don’t forget we need juice box donations.’ Then on Mondays I would get a bunch of donations,” she said.
Both Sheehan and Knight used Remind for extracurricular activities.
“With my softball team, it was helpful to tell students about practices through Remind or any changes due to weather. I could also tell them about the drills I wanted them to do over the weekend,” explained Sheehan.
Knight also coaches basketball. She set up a separate system for parents of students on the team to keep them apprised of the game schedule.
For parents, Remind has been a welcome addition to their daily routines, even in suburban districts where engagement is high to begin with.
“I feel like I’ve truly been failing my children until now,” said Gwen Pescatore, a parent who has used Remind with her children’s teachers at Knapp Elementary and Penndale Middle School in Montgomery County’s North Penn district, “Now I get these messages, and I’m able to reinforce what my children have learned in school at home. I feel encouraged to increase my engagement.”
Other parents echo this sentiment. “It has been so easy for me to receive information,” said Amani Jones, mom of a rising 4th grader at Alliance for Progress Charter School.
“Before using Remind, I would get news through a folder that came home with my son on Wednesdays, but the text alerts came more frequently and at a time when it is difficult to [otherwise] get in contact the school, such as in the mornings or on vacations,” she added.
Jones felt prompted to get more involved in her son’s education. “I actually joined the parent advisory board because I felt more connected to what was happening through this regular communication,” she said.
Texting also works well when both parents are not in the same household.
“My son’s father and I are in different families, and the app has ensured that one person isn’t just getting all of the information,” explained Maryam Muhammad, a parent of a rising 3rd grader at Alliance for Progress Charter School.
Muhammad said that she likes using the app. “It keeps me engaged and lessens the excuses on my part,” she said. “Education starts at home and this regular communication helps me understand what I need to do to make sure my son is growing up the best way.”