Addressing the unequal opportunity virus with equitable EdTech

How PS160Q Principal Tiffany Hicks beat rising COVID-induced equity and access challenges by embracing process automation

“Every morning, I’d stand outside the school building during drop-off,” said Tiffany Hicks, principal at Walter Francis Bishop Magnet School of the Arts, also known as PS160Q. “It was my way of getting that face-to-face time with parents, building relationships, hugging children, and heading things off before they became potential concerns.” 

Before the pandemic, these types of — literally — in-your-face strategies played a critical role in stimulating parent engagement for Hicks. Based in Queens, the pre-K through grade 5 elementary school serves a challenging and heterogeneous community. According to Great Schools, 85% of its students come from low-income families and a range of social demographics (48% Black, 22% Hispanic, 13% Asian, and 12% Native American).

“We’ve always worked hard to generate participation and engagement within our diverse school community,” said Hicks. “When COVID-19 hit, two things immediately struck me. Firstly, we needed to re-imagine our parent engagement strategy in order to operate in a remote and virtual world. Secondly, the pandemic really opened up our eyes to the existing equity and access challenges within our school community. It was an exacerbator; not a leveller.”

Hicks quickly identified that the onset of COVID had real potential to widen the equity and access gap for many of her vulnerable families. She moved to implement strategies and solutions to ensure learning could continue from home. Hicks will be sharing PS160Q’s technology-driven journey as part of April’s EdTech thought leadership webinar, COVID-19 one year on: An NYC Principal Discussion Panel, hosted by Operoo and Phil Weinberg, former NYCDOE Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning.

“For working parents, we needed to ensure they felt sufficiently supported and connected so that they didn’t have to make stark choices between being the breadwinner and educating their children,” said Hicks. “For my staff, it was about giving them the tools to deliver that level of connectedness our parents required — as well as the ability to distribute, collect and access the communications and data needed to keep the school running — while working remotely.”

Hicks and her team spun into action when the school building closed, preparing and distributing learning packets, take-home devices, and book baggies. They also kept families informed about basic virtual classroom matters with the online app ClassDojo. But Hicks soon realized they needed something more substantive to drive, track, and manage the exchange of digital processes and data between the school and its parents.

“All those day-to-day operational tasks that are manually performed using people and paper ceased,” said Hicks. “Almost overnight, we had to find whole new ways of doing things: How do you obtain parental consent, track and submit virtual attendance, or even register incoming students? Operoo’s school operations platform has allowed us to digitize, automate, and oversee all those processes and more in a completely digital manner. When COVID cases really began to spike, the ability to update and access Blue Cards was paramount. 

“The automated follow-ups and ability to visually analyze responses drives efficiency for the school and accountability for the parents. My secretary’s productivity has increased 10-fold because she’s not chasing parents or missing information. Those efficiency gains have been particularly important as we’ve been without a parent coordinator during the pandemic due to a hiring freeze.

“On the parent side, if I’m sending out a form, request, or message through Operoo, I know that everyone will see it. Moreover, with automated translation, I know that all recipients will immediately understand and act on any communications we distribute through Operoo. It’s bridged the home-school divide and prevented families from disengaging from the education process.”

Hicks was swift to point out that, if it wasn’t for strong parent adoption, no solution would have worked.

“The reasons why we’ve had high uptake, and now strong response rates to anything sent out via Operoo, is because we’ve met parents where they live — on their cell phones,” said Hicks. “Having a mobile-first approach, not just a web-based one, meant that we’ve given parents the flexibility to respond on their terms, through their device of choice. In 2021, while many households still struggle with access to desktop machines and reliable internet, almost everybody has a smartphone.”

This article was originally posted on Addressing the unequal opportunity virus with equitable EdTech

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