Your Website is Not for Current Parents: Choosing the Right Communication Channels for Private K-12 Schools

One of the first exercises you’re asked to do when you start a website redesign project is to list the audiences you’ll be trying to reach with your site. For many private K-12 schools I talk to, that list often looks like this:

  1. Current parents
  2. Alumni
  3. Prospective parents
  4. Faculty, staff, and students
  5. Board members and other stakeholders

The problem with focusing first on delivering website content to current parents is that it can detract from other real priorities at the school, including marketing strategy, enrollment goals, long-term sustainability, and strategic planning. While the lunch menu is important, it won’t help grow your enrollment—it shouldn’t be on your homepage. And while the calendar showing dates for your next basketball game or parent-teacher conferences may be critical to your school community, they won’t help you attract prospective families.

School websites often suffer from too much content, too much cross-messaging, and a lack of focus. But there are a few things you can do to deliver better content to the right audiences and meet your goals. Every audience deserves to be communicated to clearly and efficiently. From our research at FACTS and our discussions with hundreds (and thousands!) of schools, we’ve realized that a dual communication approach to current parents and prospective parents offers the best experience for everyone.

Your Website is for Prospective Parents

Consider your website an extension of your admissions, advancement, and marketing offices. It should be used to attract prospective families and to advance your fundraising initiatives. Both things are sources of revenue for the school, both in tuition dollars and non-tuition dollars, and that’s an easy way to think about it. As you build content for your website, consider this question: “Will this help us meet our budget goals either through enrollment, re-enrollment, or advancement?” If the answer is no, then that content needs to move elsewhere.

“We like to think of websites being the front-facing image of your brand, where individuals who may not have heard of your school can get an overview of who you are, what you value, and what your school is all about,” said Jillian Berger, Customer Success Specialist for the FACTS Family App. “Websites are tools that can draw in prospective families and inform members such as alumni on things happening in the school community.”

A school website needs to function like a marketing website, channeling prospective parents, alumni, and other constituents to the right areas. You want to highlight a few main areas in particular: Admissions, Academics, Alumni – or, as I like to call them, the Three A’s.

  • Streamline navigation. Don’t have too many navigation or sub-navigation bars. Get people where they need to go within two clicks.
  • Make admissions as simple as possible. Many schools have admissions checklist problems. Mo’ checklists, mo’ problems. Do you have a pre-admissions checklist, an application checklist, a financial aid checklist, a registration checklist, a master checklist for all the other checklists?! It’s too many checklists! Parents need clear and concise instructions. Consolidate all checklists into a single, master checklist. Don’t worry about the length. Parents know that private school admissions will be a longer process.
  • Spice up academics. Many academics pages break out the academic offerings by grade level and the information is either too high-level or too detailed (with PDFs of course offerings). Try and personalize the academic pages with photographs of grade level classrooms, videos of the classroom experience, a typical day-in-the-life of a student at that grade level, and a testimonial of a family in that grade.
  • Don’t forget about alumni. Many alumni pages link directly to giving pages but don’t offer ways for alumni to connect with each other or with their past experiences at the school. Link to Facebook Groups of past classes or LinkedIn profiles of well-connected alumnae. Regularly profile alumni of the school and feature them on the page. Use your giving pages as a portal to storytelling and personalize the giving ask down to a student or family level.

Current Parents Need a Separate Communication Portal

So where should current parents and students get calendar events, announcements, homework, grades, and other important information if the school’s website isn’t their first stop? Schools can choose to handle this in a few different ways.

In an analog world, schools would send home lots of paper in backpacks: homework, progress reports, report cards, monthly calendars, monthly newsletters, and announcements. But as our world changed and technology evolved, these became less useful and more wasteful.

Schools became mindful of the environmental and budget impact of using less paper and parents were frustrated with the volume of assorted paperwork coming home in backpacks. How were they supposed to triage what was important? What if something inadvertently got thrown out or got lost? That’s not to mention if one of those papers asked for a payment, like for a field trip fee. Then the parent would have to send cash or a check back in that same backpack or hand-deliver it to the office. It’s not the most convenient process for parents or for the school office.

Here are some alternate communication options for current parents:

  • SIS parent portal. Many schools underutilize their parent portal and don’t drive full adoption from teachers, parents/students, or both. It’s important to have the entire school community bought into the parent portal because of the value it provides. First, it’s secure, which provides an enormous benefit over placing potentially sensitive information on publicly available sites. Second, it’s convenient for parents and students because they’re viewing the same information: attendance, homework, grades, announcements, and more. It may be useful to have a teacher that utilizes the portal do a PD for the the other teachers on tips and tricks. And, on the other hand, if you have a parent ambassador program, they may have ideas for parent outreach to get parents in the habit of checking the parent portal each day for announcements, attendance, homework, and other important information.
  • But what about communication? The parent portal may still not be the best way of communicating with parents. Some schools prefer to use other communication methods too, like email. But even email is seeing less engagement. I’ve talked to many schools who say the same thing: our parents don’t read their email. They don’t even open them anymore! It’s getting harder to cut through the noise. How do we continue to engage parents with important messages, especially when we’re trying to get their attention around important topics like events, fundraisers, or other critical messages?
  • Mobile apps. Meeting parents and the school community where they are in terms of technology is crucial. Sending paper home in a backpack isn’t cutting it, reaching parents by email isn’t doing the trick anymore, and we need a better way. That’s why we developed FACTS Family App, and that’s why many schools are turning to mobile app solutions to communicate with their current school community. Sending targeted push notifications for important messages are more immediate and impactful than waiting for someone to open and read an email. Having integrated solutions within an app—like attendances, homework, and grades—available at your fingertips is easier than opening a mobile browser, navigating to a URL, and logging in. Convenience, speed, and access is how we engage our school community and promote better school-to-home communication. And, we know that the better we communicate with our current parents, the better our retention rates will be.

“Your school-branded mobile app is for those who are a part of your school community already,” said Berger. “This medium is a way for everyone within your existing community, including students, parents, teachers, and staff to stay up-to-date and fully engaged. Everything from announcements, reminders, last-minute permission forms, being informed of location changes for upcoming sports events, checking in on what a student is having for lunch that day—it’s all at your fingertips.”

I’d love to hear about your school communication challenges and wins too. Feel free to email me at [email protected] or find me on LinkedIn.