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Schools warming to online communication with parents, students

(April 5, 2013) Typically taking the form of a Cheetos-stained paper recovered from the bottom of a backpack long after its relevance has expired, printed scholastic announcements may soon be on their way out, depending on the success of a recent pilot program by the county’s school district.

Beginning a few weeks ago with a notice about school safety, Worcester’s public school system will now be posting video clips concerning a number of topics online for viewing by students’ parents and guardians.

“So often what we depend on is word-of-mouth from our principals,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson. “We’re hoping to diffuse the message to a broader group of individuals than would be able to get it directly.”

The first video, posted on the county schools’ home page as well as being available through YouTube, is an informational clip that addresses the schools’ recent review of safety practices and the decision for several pending changes in school security.

The video was filmed and produced by Stephen Decatur High School students and future video features will likely be done by student cinematographers as well.

“We’re asking the kids to do it for us, building on some of their intellectual and creative capacity,” Wilson said.

He estimated that roughly half of the county’s schools use Twitter and about a third use Facebook to disseminate information. However, social media is typically used to direct viewers back to the county schools’ main Web site, worcesterk12.com, for notices and announcements.

According to Web site activity data provided by the schools’ Public Relations Coordinator Barb Witherow, visits to the district Web site have indeed spiked whenever pertinent information – such as school closings and delays – has been posted and spread around the Internet. A mass phone message sent to parents regarding the safety video netted an instantaneous spike in new visitors as well.

Witherow will also be including a new section on this year’s communications survey, which parents are due to return this month, asking questions about the use of technology, social media, and general interest in new forms of communication.

“We’re mostly going after parent information, but I would like to know about how students view the Web site as well, and what would encourage them to use it,” Witherow said.

“We’re in a highly competitive market where people are trying to out-do one another constantly,” Wilson said of online media, especially amongst the younger set.

Also presenting a challenge to the schools’ use of such means is the fact that social media is typically a negative factor in schools, given its nature as a breeding ground for bullying and student conflict.

“We’re generally using it in a reactionary manner, which gives us a bad impression as to how it can be used to spread information,” Wilson said.

One section, however, where the schools have found some success with students is the use of YouTube to provide lesson help.

“Teachers are saying that they’re appreciative of us being more liberal with YouTube use,” Wilson said. “I think there’s a lot of benefit to students being able to view a short primer, if you will, before their lessons in the classroom.”

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