Northshore School District readies to roll out new app for parents

by Kevin Opsahl |

The Northshore School District (NSD) is readying the rollout of a new app designed to centralize communications and help families who speak English as a second language–yet some parents are already expressing skepticism about the platform.

ParentSquare will replace Blackboard, Interim Superintendent Michael Tolley wrote in a recent message to parents upon their return from winter break. He explained that the importance of language access was made clear to him in his recent “Listen and Learn Tour”.

“In response, we are launching a new, multilingual communication tool this month - ParentSquare,” the interim superintendent wrote, adding that NSD families speak over 100 languages and dialects. “Communicating with families in their preferred language is one way we can demonstrate our commitment to inclusion, belonging, and strong family partnerships.”

Whereas Blackboard has remained a Northshore platform for years, over time, district officials have come to believe that it is “not an intuitive tool,” Carri Campbell, the district’s executive director of communications, said in an interview.

“With ParentSquare, there’s an automatic sync from our data system where it says what the language preference is,” she said. “If a principal sends an email in English, the Spanish-speaking family gets it automatically in Spanish. You respond in Spanish, I get it back in English. We don’t have that type of functionality where we can have that two-way conversation in multiple languages.”

Aside from language translations, ParentSqaure will also help organize the number of communications the district sends out.

“If they download the app, they have a portal where they get all the communications across multiple schools for their children,” Campbell said.

She called ParentSquare “a game-changer” for district families and officials.

ParentSquare will go live on Monday, Jan. 23–but Blackboard will remain for now.

“As we’re onboarding a tool, we’re still going to be using Blackboard through the duration of the contract because not everyone is going to be coming on at the same time,” Campbell said. “We’re training cohorts of people.”

These include principals, office staff, teachers and parents who can benefit from online training and “family liaisons”.

Northshore parent Justine Ivy received the district’s notification about ParentSqaure, but is “a little overwhelmed” because there are many other active district communication systems.

“It would be nice if it was easier to know what messages were important, because we get so many messages, having five kids,” Ivy said.

But in Ivy’s view, Northshore has had more problems with communications than merely where they’re being sent.

“Sometimes, they wouldn’t put the child’s name…in the subject line. In the email it would say ‘your child’. You’d have to go, ‘which kid are they talking about?,’” Ivy said.

But lately, the district has been doing a better job of this technical oversight, in Ivy’s view.

“Hopefully, ParentSqaure will make it clear which child they’re referring to right off the bat,” she said, “and if it’s just one platform we should be getting our messages in, that would be great.”

Ivy added “it’s yet to be seen” if ParentSqaure will be useful, “or add one more layer of figuring out where the important messages are.”

Campbell has not personally heard a lot of parent complaints about ParentSqaure, but acknowledged feedback she’s heard from them about the sheer number of apps Northshore schools have.

“There’s an app to pay for lunch, there’s Schoology, there’s all of these things that parents need to manage,” Campbell said.

However, ParentSqaure won’t collapse all of those apps into one.

“For those who are not interested in using all of the bells and whistles of Parentsqaure, it really won’t change anything for them, other than that they’re going to get communication in their preferred language,” Campbell said.