Del Norte Unified School District has hired a new director of grants and community outreach and is implementing a variety of initiatives aimed at improving its connection with parents, students and the public at large.

Those initiatives include a revamped website and a new app that allows people to get information, including emergency alerts, from each of the district’s schools as well as the district itself, said Michael Hawkins, director of grants and community outreach. The district is also working on a new system for sending out mass communications to parents as well as a way to make it easier for organizations in the community to get the word out about any events or activities they may be planning, Hawkins said.

“I did a survey last year, and it turns out an overwhelming majority of all parents want to be texted, but we don’t have that functionality,” Hawkins said. “We really are spending a ton of effort this year on making sure all student-parent information is much more complete than before. Before it was just names and emergency cell. We want to get things like a cell phone for texting. We want to make sure we have their email. We want to make sure we have all these other forms of communication and give them the option to choose because they’re not necessarily thinking about that when they’re giving their information.”

Hawkins, who graduated from Del Norte High School in 2005, began working in the district’s information-technology department about two years ago. He moved into his new position Aug. 6. According to Hawkins, while the district had a director of grants in the past, he is its first-ever director of communication outreach and public information officer.

Hawkins said he’ll be working with district and county superintendent Jeff Harris to implement several of the new initiatives.

Under Harris’s leadership, Del Norte Unified School District partnered with WestEd to provide differentiated assistance to the district. This includes designing and implementing a communication plan and professional learning for the district and school administrators. The district hopes to improve community engagement and create a “customer service culture” with help from WestEd, said Roni Jones, WestEd organizational development specialist, at a recent school board meeting.

WestEd is a joint powers agency governed by public entities in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. It is partnering with the school district after the new California School Dashboard found several Del Norte student subgroups struggling. The dashboard measures a district’s chronic absenteeism, suspension rate, English learner progress, graduation rate and performance in English-language arts and mathematics.

“We heard resoundingly last year as we went through the differentiated assistance process that one of the biggest areas of need was increased internal and external communications with all of our educational partners,” Harris said. “And as we reached out and talked to (other) districts about how they were dealing with similar issues and in my role as county superintendent we reached out to other county offices to see how they dealt with communication issues, most of them have public information officers.”

According to Harris, the director of grants and community outreach is a position funded through the Del Norte County Office of Education. The County Office of Education is funded to support the school district, he said.

Part of Hawkins’ job will be to develop a communications plan and reach out to the community via social media, apps, the internet, through posters and fliers as well as the radio, Harris said.

“It’s a great opportunity to bring someone on board that could work with schools, with principals, with teachers, with partners within the community and get the word out about all of the things we have to offer parents, kids and the county,” Harris said. “We think this is a great opportunity to really become the transparent open school district that we should always have been and we’re striving to be.”

Hawkins will also help school sites communicate with the district office and vice versa, Harris said.

Hawkins said the information-technology department has been working to revamp the district’s website and other forms of communication since he was hired about two years ago. Before it was implemented, each school site had their own methods of communicating with parents, he said. Now, the new system has a more standardized policy, although it won’t be done overnight, Hawkins said.

“It’s going to be a huge change for the district. It’s going to be a huge change for the community,” he said. “Kids are going to benefit from it because they’re going to be more aware of programs that are happening. Their parents are going to have more buy-in. They’re going to feel less left out and more readily available to participate if they want to or even have input.”

School principals and other staff members will be trained on the new mass broadcasting system, which will include texting, mass calls and emails.

Another new way for parents and the community to stay informed is the district’s new app. Available from the Apple and Google Play stores, the app allows users to choose which schools they want to receive notifications about, Hawkins said. It also allows them to view school menus, the district calendar and school board meeting agendas.

“The app will gather all of those in one place, so you can see all the news feeds from all the schools coming through,” Hawkins said. “It’ll be a really good tool once we get different initiatives up and going.”

Another tool that will be coming up will enable community organizations like Relay for Life to more easily advertise their activities, Hawkins said.

“It’ll be an automated system where they have an account with our district and they can put (up) a flier or whatever it may be,” he said. “They can use our system to help them create a really great looking thing and Jeff gets to approve it and once he does it goes out to all of our people.”

Hawkins said the district is also working on implementing two-way streaming for its School Board meetings. This will allow people to watch meetings from home and ask questions, which will be seen and addressed by a moderator.

Hawkins said the 2018 Del Norte High School graduation could be viewed via two-way streaming. Four-hundred people viewed the high school graduation, he said. Some kids were even watching the ceremony as they were graduating, he said.

“You had some kids before they walked out being like ‘I’m about to graduate; I’m totally stoked,” he said. “There happened to be an intern who worked in IT with us and so Ryan the IT director was like, ‘Congrats, Gavin, I’m really proud of you, buddy.’ It’s like this interactive thing. It’s fun.”

Hawkins said two-way streaming is something that is still far off and likely won’t be implemented for about a year.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at jcejnar@triplicate.com .

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