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Baltimore City Public Schools’ Best Practices for District-wide Student Engagement

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Public School District
Baltimore, MD
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Baltimore City Public Schools’ Best Practices for District-wide Student Engagement

The Baltimore City Public Schools district includes 166 schools, serving almost 80,000 students across 92 square miles. With a huge footprint across the Baltimore region, the district educates students with a wide variety of needs and goals. Baltimore is also home to 20 traditional colleges and universities, as well as a number of alternative post-secondary learning programs.

In 2019, Baltimore City Public School’s (City Schools) added Signal Vine as part of a FAFSA grant. Mavis Jackson, Director of College Readiness, recognized Signal Vine’s texting platform’s potential for reducing the number of students that lose focus after high-school graduation.

The Challenge: Coordination Across a Complex District

School systems such as Baltimore’s are complicated and require many educators, counselors, and administrators to help students chart their path and stay committed to the academic journey. With so many people responsible for helping students stay on track, City Schools’ district office recognizes the importance of enabling frontline staff and has sought to establish a collaborative, district-wide approach to supporting students.

What’s more, students’ need for guidance doesn’t stop at the end of the school year. “Our school counselors and college advisors work so diligently throughout the year to help students and families solidify their college plans,” says Jackson. “During the summer months, when some of those individuals are not working, our students continue to need help.”

The Solution: Texting That Connects Students To Support

In City Schools’ partnership model, the district office complements frontline counselors’ transition work with direct communication with students, building a college- and career-going culture. By optimizing the texting channel using Signal Vine, the City Schools district is sending relevant, personalized, directive, and knowledge–building messaging to students when they need it the most. “Signal Vine has given students and families access to individuals that can continue to help advise them on financial aid award letters, scholarships, and other transition-to-college steps that might otherwise derail their plans.”

City Schools’ Office of College and Career Readiness creates transparency at the school level by sending counselors regular transcriptions of student conversations. They are working to improve the capacity of counselors by triaging and providing action-based intervention support. In addition to offering support through the college search process, they provide work-based learning opportunities complemented by unique messaging for students interested in going directly into the job market.

“Signal Vine is more than a FAFSA tool; it’s a methodology that is integrated into our larger strategies for retention, graduation, and persistence,” says Tracy Kyttle, District Staff Specialist for Postsecondary Advising. “To use it only as part of FAFSA completion is underestimating the value it has in a district’s overall completion strategy. For a cohesive strategy, you need to be multifaceted, have multiple resources and tools, and make it a team effort.”

“Students are not only engaging via text. Across the system, professionals are surprised by how deep the relationships are that develop,” says Kyttle. “When done well with intent, integrity, and care, mentorships and relationships develop. [Even when students and the sender don’t know each other] and have only text messages [to build the relationship].”

School Counselor and College Advisor at Baltimore City College High School, Michele Flores, further explains, “The support of the district team was invaluable. The text notifications were frequent and consistent. I appreciated the additional resources provided by Signal Vine, not only to students but to me as their counselor. Our days are packed as public school educators and carving out time in our day to manage another platform sounded daunting at first, I must admit. However, with the help of the district team’s messaging and outreach, I was able to focus on reconnecting with students to help them get back on track.”

Best Practices: Baltimore’s Successful Approach

1. Coordinated Messaging

Coordinated messaging enables everyone to play to their strengths and supports the goal of quick response times. The district created a publicly available calendar to share planned weekly message outreach, which provides transparency and empowers the counselor, respecting their time, knowledge, and limited capacity. The district system for general messaging supplements and reinforces counselor guidance about the FAFSA.

Each advisor knows what message is going out, giving them the opportunity to pay special attention to messages that require a direct deliverable or that may drive an increase in student inquiries. Access to every texting exchange with the student increased trust and school-level buy-in.

2. Onboarding Students

School counselors identified seniors across 45 high schools and the district input their cell phone numbers, allowing for opt out. Committed to building consistency for all students, regardless of their home school, they took an intentional approach to onboarding students: “Can we text you information about college?” By providing value for sharing their phone number, “they signed up every time,” Kyttle notes.

3. Messaging Strategy

Frequency: City Schools considered texting frequency to reduce opt-outs and irritation, limiting messaging to once a week. A thoughtful approach to their campaigns means that every message has a purpose.

Trust:  It starts with building trust. Senders use the name of a school or counselor to demonstrate that the sender knows who the students are and understands where they can get support. The follow up directs the student to people they know and trust to help.
“There’s a language when it comes to building trust,” states Kyttle. “Meeting the student where they are means that you send messages in which you ‘talk like a young person.’ Professionals need to read between the lines and identify assumptions, interpret expectations of their families, and gain awareness of their objections. This enables us to frame opportunities correctly.”

“As educators in the helping profession, we are very sensitive to the savior complex—this idea that we know more or that we are fixing— and we don’t make assumptions on what is best for the students. We give them access to accurate information, make them aware of potential opportunities, and coach them through the processes and barriers en route to their goals.”

The Why: The district focuses on helping students understand their “why.” For example, a student’s “why” likely isn’t just about income; it’s about health, values, and the generational impact of college on their life’s trajectory and happiness. The “why” is highly individualized. “Being general with students doesn’t help them,” states Kyttle. “You have to be super clear and have an individualized [approach] to get engagement.”

In addition to focusing on the “why,” Kyttle spends a lot of time myth-busting. “Students don’t always understand the ‘why’ of what they’re being asked to do,” she explains. “The more that you build that relationship and show that you care about them personally, the more likely that they understand the weight of completing any given task for a long-term outcome. There is a buy-in and they realize you are asking them to do something for their success, not to check a box.”

Variety: The City Schools team recognizes that students have short attention spans and uses a variety of graphics, resource videos, and follow-up questions or support offers to keep students engaged and responsive. Kyttle further explains “We do not only text students when we need something per say. This could be something as simple as wishing them a Happy New Year.”

4. Leveraging Partnerships

City Schools use partnerships [and swag] strategically. Most recently, they partnered with local business Under Armour to incentivize FAFSA completion. Under Armour provided City Schools with swag for students and created texting campaigns to support the drive.

“We are taking over Twitter and raffling off Under Armour jackets! Join us tomorrow between 4pm-6pm to receive help with all those complicated financial aid questions! Tweet your FAFSA or financial aid question to @BaltCitySchools and you will be entered to win a free winter coat from Under Armour #FAFSAFlexing!”

The Future: Expanding Engagement

This year, City Schools plans to build on their success by adding juniors to their texting pool. They’ll continue to modify their messaging to best meet the changing needs of their students.

As the program grows, it will build on the notable partnership forged between the district and frontline professionals. “We have effectively used Signal Vine to improve culture, drive event attendance, and strategically deploy interventions for the benefit of our students, staff, and community,” says Kyttle.

“The college application process can be overwhelming, and we have set up a team of College Advisors at City who encourage open dialogue and communication. We use several tools to communicate with students such as email, Schoology and Naviance; however, Signal Vine provides another platform for our students to connect with us immediately to troubleshoot concerns with their college and financial aid applications. Students are attached to their cell phones, and we noticed they responded very well and often to the ease and comfortability of Signal Vine. I was also surprised to receive messages from students who would otherwise not have reached out to me via email or in person. Without Signal Vine, I would not have known about some of these students’ concerns.” says Michele Flores, School Counselor and College Advisor at Baltimore City College High School.

Learn more

If you’re inspired by City Schools’ methods to engage students and want to explore texting’s potential in your organization, read this blog on how texting can improve a college student’s journey. Or, if you’re interested in learning more about Signal Vine, request a demo.

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