By Maya Sussman, Director of Product
With centers spread across five counties and almost 2,000 square miles, Sequatchie Valley Head Start (SVHS) serves families living in a large area of rural Tennessee, at the Southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. Each year SVHS enrolls about 400 children from low-income families, ranging in age from infants to five-year-olds. As a Head Start agency, SVHS not only supports children’s development and school readiness, but also delivers a wide range of services to their families, including physical and mental health, housing, food, and employment support.
Old School, New School
As part of supporting families, Head Start programs are required to implement a research-based parenting curriculum. SVHS had implemented a curriculum that required parents and caregivers to attend in-person trainings. But they were interested in finding a way to reach more families, especially those who weren’t able to attend the workshops.
So when Christy Vandergriff, Assistant Director at SVHS, heard about Ready4K, she was excited by the possibility of using a low-tech, accessible solution to engage families in a new way. “It’s old school, new school. It’s innovative, but then the text messaging…it’s a quick read. And I just like that this can reach so many families.”
Christy worried about the barriers that might prevent families from accessing other web- or app-based digital family engagement solutions. Many SVHS families have limited data plans and would be hesitant to download an app or a video, but Christy was confident that the vast majority of families had a cell phone and could receive a text message. She was also concerned about programs that required parents to take action in order to sign up, so she was relieved to learn that she could easily enroll all of her families in Ready4K at once.
When SVHS launched Ready4K with their families, some of the staff signed up to receive text messages as well. The team was impressed by the accessibility of the content. They appreciated that the activities built on what families already had in their homes, and didn’t require them to go out and buy any new supplies. And the feedback from parents was positive as well – they liked the “quick and dirty reminder of some things they need to be working on.”
Getting Resources in Families’ Hands
When SVHS had to shut down in-person activities in March of 2020, Ready4K became a key component of the program’s COVID-19 response. Christy used the Custom Messages feature in her Ready4K dashboard to share resources with families, gain insights into their needs, and eventually update them on reopening plans.
When new COVID-19-related support programs became available, SVHS was able to quickly share them with families. Whether it was food assistance, free diapers, or COVID-19 testing sites, it only took a minute for Christy to draft a message, paste in a link, and send it off to families. “I even had somebody call me and say, ‘Our parents really loved that you sent that out on that link, because they just clicked on it and filled out the information, and got to be a part of that program.’”
Since SVHS serves families across multiple counties, it was essential for them to be able to target these messages by region. When sending a message about a local food bank or meal distribution event, Christy filtered families by zip code or site to ensure each family received information relevant to their location.
Now that SVHS has begun reopening classrooms and in-person activities, they’re continuing to use the Ready4K dashboard to keep families in the loop. Christy recently shared information about flu clinics in each of their five counties, and also sent out a text reminder about an upcoming virtual parent training. She included the link to the Zoom meeting, so parents could join just by clicking through from the text message they received.
One of the most challenging parts of engaging with families virtually can be the lack of feedback. But the quarterly Ready4K surveys show that Sequatchie Valley parents have appreciated the extra support during this challenging time:
- “Ready4K has been the most helpful to keep my daughter caught up so she won’t be going into kindergarten wondering what to do, thank you.”
- “I’m a nanna raising 3 gbabies. Things have changed so much in school work and children, your ideas and tips have been a great help, thank you.”
- “Ready4K has helped me to be more patient with my children.”
And during such a busy year, SVHS staff have appreciated having easy access to the data and reports they need to inform their program decisions and demonstrate their impact. Knowing the number of messages that have gone out to families helps them quantify their family engagement efforts. Meanwhile, the retention reports have confirmed that parents are finding the messages helpful and sticking with the program.
With an upcoming federal review, the SVHS team will be able to easily show the engagement they’ve had with families during COVID-19, using data from their dashboard and end-of-year Impact Report. “When we have that federal review coming up, I’m definitely going to tell them…what we know about our families is that some of them do not have the access to the technology. And I will use Ready4K as an example of how we communicate with families through COVID-19.”