Traditionally, registration of new families or students for the new school year has been an in-person, paper-based process, and many districts still use these manual but comfortable systems.
With the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 crisis, business as usual was still being called into question, and the switch to automated registration was welcomed by both parents and school employees alike. In a recent webinar, we discussed the steps schools should take to prepare for the switch—and the many benefits of online registration and family enrollment, which continue to make everyone’s lives easier long after the pandemic’s effects have subsided.
“Why should your schools make the shift to online registration? Well, obviously with COVID-19, it makes sense because it’s the easiest way to collect information and still practice social distancing,” says Paul Freid, jmc’s head of sales and training. But the benefits go far beyond being able to manage the current crisis, he adds.
For district administrators:
“Online registration made it much easier to welcome new families to the district and gather all of their information—contact, demographic, health and more—directly into a database for use in so many ways, because it won’t be stuck in a paper file or require manual entry for multiple purposes.
It also enabled the sending of forms, informational emails, surveys and more, all of which was easily customized to meet my district’s needs,” says Bruce Quinton Superintendent of Pepin Schools.
For the front office:
“Office professionals won't know what to do with all their free time,” says Debra Beckler, Admin Assistant at Yellow Medicine East. “They don't have to manually enter information from packets of data collected manually, and they’ll no longer have to print and bind registration packets.”
Beckler adds, “A lot of people ask, hey, can we customize this process? And the answer is, absolutely. You can customize how people get to the site to register, whether you want parts of the registration process to happen in person, and you can customize fields beyond the standard questions the software provides.”
An online system also makes it easier to identify missing data, she says. “You can run reports to see who has and hasn’t completed things like a request to verify their information is up to date.”
“Online registration offered a real opportunity to help out health professionals in schools,” Emily Enger from Danville CSD says. “For instance, you can have standard or custom fields that capture data such as, ‘Does your student take daily meds?’ or ‘What would you like to tell us about your student’s mental health for the upcoming school year?’”
Of course if there are medications that need to be administered, parents will still need to come into the office, but the online registration can help determine when that’s necessary, and notify the parent. “So there are reasons why some parents and guardians would still come into the office. But here we are able to collect 80, 90, sometimes 100 percent of the information that a school needs.”
Online registration can be used districtwide, but it can also be narrowed down to a particular grade, or building. “For example, if you have a permission slip that the parent needs to sign off on to play volleyball in the fall, you can simply upload that permission slip as a PDF and then bulk-load that form to all the volleyball parents,” Connie Cronin says.
“Teachers can run reports and student lists as well. Not only do they not have to put that information into the system by hand from a piece of paper, they can also efficiently run reports to see who answered ‘yes,’ who answered ‘no’ and who's got some other answer in there.”
“New families loved it because they can begin the process of entering your district from home at their convenience,” Shelly Bailey from Treynor says.
“Another thing they loved is not having, say, 10 separate forms with the parent’s name, the student's name, the grade level, their birth date—parents would have to fill that out like 10 times. Now they didn't need to fill that out at all. And families can update their information all year long.”
Reimagine registration: Best practices for making the switch
When a district is ready to transition to a new system, Freid says, there are four important things to keep in mind.
1. Involve all stakeholders. “If you've never done online registration before, we recommend that you gather all the people that have any kind of stake in registration: administrators, office professionals, guidance counselors, curriculum director, nurses—gather them all together.”
2. Think outside the forms. “Get all the documents you normally have in a registration binder and take a look at that data, then categorize that data. Are these questions that you need to ask, or are they just acknowledgement forms—things that people need to read and sign to say they received it?”
“I've gone to many schools, and they've got a packet of 10 sheets of paper, and they'll say, what do we do with all these? And that's the wrong question to ask. The right question is, is this a question we're asking people or is this a form that needs to be signed as an acknowledgement? And 95 to 99 percent of the time, it fits into one of those two.”
“When making the switch, schools often have trouble thinking outside the existing forms. They think if it's on a sheet, it needs to stay together. But that's not true. You need to extract the questions off the sheets. In many cases they can feed different sets of data. Then the parent or guardian only needs to complete one acknowledgment at the end.”
3. Keep the first contact personal. Even though families will appreciate the efficiency and convenience of online registration, it’s important they have to reach out personally when entering the district, even if just by phone, before you send them the link to start their registration. Not only does it give them a personal first experience with administration, but it prevents districts from having to list the registration on a public page—possibly getting fraudulent registrations or just confused parents who think they have to fill it out but are already in the system.
4. Train from both sides. It’s one thing for school staff to be trained on how to use automation in the office. They also need to be well-versed in the family’s view of the tools, so they can anticipate any questions and be able to trouble-shoot. “Schools need to know what the parent or guardian sees,” Freid says. “The best way to do this is to test it out. Set it up, log in as a parent or guardian, submit some information, delete out that information and do that over and over again until you feel comfortable. It’s going to equip everyone to help families and make the process so much smoother.”