The Dallas Examiner

Creating the next generation of global leaders is what DeSoto Independent School District’s coordinator of Parent Engagement and Professional Learning, Dr. Amber Reed, said is the district’s vision.

Reed, along with other superintendents in North Texas, is using the latest technologies and applications to beat other social media platforms to grab students, teachers and parents’ attention.

The LivingTree App, introduced in 2012, is a mobile and online platform specifically for the K-12 educational system that connects educators with parents in order to improve student achievement.

“The mission of DeSoto ISD to prepare students to be global leaders,” Reed said. “By using the LivingTree App, parents, students, faculty and staff are stepping away from the traditional ways we used to communicate by sending letters home and phone calls. Our students use technology all of the time and we are catering to how they learn.”

Joni Carswell, LivingTree’s CEO, said a parent who wanted to help improve communication between school leaders, and parents started the app.

“So far, we have gotten positive feedback from parents because it is good on education and you are not going to find behavior like posting selfies or time-wasting things like [on] public social media,” Carswell said.

LivingTree is a safe and secure network that allows educators to communicate to students and their parents in over 100 languages all in one single, secured application, according to Carswell.

Parents can get involved by sharing information on school activities and PTA announcements and can send and receive private and direct messages regarding homework assignments with teachers.

DeSoto ISD started testing the app in spring 2017.

“Teachers are excited to have everything they need in one App,” Reed said. “Previously, they were using several modes to communicate with parents and now they only need one App. Parents enjoy it because of its versatility. It translates to over 100 languages so that is user friendly for our parents who do not speak English fluently. It allows parents to look at all of their children’s information in one place, even if they have children attending different schools.”

Dean Drako, chairman of LivingTree and CEO of Eagle Eye Networks, is passionate about the program.

“It is important because getting your children to talk about what they did at school and share a little bit about their day can sometimes be challenging but it is really not,” Drako said. “If you talk about it a little bit, then you can have a conversation about the lessons. In the United States, it’s a very diverse place and sometimes teachers, administrators have a challenge to communicate with parents who have a different native language and English is just a native language for the majority of our schools. LivingTree gets parents more involved since there are over 100 languages.”

He continued, saying the program has a translation component that helps parents, caretakers and children get and receive messages from educators instantly and translated into the language of their choice.

“They can do that really quickly with things like the mobile phone and the messages go only to the parents and is completely private to those parents and it is translated into the language that they use,” he said. “Studies have shown if parents are involved in the education system, you get better results and the children are able to do a lot better in every way possible. If you can engage the parent, then students do better and you have better long-term outcomes. You have to get these students attention just like other social media and LivingTree is the only platform that allows you to engage parents in a meaningful manner.”

The program is also a platform where superintendents can introduce the app to their colleagues.

Reed first learned of the program after attending a Parental Involvement Conference hosted by the Irving Independent School District.

“They had a booth and it intrigued me as a way for teachers and parents to communicate more effectively,” Reed said.

Irving ISD also implements the program in its schools. District superintendent Dr. Jose L. Parra said it began its partnership with LivingTree in the fall of 2014.

“We selected 13 schools as early adopters before implementing the tool district-wide in 2015,” Parra said. “At Irving ISD, we pride ourselves in fostering an environment that thrives on parent and community engagement. Our partnership with LivingTree has enabled our schools and families to create a conversational network that focuses efforts on student excellence. Family engagement is the bedrock of any success a school district has with its students. When a positive communication link between a school and a parent is established, it makes a difference in the child’s education.

“Also, LivingTree’s tiered structure creates an automatic grouping of classrooms, school communities, and families across the district. This provides communication in one place for an entire household.”

Even with all of its technical features, users expressed the app is fun, informative and efficient.

“I love this app. As an Irving ISD parent liaison, it allows me to communicate with parents about everything that is going on at our campus. I can create events, ask for volunteer sign ups, and set reminders all in one spot,” said Tamara Weatherton, parent liaison at Thomas Haley Elementary School. “It allows you to target specific grade levels in your communication so you’re not over-sharing with parents; you can send private messages, post group messages. It is a great asset to our school. I am hoping this app will keep our parents up to date on everything going on in our school. No more lost papers in backpacks.”

Michelle Aquino, an instructional technology specialist who works with teachers and students to implement technology devices into their lessons, said the app gives teachers an opportunity to visually show parents what their children are learning and what’s happening in the classroom.

“For example, I once had kindergarten teachers take photos of students learning how to do an assignment in Google Classroom and share on LivingTree,” she explained.

Aquino hopes this app will help Irving ISD students be leaders, as well.

“We hope to continue improving and maintaining teacher, parent, and community communication and involvement. A lot of our parents’ work. With busy schedules, we understand parents may not always have time to volunteer at our campus or have a chance to look through folders regularly. This app gives parents another option and the opportunity to stay involved and in the know even while they’re at work.”

The program is also being used all over the United States and in districts such as Houston ISD, Galveston ISD and Mount Pleasant ISD.

Carswell said the goal is also to introduce LivingTree to Title I schools.

“Title I schools are schools that tend to have economically disadvantaged families and what we see is using technologies and sharing pictures of what the children are doing at the school helps parents and students feel more engaged,” Carswell said.

Moreover, the LivingTree, modeled after the Baobab Tree in Africa, also referred to as the “tree of life,” hopes to provide educators to provide a safe haven to raise the future leaders of America.

“I look at it as we want people to be educated, active and have a good life,” Drako said.

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