Natalia Espinoza

Ashoka Fellow
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Chile
Fellow Since 2015
This description of Natalia Espinoza's work was prepared when Natalia Espinoza was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .

Introduction

Through her organization Papinotas, or “Parent Notes,” Natalia Espinoza is transforming communication between schools and parents, incentivizing parents’ active participation in their child’s learning. By generating a closer relationship and trust between parents and schools, Natalia is ensuring a shared vision for learning and an environment where learning happens in and outside of the classroom.

The New Idea

Natalia Espinoza has created a new form of interaction between schools and parents, offering tools for effective communication that also measure the impact of the communication’s content. Papinotas, or “Parent Notes,” sends messages between schools and parents via cellular phone text messages (SMS). This technology is increasingly accessible in Chile and globally, regardless of income level. Papinotas emphasizes positive language to build relationships of trust between schools and parents and is a more personalized, instantaneous, and effective form of communication than email, Facebook, or online groups developed by schools as a compliment to print communications.
Papinotas’ focus is on the form and content of the messages sent from teachers or directors to parents. Through a unique mechanism, which uses sophisticated semantic algorithms, Papinotas allows schools to group messages into different categories for content analysis and easy tracking of communication on both sides. Schools are trained to send messages that reinforce the students’ successes, skills, and potential. Instead of only communicating about problems, parents and schools can work together to prevent them or to devise solutions in real time. In addition to content, the Papinotas system is also focused on how things are communicated. The form of the messages is just as important for maintaining constructive communication and generating better relationships between parents and schools.
Papinotas accompanies the messaging system with training programs for the education community and permanent mentorship in order to ensure real change in how parents and schools communicate. For the first time in Chile’s education system, schools and parents know what, where, how, why, and with whom to communicate, and can work together on specific strategies for learning success for each child. Already in 160 schools, Papinotas has great potential to scale, given similar problems that persist in schools worldwide. By the end of 2015, Natalia plans to be in 468 schools in Chile. After tweaking the application and expanding benefits for schools, Natalia is laying the groundwork to grow across Chile and to other countries in the region within the next five years.

The Problem

In Chile, the low participation level of parents and guardians in their children’s education process is a growing problem that is proven to have a direct effect on the students’ learning. Studies show that students with higher standardized test scores (on the SIMCE) tend to have a family that is involved in their education. The trend of low parent participation is even more common in the vulnerable areas of the country. Work, daily duties, and misinformation lead parents to put most of the responsibility for their child’s education in hands of the schools. This means that parents’ participation in school is minimal and their involvement is almost exclusively to ask about academic results.
The unsatisfying communication between schools and families, in addition to low attendance at parent/school meetings, leads to a disconnect between parents and their child’s education process. The schools tend to inform parents about students’ misconduct and grades, or request their consent for an activity, none of which stimulate a more active participation in the child’s education. The form of communication tends to be through the child’s school notebook, announcement boards with posters and flyers, or online. None of these systems have proven to be effective; they not only require time and resources, but more importantly they do not reach all of the intended recipients. This also has a direct impact on how the different actors involved in schools relate to one another.
In Chile, the absence of an alliance between schools and families is an historic problem that remains unexplored and fairly invisible. No governmental project or legislation has attempted to improve the communication between families and school. And although the quality of education has become a national priority in recent years, the restructuring of the system that is happening does not consider the communication issue as relevant enough to address.

The Strategy

Natalia is introducing a completely new way of using a technology that is already installed at nearly all levels of the population, allowing not only a different use of cell phones, but also a qualitative measurement of the communication’s effectiveness.
Developed in 2012, Papinotas’ service intervenes on several fronts. First, the team provides software that allows teachers to text parent’s/guardian’s cell phones to deliver relevant and timely information and to simplify the communication channel. Then, a system that analyzes the text messages under an educational rubric tracks communication emitted from schools. This information feeds into a diagnostic, identifying the principal problems. Papinotas then designs the solutions and specific strategies appropriate to improve the communication in each school environment with the goal of generating constructive communication that pulls parents closer to their child’s education. Finally, through training programs and constant monitoring, Papinotas equips the schools to carry out the improvement plan and tracks their progress.
Schools can request access to Papinotas’ service, or Papinotas approaches them to offer it. Papinotas is sold to schools and the proceeds go back into the organization to maintain it. It is in the certification process to become an entity for Technical Assistance Education (ATE). Once certified, all schools in Chile with a Preferential School Subsidy, meaning their students have a certain level of vulnerability, can contract Papinotas with state funding.
In the Papinotas trainings, teachers and the schools’ management team learn how to use the system. The trainings are ongoing, to ensure everyone is up-to-date with improvements and the improvement plan. The workshops include social workers and psychologists to advise the teachers, ensuring the new communication practices goes beyond just using the SMS tool. Once installed in the school community, a system for analysis groups messages under particular headings. This allows for continuous monitoring of the form and content of messages sent by the school. Papinotas can then suggest improvements through the ongoing mentorship that is included in its service.
The parents using Papinotas have so far given very positive feedback. The ability to know about their child’s daily activities, check on their attendance, and learn about their achievements involves them on a deeper level without extra time or effort. With this information in real time, they can then respond to situations or performance that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Currently Papinotas has a staff of 33 and works with more than 160 schools throughout Chile, the majority of them in areas with limited resources. Papinotas’ schools have quadrupled the amount communication between parents and schools, student attendance has improved by 5%, and parent participation in school meetings has increased by 20%. The success and satisfaction of Papinotas’ current schools and parents has encouraged them to expand their school network and reach more education institutions with their service.
To do this, Natalia is planning three steps: First, strengthening Papinotas’ service to offer a more complete system for schools. Second, she plans to grow to as many schools as possible, and third, she will continually learn from the experience and adjust whenever necessary. Natalia plans to accelerate expansion in 2015, increasing the rate of schools entering the Papinotas Network by 300% to reach 468 schools out of about 12,000 in Chile. Moreover, the expansion plan includes other Latin American countries, and the team is already taking steps to establish subsidiaries in Colombia, Argentina, and Ecuador.

The Person

Natalia’s interest in education and her deep concern for society began at a young age. Working in the Ministry of Education was one her more transformative experiences; as the National Coordinator for Preferential Scholar Grants, she saw the public education world from the inside. In this role she learned about the system’s main problems, especially those affecting the most vulnerable areas of the country. She then gained deeper insight into the system during her research for her book Educational Supervision of Education Establishments: Diagnostics and Challenges for its Modernization.
She was particularly struck by the absence of parents in the educational process, and how this was directly affecting the children’s learning. At the Ministry, she constantly tested new ideas to resolve the communication and parent-participation problem, while also working on ways in which empathy skills could be promoted and developed in schools. However, when she presented this issue to the government, they responded that there was no possibility of focusing on the issue.
Natalia saw potential to use an already widely adopted technology to generate better relationships between families and schools. Finding that no governmental program would help, Natalia resigned from the Ministry to develop and systematize her idea through Papinotas.