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How school mailing lists work

Berkeley Parents Network > How school mailing lists work


This page is intended for people who run a school mailing list or who want to start one. It describes how some of the schools in the Berkeley, Ca. area run their email announcement lists. It's based on conversations with school list moderators from 10 schools in the Berkeley, California area. See also: How the Berkeley Parents Network mailing list works


Characteristics of school mailing lists

Most of the school mailing lists I know of are run by volunteer parents who either use yahoogroups.com or their email account at home or at work. When a personal email account is used, typically the parent uses the "BCC" field to suppress the list of email addresses. First I'll talk about general characteristics of school mailing lists and then I'll describe specific examples I'm familar with, and finally I'll present a list of Guidelines for school mailing lists.

1. School mailing lists typically have a semi-official status that lends some authority to postings. For example, messages about events and policies at the school can be relied on to be accurate.

2. The lists are usually run by the PTA or some other parent group in cooperation with the school administration. For example, a school staffer may supply the Daily Bulletin to a parent volunteer to be sent out on the list.

3. Subscribers are usually the entire school community - parents, teachers, and students. Usually the list is open to anyone who is interested in joining, and usually there is no requirement, such as PTA membership, to join.

4. Messages are usually sent as one-way announcements to subscribers. There is no discussion, and subscribers may not respond to or comment on postings in the context of the mailing list, although they may submit announcements themselves.

5. Messages are usually objective and fact-based, not opinions, comments, or questions. Typical messages include: requests for classroom volunteers, announcements about the school play or fundraiser, messages from the principal about school policies, messages from the college advisor about test dates and colleges visiting, etc.

6. Messages are usually sent out individually as they arrive, and are not batched together into a newsletter or digest.


Examples of school mailing lists

I've corresponded with the list administrators for most of the middle and high schools in Albany, Berkeley, and El Cerrito. What follows are a few examples of how different schools run their lists. To subscribe to one of these schools, you can use the form at http://parents.berkeley.edu/mlist-school.html

Albany High School

in 6/00 had about 160 subscribers... started out as a perk for PTA members, sending the Daily Bulletin out to parents via email. The moderator replies to all correspondence, forwards mail as needed. The moderator uses Eudora on her UNIX-based computer account at work (on lunch hour!) to send email to an alias she keeps within Eudora. She uses the "bcc" method, and actually has two lists: one for parents who want the daily bulletin + announcements, one for parents who don't want the daily bulletin (too much email.) The AHS list has experimented with having parent discussions, where a question is posed on the school list, and replies are sent to another parent for further discussion among those who are interested. Says the moderator: "We do use the list to gather information regarding issues being discussed by a newly formed "Cabinet" which consists of parents, teachers, students, administration. This Cabinet discusses issues of concern from all these groups and finds some resolution. The issues range from tardy policies, special freshman programs and school start times to too much homework and unsanitary and not enough bathrooms. Comments are gathered by the Cabinet representative and taken to the discussion table. The resolutions are then posted to the email alias."
(Update August 2003: Albany High School now uses yahoogroups for their mailing list.)

Albany Middle School

as of 6/00 had about 200 subscribers. Tied to PTA membership, but this will change next year. The moderator uses MS Outlook personal distribution lists to store subscriber addresses. However, because of the 75-address limit, announcements must be mailed out in batches.
(Update August 2003: Albany Middle School now uses yahoogroups for their mailing list.)

Berkeley High School

As of Nov 2000, the BHS "e-tree" has 1300 subscribers. It is run by a parent who has access to an email account that was set up with the special purpose of handling the e-tree. It is with an internet provider that enables users to set up semi-automated mailing lists [mail.com/juno.com/idiom.com]. Therefore subscribe/unsubscribe requests can be handled automatically, and a change in moderator does not necessitate a change in the e-tree address. Only the moderator can send messages to the e-tree. The list is used by parents, teachers, staff, and students to make announcements of interest to the BHS community. Mail averages 1-2 per day. Discussion and comments are not distributed but the moderator will forward inquiries and comments to the appropriate person. Recently, (Nov 2000) all e-tree messages not coming directly from the school administration began to carry the contact person for the message prominently at the top, with the caution not to Reply back! Also the Subject of each message is now preceded by [bhs] plus the general category of the posting such as "BULLETIN", to make it easier for subscribers to weed out what they want. Future plans include a a separate Spanish e-tree and a new system.

El Cerrito High School

Started in 8/00, now has 200 subscribers (11/00). The Portola Middle School list is also handled by the ECHS moderator. Moderator sends out any messages that are in the "who, what, when and where" format. The PTA president has final say about questionable posts. Messages are sent out using the "bcc" method in plain text (no attachments or formatting). "Information typically sent is school events, call for volunteers, meeting announcements, call for site council candidates, questions and answers from parents and counselors, college information, homecoming activities, fundraisers, PTA newsletters, PTA agendas, athletic events, new staffing announcements/roles, school plays, supply items needed, test schedules, music and drama performances, volunteer opportunities."

King Middle School

As of 6/00 there were 200 subscribers. Parents may join but not students. Also includes school board members. Is closely tied to PTA and is run by a PTA officer who determines which messages are appropriate, in cooperation with the principal. Most messages have to do with the PTA though any announcements from the principal are accepted. The moderator receives school mail on her work email address. She uses Netscape Communicator to read and send mail. She keeps the list of addresses in her "personal address book" but "bcc"'s the list. Mail is kept intentionally sparse - every week or two, limited to PTA events and school announcements, and messages are often batched together.

Marin School

as of 6/00, Marin school's list was run by a parent using majordomo on a work account. However there was some discussion about privacy concerns - whether anyone should be able to join and whether the list of subscribers should be publicly accessible.

Portola Middle School

Started in 8/00 with about 180 subscribers as of Nov 2000. (This list is run by the same person who runs the El Cerrito list.)


Guidelines for school mailing lists

Here are some policy suggestions that most school mailing lists seem to be using.

1. Be clear about what the purpose of the list is.

Is the list primarily a way for the school to reach parents? Or for the PTA to reach members? Or is it a shared resource for everyone at the school? These goals do not necessarily conflict, but there may be times when parents, teachers, staff disagree about what is important and what should be made public. It is useful to establish in advance what will happen in this case. Most school lists are run by the PTA, which has an interest in maintaining good relations with the school administration. The moderator typically relies on the principal's cooperation and collaboration in what to post to the list, and will usually seek the principal's agreement unless there is a strong reason for doing otherwise.

2. Decide whether the list will be moderated or unmoderated.

An unmoderated list means that all subscribers can send email messages to all other subscribers. Anyone can send a message, and each message is sent around to the entire list. In some cases, unmoderated lists can be set up to only accept postings from specified email addresses. This depends on what software you have available on the computer account you plan to use. Unmoderated lists are usually easier to set up, and they are easier to run because they do not require a person to oversee the mailings. But they are usually considered undesirable for large mailing lists because there is no oversight as to what is posted. This is not so much a problem of security as it is of convenience - it is too easy to send "junk" and mistakes to everyone on the list, and it can be chaotic when not everyone reads email with the same regularity. Messages can accumulate quickly for people who don't read email often, and controversial topics can snowball quickly into floods of email for everyone. On the other hand, unmoderated lists are the best choice in some situations. They can work very well for a small list, or for a list where everyone reads email with the same regularity, is fairly internet savvy, and understands and follows basic netiquette practices. In addition, they require very little overhead to set up - most email software gives you a way to create a list of addresses to send one email to. So, an unmoderated list is a good way to try out a mailing list and gauge people's interest levels amd participation rates. Examples of software that can be used to set up an unmoderated list include listserv and majordomo (and both of these have some "moderated" features.)

A moderated list usually means that one person intercepts all messages to the list, filters them for content or appropriateness, and then sends them out to everyone, either one at a time as they arrive, or grouped together in a digest. This makes it easier on the subscribers - they don't have a lot of irrelevant email to plow through, and flame wars can be pre-empted by the moderator. However, depending on the size of the list, and the amount of interest in it, the moderator's task can become quite time-consuming. Most school lists are moderated, and moderators must spend time every day answering email and posting messages. Taking a break of even a few days can mean a huge backlog of email that takes hours to filter, reply to, and post. So, setting up a moderated list means that you need a person who is reading email every day, on the computer frequently, and is committed to keeping up with the daily tasks of minding the list. A moderated list in its simplest form can be one person who maintains a list of email addresses within her own mail program. Subscribers send messages to her, and she relays them to the list. Mail software such as majordomo and listserv can also be set up to automatically forward mail to the subscriber list if the mail is coming from a pre-specified address (i.e., from the moderator). These programs will also automatically subscribe and unsubscribe members, which is another time-saver, though some mailing lists may want to have more control over the subscriber list. Many Internet Service Providers offer mailing list services like majordomo and listserv, and tech-savvy moderators might be able to set this up as well.

3. Decide what kinds of messages will be accepted.

Most school mailing lists stick to factual announcements about the school and about school-related events that are relevant for the entire school community. Most do not accept opinion pieces and commentary, political announcements, non-school-related fundraisers, ads for community businesses and non-profit organizations, etc. The reason for this is that in order to be useful for the entire school community, and be supported by all, school mailing lists must not take sides or advocate for any particular viewpoint. No matter how benign a political announcement seems, there likely will be someone on the list who objects, and insists, fairly, that you publish the alternate view. If your school list has decided to accept discussions and comments, this is OK. But most school lists take a neutral position and refer discussions like this to other forums.

4. Be clear in advance about who has the final say over the content.

The moderator needs the authority to make day-to-day decisions about what to send out -- it is impractical to seek consensus on every email. However, controversial topics may need to be settled at a higher level. Will this be the PTA officers? Or the school's principal? Or the school board? What if the PTA does not agree with the principal? A related question is, who can submit messages for the school list? Most school lists will accept postings from any subscriber as long as the message falls within the general policies of the list.

5. Decide who can subscribe to the list.

Most school lists started out as a service for PTA members only, but soon changed to serve the entire school community of teachers, parents, staff, and at some schools, students too, if they want to join. At some schools, the mailing list is the only way to get information out to the entire community. Most lists do not restrict membership, if there is any screening of membership at all (which usually there isn't).


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this page was last updated: Mar 6, 2006


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