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Hands-On Favorites: Parent Notification Systems

Need an automated system to get information to parents? These administrators communicate their recommendations.

August 2008
How to notify parents if there's an emergency.<br />
How to notify parents if there's an emergency.

Alert Now
Name: Timothy Schwingle, Assistant to the superintendent and business manager
School: Sterling (IL) Community Unit School District #5
What they use: AlertNow, since 2005

The problem: “We wanted to improve overall communication with our parents and students. That was our primary concern. Especially in inclement weather, there were a lot of people that weren’t getting the message from the local media.”

The results: “We’ve got prerecorded messages, or you can go in and record a message that day. Our superintendent has recorded messages in the past, in both English and Spanish. I go in there and choose the message that I want to launch that day—let’s say we’re closing the school that day due to a snow day—and then I’ll choose the groups I want to send to. Then you tell it when you want to launch the phone call; most times, it’s immediate. I can either do it at school or I can do it at home. It’s Web-based. The process from start to finish is under five minutes. We can launch several thousand phone calls and get them done within 15 minutes, and in those 15 minutes, it’s called some of those numbers three times.”

Reaction: “It’s gotten to the point now where if we didn’t use it, they’d probably want to lynch us. That’s been the downside. We emphasized that this was a secondary means of communication; the primary was still local media. Now they’re waiting for that phone call.”

Next challenge? “The one area we really want to use it for is attendance. We have tried to boost attendance by sending out messages to the parents who didn’t show up for school that day, but we’ve had limited success. Some schools want to handle it on a more personal basis, and want to make individual contact with the parents of the kids who have been
perpetually truant.”

Name: Chris Samuels, systems administrator
School: Hopewell Crest School (Bridgeton, NJ)

What they use: OnCourse, since 2006

The problem: “We came from another system, and it was just so complex. You had to drill down so deep, you had to click 15 times to do the simplest task. When you’re putting information in, you should be able to click one button and get right back out. Another essential element is the support—that’s the key for all software programs like this. You could spend $1 million on something, and if something breaks and you can’t get a hold of somebody, or if you can’t get someone to do something in a timely manner—you are basically screwed.”

The results: “The intuitiveness of the system is so that you are three clicks away from getting to exactly what you need. In a school system, that’s huge. As a systems administrator, I’m not in the software all day long, like a secretary would be—you have people calling, and people coming in all the time, wanting to know the bus number or what class they’re in. When a secretary can click a tab, do a search on a kid, and a demographic screen pops up within 15 seconds, it’s just a godsend. The system has its own public portal, and when a teacher updates grades or a secretary enters discipline information, that data is available in real time. There are controls to check off, saying the public can see this or they can see that.”

Reaction: “It’s definitely been a positive reaction coming from the old system, where every step of the process there was a problem. I’ve been so hands-off with this system. I’ve handed off so much information, delegating simple tasks, and I haven’t had a single problem with it.”

Next challenge? “Right now, I’ve got four schools I’m overseeing. We’re rolling out OnCourse to another school. We’re going through the data-mining process to import the information from their old system right now. People know it’s easy.”

Name: Bob Rowe, principal
School: Martin Luther King Middle School (Oceanside, CA)
What they use: TeleParent, since 2007

The problem
: “When I was a new principal at a fairly large middle school, about 1,800 kids, within the first two or three months, I very quickly realized that one of our biggest challenges was effective communications with our families—breakdown of communication, lack of communication, inconsistent communication. So I was looking for systematic ways, that were teacher friendly, with which we could give positive messages, informational messages, and messages regarding concerns. In particular, it was appealing that we could do it in two languages—Teleparent does 20, but mainly it was Spanish and English for our population here. We were not communicating on many occasions with our Spanish-speaking families.”

The results: “Teachers really feel it’s powerful. In secondary school, you end up on kind of an assembly line. You have six or seven periods, you have 35 kids every period. It gets very difficult, and you’re lucky to learn their names by Christmas. But this allowed a teacher to with one click let parents know that there’s a test on Thursday. With one click of a button, 200 kids get the message. From a teacher’s point of view, it’s an incredibly effective way of communicating the good, the bad, and general information. They can do it at home—it’s Web-based.”

Reaction: “Ninety percent of the parents are appreciative. They like the information, and are going to monitor it. ‘Okay, you’ve got a history test on Thursday, so you better make sure you study Wednesday.’ And it makes it so there’s no surprises. But you have the five-percenters that don’t want to hear five messages a day saying that their kids are messing up. I’m sure they’re not addressing the issues at home, and they do not want to hear it. But that doesn’t stop us from communicating.”

Next challenge?
“There are a number of report features: I can monitor who is communicating and who’s not, and what kind of communications. I’ve noticed that it’s heavily weighed toward, ‘Your kid messed up somehow.’ So one of my goals is to encourage and provide time for teachers to balance that with positive news. I’ve found out that a few teachers haven’t even used it; it’s not a requirement, but it’s a cause for conversation.”

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