By Barbara Bennett
When a bomb threat involving Beacon High School in Dutchess County popped up on the Internet, administrators immediately locked down and evacuated the building. How long do you think it took them to inform parents and the local media of the situation? The answer: one hour.
But that wasn't fast enough. Students had used their cell phones to call parents to tell them scattered details about the lockdown. "Parents were upset. They felt they hadn't been notified quickly enough about the situation," said Charles Symon, Beacon's assistant superintendent for media and operations. "We decided we needed to find a faster way to get news out."
The Beacon district chose School-Reach, a division of a St. Louis-based company called GroupCast, which offers automated communications including voice broadcasting, text and fax messaging. In the year that Beacon has been using SchoolReach, communication with parents has improved tremendously, according to Symon.
SchoolReach offers a web-based telephone system that has the ability to make 600,000 calls per hour. School officials upload contact numbers from their data banks to a secure module that can then be used to send messages to individuals, groups or the entire school community in a matter of seconds.
"Parents, faculty and students are conditioned for having fast-paced information flying at them," Paul Langhorst, GroupCast's co-founder and vice president of operations, told On Board. "If schools aren't using technology that keeps up the pace, they're going to miss people they want to reach."
A number of other companies also offer parental notification systems. These include AmCom, MessageOne, Integrity, Edulink Systems and Teleparent Educational Systems.
Beacon uses SchoolReach in its six schools. Symon told On Board that when the district puts out a message, the system calls 6,300 numbers in two minutes. The district has 4,000 individuals on the call list, many with more than one contact number.
The system redials unanswered calls twice after the initial call. It also keeps track of how many calls were delivered to a person, to voicemail and how many and which ones were unsuccessful and why. This helps the district keep track of which phone numbers have been disconnected so that they have the most up-to-date information possible.
Examples of messages that would go to everyone would include school closings or delays, event announcements and budget vote reminders. Non-emergency messages can be recorded in advance and programmed to be delivered at a desired time, Symon said.
The system allows officials to use either a pre-recorded voice or that of a staff member, depending on the type of message. When Beacon does a surprise lockdown drill, the superintendent personally records the message, which is sent to parents and the media one minute before the alarm is pulled.
Also, the messaging service allows recipients options to press a number when prompted to hear a different message or to hear the message in a different language. The school's phone number comes up on the recipient's caller ID so they know it's a call from the school.
Langhorst said one of the most time-saving uses for SchoolReach is making attendance calls. "Schools that use the attendance module see a significant decrease in the money spent on printing, toners, materials and manpower. The system calls automatically and staff members wait for parents to call back."
Beacon doesn't use the messaging service for attendance, preferring instead to have staff call parents when students are not in school. "We want to hear a voice and get feedback from parents when students are out," Symon explained.
Symon said the system doesn't require a lot of technological savvy. "There's no hardware or software - it's all done through the Internet using a telephone interface." He estimated training time to be 30 to 40 minutes per user. "The more you use it, the easier it gets," he said.
Because the programs are stored on the Internet, it can be programmed from any touch tone phone, Langhorst explained. "School can be closed and Internet service down and you can still use it, as long as you have access to a working phone line."
School information is stored in an encrypted state so there is no risk that it will get into the wrong hands. "We understand fears about the safety of storing parent information ... it's treated the same as when you use your credit card information on the Internet," Langhorst said. "There is no risk that it will fall into the wrong hands. We are also bound by contract not to sell or market our clients' information to other parties."
Langhorst warned that SchoolReach messages should be used sparingly. "We suggest that administration control the messages that are going out - too many dilutes its effectiveness and messages become telephone spam," he said.
SchoolReach charges a by-the-student fee for the service. Costs average $2.50 per student per year for unlimited use, which Langhorst said is less than 1 cent per day per student.
"It costs us about $8,500 a year," Symon said.
SchoolReach also includes an option for two-question surveys. Respondents can be instructed to press a particular number to register their answer. For an additional fee, school administrators can create a longer survey of up to nine questions. Clients would buy a license for each survey or buy a three-survey package for about $600, Langhorst said. All response data can be viewed and exported from SchoolReach's web interface.
Symon said parents in the Beacon district have come to rely on the SchoolReach to get information. "Parents will hear something at a board meeting and they'll say 'you'll call and remind us, right?'"