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Schools’ parental notification systems deliver info efficiently

TUESDAY, SEPT. 25, 2012

When a 12-year-old boy went missing Friday in Coeur d’Alene, school officials turned to a new emergency notification system to alert parents by email and phone. About 12,000 households received messages before the student was found unharmed Saturday morning.

“We were still in testing mode, and we just decided to go live with this,” said Laura Rumpler, spokeswoman for the Coeur d’Alene School District.

Schools are relying more on digital dialing systems like this to spread the word about weather-related school closures, bomb threats and school lockdowns, as well as to communicate about routine matters like unexcused absences, overdue library books and PTA meetings.

Spokane Public Schools has just picked a new vendor capable of notifying families of all 29,000 students in the district using phone calls, emails and text messages.

The BrightArrow system will be up and running within 60 days and will be able to reach 80,000 to 90,000 contacts in about 45 minutes, said Clay Gehring, executive director of technology services for Spokane schools.

“We have to have a way to communicate en masse with all parents to help keep them informed,” Gehring said.

The Coeur d’Alene School District has been testing its new Skylert emergency notification system, a $12,000 subscription service covered by a grant from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

When officials discovered the Woodland Middle School student never made it to school Friday, the district sent an email on its old system to parents with kids at that school and at Ramsey Elementary School, which the boy had attended previously. Coeur d’Alene police also issued an Amber Alert and sent an emergency notification call to certain households Friday night.

Early Saturday, before the boy had been found sitting alone in a Post Falls field, the school district turned to Skylert to send another email to more than 10,000 addresses of parents districtwide.

“We decided to send it out to everyone in the hopes that they could help look out for him and get the word out,” Rumpler said.

After police located the boy, she crafted another message to let families know he had been found and was OK, and to thank those who assisted in the search. That message went out via email and more than 12,000 phone calls in a span of 20 minutes.

The district will use Skylert only for emergencies, such as snow closures, school lockdowns and anything that might interrupt the normal school routine. Parents will be able to log into the district’s Family Access information system and configure how they wish to receive emergency notices, including the option of text messages.

If they’d rather get an email about snow days, and not an early morning phone call, they can make that change.

The Skylert application is being used by 280 customers of Skyward, which makes software products for school systems.

“It’s amazing how much of an increase we’re seeing in schools using this technology,” said Ray Ackerlund, the company’s director of marketing and product management.

School districts now can send unlimited messages in a variety of media and in multiple languages, Ackerlund said.

Spokane Public Schools has used Edulink to alert parents to student absences or notify groups of school activities, but the district has lacked a means of sending messages quickly to all student households.

BrightArrow will cost the district 95 cents per student per year. It will allow the district to disseminate emergency news quickly to a wide audience, or send a message to contacts within a ZIP code or neighborhood, or on a customized list.

Parents’ expectations are evolving, and this technology responds to that, Gehring said.

“They want to have information pushed to them as opposed to them going to a website or going to turn the TV on to check when school is closed,” he said.

Officials must take care to find the right balance of information, he added.

“If you were to communicate about every single activity at your school, pretty soon it becomes noise,” Gehring said. “If you’re calling two to three times a week, the parent is going to get really annoyed with it.”

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