School phone trees are being eclipsed by phone systems that can dial thousands of numbers in minutes and alert parents to emergencies, schedule changes, and even events, saving administrators time and stress. Included: Examples of how these phone systems can be used.
A new generation of calling systems is on the market that could make phone trees and backpack-borne memos things of the past.
The systems allow administrators to make one phone call and have their message delivered to hundreds of phones within minutes.
Users of these types of systems told Education World they save time and stress during emergencies and even when disseminating routine information.
"We are able to contact people quickly," said Michael Malone, superintendent of the Plainville (Massachusetts) Public Schools. "In the past, we had to put eight or nine people on the phones [to make calls]. It's great for keeping people posted and updated in the event of an emergency."
Several of the administrators with whom Education World spoke use the Connect-ED system, which allows them to reach thousands of parents within minutes. The system even calls multiple numbers for the same person, and can be used to call everyone in the district, or just the parents from one school or one bus route.
"Two things got us looking into these kinds of systems," said Dr. Steven R. Staples, superintendent of the Yorktown (Virginia) County School Division. "One was Hurricane Isabelle [in 2003]; all communications systems went down. We wanted to try a cell phone initiated system.
"In the other case, a middle school's heating system failed in January. We didn't have the means to call 1,100 parents at once, and we didn't want to send the kids home. So we moved them to the high school auditorium where they were warm and at least somewhat contained."
Since getting the system in July 2005, Dr. Staples has used it to thank all the staff for doing a good job getting schools ready for opening day, and one principal was able to alert parents over a weekend that a student had been killed. "The principal was able to notify all the parents and asked them to talk to their children so the students did not come to school Monday and learn the news," Dr. Staples said.
He anticipates using the system to notify parents of school closings, delays, or early dismissals due to bad weather.
The ability to communicate quickly with parents also can stop the spread of rumors, several administrators said.
"I was able to let parents know that some buses would be starting their routes later," Plainville's Malone said. "We also were able to alert people that a fire truck outside of a school was there because of a gas leak."
Dr. Staples said he also used the phone system to notify parents when a gun was found in the trunk of a student's car. "We were able to notify all the parents for that school before the rumor mill got started," he said.
Besides using the phone system to notify parents of activities and school cancellations, some districts also use it verify attendance, according to Nick Janelli, superintendent of the Wrentham (Massachusetts) Public Schools.
"It calls the home of every student who's absent and leaves a message," Janelli said. "The system also knows if there are siblings in the same school, so it only makes one call."
Wrentham's system calls 1,474 numbers, which include parents, all staff members, and town employees. "This way, they [town workers] know if school will be closed," Janelli noted.
Systems such as Connect-ED are called application service providers (ASPs), and are purchased as a package of equipment and services. More than 5,000 schools and districts currently use Connect-ED, according to Natasha Rabe, chief marketing officer for The NTI Group, which sells Connect-ED.
Several administrators noted that they are satisfied with the reliability of Connect-ED, because it reaches more than 90 percent of the numbers in its system. "I always put myself on the call list, so I know when the call goes out," Malone said.
The system also allows staff members to update phone lists promptly. "It tells you if there is a wrong number, if the number is busy, or if there is no answer," added Malone.
"We get a printout of calls that don't go through, so we can update numbers," Janelli continued. "Parents can give us up to seven numbers to call."
When it comes to notifying parents, covering as many bases as possible is crucial, administrators said.
"There may be some duplication, but in the event of an emergency, people would rather get two calls than none," Dr. Staples noted.
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