Making the Word Heard: Routine announcements, emergency messages easier with notification software

Technology has widened the options we have to communicate, but contacting people seems to be harder than ever. How many times have you left a voicemail on a home phone, sent an e-mail or text message, and then followed up with a cell phone call?

Multiply that frustration by hundreds of students at a school site or thousands in a district should a significant event occur, and you get a clear picture of the beauty of notification systems. Although most districts purchase the software to notify parents, students, and staff about inclement weather or school emergencies, new uses to inform and enlighten are still being discovered.

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Iredell-Statesville Schools chose ConnectED for its notification solution in 2005 and recently renewed its contract, which Pam Schiffman, chief accountability and technology officer, says reflects belief in the software.

The 35-school, 21,000-student district in Statesville, NC, uses the system districtwide only sparingly and usually in the event of inclement weather. Individual schools have their own policies, which can range from a couple of announcements a week to automated calls daily to the parents of absent students.

Notification to every number in the student information system database of 24,000 contacts takes less than 15 minutes, and a schoolwide message can be sent in under five minutes. “A user can record a message online or from a phone by following the prompts,” says Schiffman, who's been with the district for nine years out of a 36-year education career. “It even can translate to different languages.”

The state of North Carolina uses a proprietary SIS, so any software had to work in that environment. The ConnectED product was purchased by competitive bid, and notification information is hosted by the vendor. Schiffman notes that the product met pricing and configuration requirements but also received positive recommendations from other North Carolina districts that use the product.

“It takes a minimum amount of work to keep the database current,” Schiffman says. “We receive reports about numbers that are not good and statistics about the number of calls that were completed and how long it took. The reliability and versatility of the product are no-brainers.”

Per-Student Fee Attractive to Small District

“The feedback from parents is that they love it, and it's hard to sell them on anything,” Michael Smith says of the AlertNow system from Saf-T-Net.

Smith is superintendent of the Oakland (IL) Community Unit School District #5, which consists of two schools and 320 students. The district uses its notification system like an automated, personalized school calendar, with updates on school activities and event. Smith has sent out about 15 general announcements during the first half of the academic year about Saturday school, snow days, and upcoming holidays. He schedules those announcements to go out at a specific time so parents have an idea who's calling.

General announcements go to a student's main contact number, while emergency announcements go to every number on file. “We don't want to use that too often, but we would if there was a storm approaching and we needed to close school early,” Smith says.

Subsets of students and/or parents also can be called. For example, the basketball coach could call the kids on the team or alert only parents should the team bus be late returning from an away game. The superintendent is copied on all messages to monitor appropriate use of the system.

Smith says he looked at similar products from One Call Now and SchoolMessenger before settling on AlertNow. Considerations included price for a district his size, the ability to train, and recommendations from a neighboring district. He says the system is simple to use, and calling statistics come in handy when parents say they didn't receive a particular call.
The only people who don't love it are students who forget to turn their cell phones off during school hours, says Smith, noting that ringing phones are confiscated for a week. “If I tried to take the system away, there'd be an uproar,” Smith says.

Phone System Saves on Unified Messaging

The Pembina Trails School Division is saving an estimated $200,000 a year through a unified communications solution from Grandstream Networks and Objectworld Communications Corp.

The district of 34 buildings and 14,000 students in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, is connected by its own fast educational dark fiber network that makes a unified system possible. The Objectworld solution includes VoIP, unified messaging, call control, virtual voicemail, voice paging, and emergency out-dialing, coupled with Grandstream phones.

“We pay a single fee for the client license and an annual fee for each client that's one-half of the monthly fee we used to pay,” says Don Reece, director of IT. The solution doubled the number of phone lines the district could have, including one on each teacher's desk. Also, phone additions and changes can be handled internally with little IT staff time required to monitor and maintain the system.

Because the Objectworld solution includes notification features, the district discontinued using the system it had, resulting in additional savings. “We had a call out (system) for students when they were sick that we now can do through unified communications,” Reece says.

Emergency alerts can be broadcast through the school's overhead paging systems as well as through system phones for teachers and direct automated calls to phone numbers associated with each student. The district is beta testing a Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) paging system that could push out information to projectors in every classroom.

Pembina Trails examined enterprise solutions from Cisco, Nortel, and Mytel, as well as Linux Asterisk before choosing Objectworld.

“Objectworld was a new company, but we did a proof of concept in four buildings to start,” Reece says. “We were going to scale up over two years but wound up doing the rollout in six months. We ultimately didn't pay for it because of the savings.”

-- By Matt Bolch