Archive for Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Districts find new ways to get word out

January 9, 2008

Area school districts know that in the event of an emergency, the more ways they have to get out an alert, the better.

That's why many districts and universities don't rely on just one method of communication. Many employ a combination of automated phone calls, text messaging, e-mail and Web site bulletins.

Whether it's inclement winter weather or a bomb threat, schools are always looking for new ways to send alerts fast - to as many people as possible.

For instance, the Lawrence school district recently installed an automated calling system, SchoolMessenger, that sends a recorded message to parents districtwide or to specific schools about any emergencies or a sudden weather event during the school day, such as a tornado.

It has been used once since it was implemented. In November, a threatening note was found in a classroom at Woodlawn Elementary School. The principal recorded a message about the note and it was sent to parents. The school also sent a note home with students the next day.

"It was a good way for us to see how the system works," district spokeswoman Julie Boyle said.

Boyle said that situation wouldn't normally constitute an emergency, but the district wanted to take the opportunity to test its new system.

Tried and true

SchoolMessenger won't replace methods that have worked for the district in the past, Boyle said.

"We've always used the local media to get information out to the community. We have a Web site, we have a public access channel we have used. Of course there's plenty of people you can call here. We'll continue to use all those methods to communicate. This just gives us another tool. It won't replace the tools we already use," Boyle said.

Other school districts that use similar automated calling systems are Eudora, Bonner Springs, Basehor, Baldwin City, Tonganoxie and Perry-Lecompton. In addition, the Lansing school district is setting up a calling system.

The De Soto school district also uses text messaging, which is more common, for now, among universities. The Lawrence schools' system has the capability to send text messages and it is an option the district might use in the future, Boyle said. Most school districts also post information on their Web sites and have the ability to send e-mails.

Other uses for the communication systems are being considered by many districts. Some possibilities are parent-teacher conference reminders, lunch account balances and reminders of upcoming tests. But the districts also want to make sure they aren't sending out so many messages that parents stop picking up the phone.

"We don't want to cross that line where we're contacting parents where our calls might be ignored," said Denis Yoder, Perry-Lecompton superintendent.

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