Payson Unified School District this week debuted a new system to communicate with parents about everything from student absences to school lockdowns.
This week for the first time the parents of elementary school students who miss school should get a computerized call, text message or e-mail to let them know — building on a much slower, clunkier and time-consuming system used previously at the high school and middle school.
“This will give us the customer service and communications that we really want to have,” said Joni de Szendeffy, the district’s technology and data coordinator.
“It will allow us to get urgent messages out quickly — like snow days,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien.
The district will pay $6,000 annually to operate the SchoolMessenger program, which will start by taking over tracking school attendance and letting parents know when their school lunch accounts have run out of money — but which will eventually revolutionize communications with parents at all levels.
Oddly enough, the program will also save the district money, said de Szendeffy.
The district will use the new system to conduct an annual survey of parent satisfaction with their children’s school, which will save $2,000 annually. The district will also save the $1,200 cost of running the existing notification system and an estimated $5,000 annually in postage for various notifications.
“The system pays for itself while improving communications — which is a huge priority for the school board — not to mention the safety factor,” said de Szendeffy, an 11-year veteran of the district who now does the job of two people since the layoffs of the past two years.
The district has for some years used a computerized phone dialing notification system, mostly to tell the parents of high school students that their child has missed classes. That system relied on dialing phone numbers one by one, so it would take hours to make even simple notifications at a single school.
That left the district with few options two years ago when the report of a student with a gun in a school parking lot prompted the district to order a lockdown of the school until police found the student — who by then had left campus. The only system the district had operating at that time would have taken hours to laboriously make a single attempt to reach parents with a computerized notice at whatever phone number they had provided for contact.
However, SchoolMessenger can now accomplish the same task in about 10 minutes. School officials can type in a message, which the computer will turn into a voice recording, translate into Spanish and then upload to the Web. The program then generates a text message, voice message or e-mail, depending on the contact information parents provide when they enroll their child. The program then makes hundreds of calls simultaneously, resulting in an almost real-time communications system.
The district can also use the system to conduct quick, inexpensive surveys of parents. In that case, district officials will come up with the questions, probably asking people to punch in numbers 1 to 5, depending on whether they strongly agree or strongly disagree with the question. The program will collect and analyze the responses, providing the district with a quick tabulation of the results.
“So we can ask people if they want a closed high school campus, reactions to the cell phone policy, what are your feelings on school unification,” said de Szendeffy.
“This will give us a great opportunity to just massively say ‘what do you think?’ The ability to envelop parents and bring them into the equation is fabulous.” Ultimately, the system could help teachers and principals stay in much closer touch with parents.
Already, the system offers the potential for both school principals and classroom teachers to put out basic notices that can fit into a short message or a Twitter-like e-mail. Such notices might remind parents about field trips, or test days, or half days, or awards or missing homework. Ultimately, each school will have someone who can send out such routine notices and updates.
However, the system promises to eventually dramatically alter the way in which teachers communicate with parents, with many studies documenting the vital role parental involvement plays in student success.
The district already operates a Web site called EdLine, which enables parents to log onto the site to check for messages from their child’s teacher, which could include updates on homework and planned activities. A great many parents at the high school use the system, but it isn’t widely used by students in other schools.
SchoolMessenger can eventually provide another option, that doesn’t depend on parents logging onto a Web site.
That next step depends in great measure on whether the district can augment the telephone contacts schools already maintain with e-mail contacts. In theory, the system would make it possible for a school principal to prepare a long message on something like the school’s latest test scores and e-mail it to all the parents in the school.
Just a year ago, the district had e-mail addresses for only about 15 percent of the parents in the district. However, this fall each school asked for e-mail addresses in addition to the regular contact information. So now, the district has e-mail addresses on perhaps 60 percent of the parents.