Automated Notification System Improves Calif. School District's Crisis Management, Attendance


Three years ago, Santana High School and Granite Hills High School, both California-based schools in the Grossmont Union High School District (GUHSD), made national news. Each school experienced shooting incidents within 15 days of each other in which two students were killed. It's one of the worst crises a school can face, and the district had to deal with two separate tragedies in two weeks. Thus, fast and accurate communication with parents and the community was crucial to managing a crisis of this magnitude.

To help the district through it, GUHSD administrator Warren Williams turned to US Netcom's PhoneMaster, an automated notification technology system that the district acquired last year to provide quick, efficient contact by phone and e-mail with the district's 24,000 parents. Williams, assistant superintendent of information and technology services, says: "I'm not sure how we would have managed without it. We were able to call all parents that evening and give them the details of what had happened. The message was recorded by the principal, which gave parents a sense of reassurance that the situation was being handled. It also provided a fast way to ensure accurate information was getting to them."

PhoneMaster technology gives schools the power of two-way communication with parents. It allows schools to call or e-mail parents with important messages and reminders, as well as enables parents to call in and access information about the school and their child at any time — all with very little staff time required to perform the task.

Installed on GUHSD's main server, the telephony system, which is equipped with 48 phone lines, is accessible through the district's Web browser and maintained by its technology staff. With such a large system, GUHSD could reach 20,000 homes within a matter of a few hours — a powerful tool in emergency situations.

In the aftermath of the school shootings, the district used the technology to keep parents updated about such things as counseling and community services available, assemblies, and plans for the school's reopening. "We had scores of parents calling and thanking us for this direct communication," says Williams. "The messages helped the entire community."

School-to-Home Communication

School-to-home communication is just as important when it comes to the daily events of school life. Schools in the district use the technology every day to notify parents of student absences, and the consistent calling has paid off. In fact, the district has one of the best attendance records in California — a whopping 95% of students are attending a Grossmont school on a daily basis, up from 90% two years ago.

Williams believes the automated daily absence notification plays a big part in the district's increased attendance. "We did revamp our attendance policies and took a tougher stance with students, as well as gave schools incentives for improved attendance," says Williams. "I think those policies, accompanied with the daily calls, made the difference."

The school district's telephony technology uses a recorded message that is automatically sent to the homes of every absent student. It can also simultaneously send a text message to parent e-mail addresses — a sure way to prevent students from intercepting the phone messages at home. In addition, the district can designate a start and stop time for the calling period, as well as determine the number of call attempts to make.

To streamline the daily absence notification process, the district's technology staff wrote a customized program that grabs the absentee call list from each school at a particular time of day. The attendance clerks simply record the absences each day and PhoneMaster takes care of the notification process automatically. The application was designed to interface with GUHSD's Web-based PowerSchool student information system (SIS). It also works well with other common SIS packages from Pearson Digital Learning, Eagle, Chancery, Excelsior and Rediker.

At the beginning of a calling session, PhoneMaster works down the list of phone numbers, dialing each in an attempt to deliver the message. For phones that are not answered, the system continues trying to make contact until the calling period ends. US Netcom's patented MachineMaster technology can even leave messages on answering machines or cell phones.

Once the calling period is complete, each school can download and print a detailed report that identifies the delivery status of each call. This allows the district to provide proof that parents were called. It also helps district staff identify wrong phone numbers that need to be corrected, which helps the district keep its student database current.

Sending Targeted Messages

With PhoneMaster, any staff member throughout the district can send a targeted message to a group of parents or students by accessing the system through the school's Web browser. PhoneMaster is also available as a self-contained unit that connects to and works alongside any Windows-based computer. Staff members districtwide use the technology to get the word out on every event imaginable — from testing schedules and graduation to theater events and sports playoffs. It came in handy in another emergency situation when some schools without air conditioning were forced to close due to excessive heat.

After staff members acquire a particular call list from the PowerSchool database (e.g., seniors or freshman football players) it can then be stored on the system for future use. "We've had tremendous success with it because it's easy for our staff to use," says Williams. "We've increased our communication to parents tenfold; practically every activity on our campuses gets publicized through PhoneMaster; and it's improved our attendance and parent responsiveness."

The technology has helped the district cut costs and staff time as well. "Prior to PhoneMaster, we relied heavily on the post office for our communication," says Williams. "Having the option of automated calling, we've saved money on mailings, postage and paper. Then there's the staff time it takes to create those notices. It takes five minutes to set up PhoneMaster to make the calls, and they're done."

Prior to upgrading to PhoneMaster, the school used an older DOS-based system that didn't allow staff the ease and freedom of sending their own messages. Staff formerly had to request that the district's IT staff at the central administrative office set up and make the calls for them. "This inhibited general use made for a heavier workload for our IT staff," says Williams. "Now, instead of using it just for absence notification, we use it constantly — anytime there is a necessary or helpful communication to parents."

Williams has also noticed a marked increase in parental involvement and turnout at some school events. "When our athletes made the playoffs, we sent out a message announcing the game," he says. "We've seen much bigger turnouts because of it."

Turning Parents into Partners

Although district administrators have concentrated most of their communications efforts through this "out-dial" notification, the system also offers many in-bound parent-accessible options. Through interactive voice response (IVR) technology, the system can provide parents with up-to-date information on their students' academic progress. The system also offers the option of creating thousands of voice-mail boxes for teacher and staff use. In addition, parents can use this extensive automated message center anytime to access information on daily homework assignments, upcoming tests, parent-teacher meetings, calendars of events and more — all at times convenient for them.

Toward that end, Williams says the school district plans to create a bulletin board of choices that parents and students can access. He intends to have area businesses sponsor the future Grossmont Information Hotline and use those proceeds to fund school projects.

For his part, Williams continues to use PhoneMaster's notification technology on a daily basis to build parental involvement throughout the district, as well as to turn those parents into partners in their children's education. Parents appreciate the increased communication coming from Grossmont schools, and the results in improved attendance, student performance and parent involvement have proven well worth the effort.

— Pamela Warren

Contact Information
US Netcom Corp.
(800) 695-7788

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.