Texas District Connects with Parents via Technology
- By Bridget McCrea
For Brenda Speer, superintendent of Bynum Independent School District, striking a balance between cutting expenses, but not eliminating important programs and services, lit up the light bulb over her head: Would it be possible to save the district more than $700 a month in postage expenses alone by implementing a tech-based parental notification system?
Speer presented the idea to the powers that be, and the Bynum, TX district was given the go-ahead to start using the SchoolReach instant notification system last year.
SchoolReach allows administrators like Speer to record a brief message for delivery to an extensive or selective list of parents, teachers, or students simultaneously. Because the system is able to call or text parents at a preferred phone number or multiple phone numbers, including work, home, or cell phone numbers, it's designed to perform in emergency situations.
Speer said installation and implementation were straightforward. She simply sent SchoolReach the district's student information file, which in turn was uploaded to the Web-based contact system. The Web-based system required no on-site hardware, software, or phone lines. Running the system costs the district about $750 a year, an amount that's "well worth it," according to Speer.
A prepaid service with one- to three-year contract options, SchoolReach offers storage for each individual school to include all student phone numbers and up to 99 user-defined lists, in addition to unlimited use of the vendor's Web site and toll-free access system. The Web-based system is protected by dual login and password protection, and access is protected by GeoTrust 128-bit SSL encryption and Cisco firewall security.
Situated in the farm and ranch country of Hill County, TX, six miles southeast of Hillsboro, and serving 250 students in grades pre-K through 12, Bynum ISD started using the instant notification system to manage announcements centered on weather delays and school closures. Because the rural district did not have any local media outlets, Speer previously had to call every television and radio station in nearby Waco and Dallas to make those announcements.
"Getting the word out to parents was a big undertaking in time and energy," said Speer. "I not only had to make multiple calls to the various stations, but I also had to wait for the announcements to air to be sure the message was being delivered."
Speer said she got the idea for SchoolReach from a few other superintendents who were already using it successfully. Initially she saw the tech-based system as a viable way to handle communications during emergency situations. Over the last year, however, the system has proved itself to be even more diverse than Speer initially thought.
Because the SchoolReach system is accessible online 24 hours a day, Speer said, she's now able to be more active and creative in her communication efforts with parents. That's what led her to use the Web-based system to send out announcements regarding pending progress reports and report cards.
Using the notification system, the district has also stopped mailing individual student progress reports and report cards every three and six weeks, respectively. Instead, Speer now delivers one voicemail message to parents alerting them that the reports are coming home in their children's backpacks.
The notification system also eradicated the need for a district newsletter and serves as a communication mode for general announcements about grade level concerns, sporting activities, and reminders about upcoming, high-stakes tests.
Using SchoolReach, Speer can either record personal messages via a phone line or use an automated system through her computer. She can also record messages in advance and then schedule them for broadcast at a later date. Speer said feedback from parents receiving those messages has been positive. "We haven't had one single phone call to ask us to stop contacting their house," she said. "There's been no negative feedback at all."
To make message distribution easier, Speer optimized the SchoolReach storage feature that allows her to create a district-wide student list that includes all student and parent phone numbers plus up to 99 unique user-defined lists. The district's current call lists are categorized by grade level, sports teams, national honor society, degreed staff and all district employees.
Bynum ISD is just one of more than 300 school districts, private schools and archdioceses in Texas that have implemented the SchoolReach Instant Parent Contact system this year alone.
Up next, said Speer, will be the addition of telephone numbers of neighbors and other families that live around the school, but that may not currently have children attending Bynum schools. "We'll be able to announce fundraising activities," said Speer, "and school concerns that will bring our rural community together."
Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].