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On Notice: Virginia District Gets Savvy with Messaging
October 1, 2007
The need for a school-wide lockdown came quickly and probably would have caught administrators off guard had it not been for their new tech-based notification system. It happened during the first month of the 2007-08 year, and, rather than being confronted by a hoard of frantic parents at the front door, an staffer at Prince George High School in Prince George, VA, jotted off a message that was sent to every applicable parent.
The note let students know a threat that had been called into the school was being handled, that the school was locked down, and that all students were safe. The scenario didn't work out quite so smoothly a few months earlier for another district, which found itself fielding requests for information over the phone and in person from anxious parents who had been incorrectly informed by one or more students that there was a gunman on campus.
"Hundreds of parents showed up on campus, and there was no such threat taking place," said Nate Brogan, assistant vice president of sales at Santa Cruz, CA-based SchoolMessenger. "By sending out a short, quick message, the district would have been able to communicate the straight story and avoided the confusion that came about as a result of the rumors."
That's what R. Francis Moore, superintendent at the Prince George County Public Schools, and his staff had in mind when they implemented the notification system this year. In fact, he credits the acquisition of a SchoolMessenger notification system with creating a streamlined parental communication process that's used for everything from PTA announcements to emergency bulletins.
Moore said the system was selected after several months of quotation gathering, and that the district entered into a contract with SchoolMessenger this summer. Previously the district was using a telephone-based system to get the word out to the parents of students at a single school. "Now we're using our vendor's server and telephone lines, and it's much quicker," said Moore, whose end goal was to increase communication with parents and families and to do it "in a much faster way."
Through the system, the district or any individual school can communicate regularly with parents in a 24/7 environment and in any language using voice messages, e-mail, or text messaging. The solution also includes a survey feature that allows administrators to query families regarding key issues and then use that insight to improve programs and services.
When an emergency occurs on any campus, the system's calling capabilities kick into action, enabling thousands of messages to be delivered within minutes. "In emergency situations that range from lockdowns to school closings [owing to] inclement weather," said Moore, "we can get the word out to parents in very short order."
Moore said the learning curve for using the Web-based system was minimal and that the district's director of technology serves as the point of contact for technical issues. Once parents confirmed their contact information (phone, cell phone, and e-mail), it was just a matter of downloading the school's database into the system. "[I] and a few of our principals are old-school and didn't grow up in the technology age," said Moore. "Even for us, the system is user-friendly."
That's the idea, said Brogan. Knowing that school districts are particularly concerned about community perception surrounding bomb scares and other threats, Brogan said he sees technology as a viable way to cut the rumors off at the source and provide better information to students, parents, faculty, and staff.
"Students today using text messaging can spread messages like wildfire," said Brogan. "If it's not the district's word that's spreading, the situation can quickly spiral out of control."
Prince George County Public Schools serves 6,200 students in five elementary, one middle, one junior high, and one senior high school.