If you think your job is tough, try staying in touch with more than 241 schools and 166,000 students.

That’s the challenge facing Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the nation’s 12th largest school system.

From weather-related school closings and boundary changes to news about test scores or where the basketball teams are playing, parents want to know what’s going on in their children’s schools.

Last year during the sniper attacks, this need to know–already compelling–became insatiable.

“Everyone wants to be kept informed and know what’s going on,” says Jill Kurtz, the community relations officer who spearheaded the district’s new communications project. “Given the size of our district, we could never afford to mail a newsletter or other information out to everyone on a regular basis. Also, by the time you get something out in print, it’s often out of date. That’s why we started looking at the web.”

Fairfax County’s goals were clear: Administrators wanted a cost-effective, turnkey operation that would help them quickly and easily get in touch with thousands of people. The system also would have to be easy to use and maintain.

Although the original focus was on district-level communications, the superintendent and community relations staff also wanted something that could be adapted for use by individual schools.

To help parents and community members stay up to date, Fairfax County turned to MediaNext, a local company that develops web-based software and solutions.

The company’s web-based application–E-Mail Director–enabled the school system to gather and build a communications database that could be used for sending (or “pushing,” in techno jargon) out a variety of messages.

Called “Keep in Touch,” the program is completely voluntary. Parents and other interested stakeholders sign up online via the district’s web site.

As soon as parents register their eMail addresses, they’re sent a link that lets them add a second eMail address, pager, or cell phone number for text notifications. Parents also may specify the types of information they want to receive, such as emergency notices, class activities, current events at the school and county level, and so on.

In addition to individual preferences, the database can be segmented by school or region, allowing district and school officials to target their messages more effectively. Autoresponders–those messages your eMail program automatically sends when you’re out of town or otherwise away from your eMail–also can be customized.

This differentiation is key, according to school officials and MediaNext, as many similar programs don’t offer this feature, thus creating a “one size fits all” approach that loses the power of tailor-made communication.

Parents can unsubscribe from the service or update their profile at any time, saving district and school personnel the time and expense of data entry and keeping information current–the bane of most database managers.

From its initial launch in April 2002, the program has grown exponentially, with more than 80,000 subscribers district-wide.

“We have a wonderful story that needs to be told,” said Kurtz. “Keep in Touch allows us to go directly to the community and let them know what’s going on without having to rely on the media or other sources.”

Recent examples include alerting parents and the community about school closings and safety precautions when a hurricane blasted the East Coast, and celebrating the district’s achievement when all Fairfax County high schools were ranked among the “Best in the U.S.” by Newsweek magazine.

If you’re interested in launching a similar program at your school or district, you need to do a little homework first and consider who you want to reach, why, and with what messages.

You’ll also want to determine how many schools will use the program and set up some kind of process for controlling the message and the medium. Nothing is worse than setting up a great new channel of communication, only to have it clogged by messages and information that are important only to the sender.

Make sure your district maintains complete control and ownership of the databases you create. Some companies will entice school systems with free service or discount prices, only to sell your data to marketers–a PR nightmare you’ll want to make sure you avoid.

Pricing from MediaNext and other vendors varies greatly, depending upon the software features required, the number of users involved, and other communication needs.

It’s also important to use a company that understands the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA) and stays up-to-date with rapidly changing local, state, and federal regulations and laws governing telecommunications, direct marketing, public records, and so on.

“MediaNext is constantly reviewing new regulations and laws and advising our 400-plus clients accordingly,” wrote Joann Kress, MediaNext’s director of technology services, in an eMail interview.

Kress also swears that E-Mail Director is easy to use and requires minimal training–something Fairfax County’s Kurtz affirms. “This is a simple product to use,” says Kress. “Anyone who is familiar with sending an eMail [message] can use this application. A simple, one- to two-hour training will allow any user to become an expert on E-Mail Director.”

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Fairfax County Public Schools

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.