The No Child Left Behind Act has put even greater pressure on the nation’s schools to perform. Automated messages have helped thousands of school systems across the country meet the law’s strict parental notification requirements by providing a unique way to communicate in a timely and efficient manner.

Automated communications have solved communication challenges for schools and districts by distributing an almost unlimited pipeline of school and student information to parents. Communication with parents has been shown to improve attendance, and studies show that increased attendance improves student performance. Many schools have learned how to use automated messages to increase attendance, achievement, student safety and overall parent satisfaction dramatically.

From absent student alert calls, to emergency notification, to grade and lunch balance information, schools and districts are generating and passing information electronically and efficiently to parents. “Two-way communication between the home and the school is the critical component to increasing parental involvement,” said Jeff Warhol, marketing director for U.S. Netcom Corp.–developer of PhoneMaster, an easy-to-use, automated communication solution.

U.S. Netcom delivers messages to parents via telephone and eMail with information generated directly from a school’s student management software. Parents have access to grades, test scores, lunch balances, bus schedules, library fees, classroom information, and almost any student data, available to them whenever they need it and no matter what their schedule is. In school systems using the product, parents can call and access information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

More communication equals improved attendance

One school using automated communications to improve attendance is Largo High School in Pinellas County, Fla. The school has cut its absences almost in half since it began using PhoneMaster’s EasyCaller application during the 2001-2002 school year to contact parents on a daily basis about student absences.

Nearly 400 students were absent from class either all day or part of the day out of a school population of 2,000 students. A staff person recorded a message, downloaded a student call list, and PhoneMaster’s EasyCaller systematically called each parent to deliver the message about his or her student’s absence. Today, the number of absences is down to 250 (nearly half).

The school decided to upgrade this year to PhoneMaster for Windows, which on a daily basis automatically downloads the student call list from SASI, the school’s student information system (SIS). “The system virtually runs itself,” said Kent Vermeer, assistant principal for curriculum, who spends only three to five minutes each day printing the call report. PhoneMaster is also used to communicate regularly with parents about PTA meetings, standardized tests, and other events. “Every school should have this system,” said Vermeer. “The more information you give parents, the better it is for the students.”

PhoneMaster not only delivers absence and tardy notifications, but can also deliver emergency notifications and instructions, progress reports, invitations to school events, voice newsletters, weekly class curriculum and activities, missing child neighborhood alerts, report card announcements, physical and shots reminders, and almost any information schools and districts need to communicate to parents.

Diverse communication equals more parental involvement

Falls Church High School in Falls Church, Va., began using PhoneMaster for Windows to help school officials increase and improve communication with the parents of a very diverse student population. Of the school’s 1,500 students, about 70 percent are Hispanic, 10 percent are Caucasian, and the rest are Asian and African-American.

“PhoneMaster is one of the best technology tools I’ve seen in my 20 years in public schools,” said Conrad Hollingsworth, ninth-grade administrator at Falls Church High School. “Not only do many of these parents speak their native language, but they work two to three jobs, which increases the communication challenges.” Using PhoneMaster for Windows, the school is able to reach every parent with a personal message in one of the three dominant languages represented at the school–English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

One way Hollingsworth has used PhoneMaster was to notify parents of a spring parent-teacher conference. “Eight hundred parents showed up, double what we had in the fall when we didn’t use PhoneMaster for these reminders,” he said. “A person without any technical experience can use PhoneMaster because it’s a Windows product. It provides so many prompts that it easily walks you through the steps.”

PhoneMaster helps create a comprehensive school-to-home communication plan

The Washington Elementary School District (WESD) in Phoenix has received national, state, and local recognition for its commitment to enhancing the school-family relationship. WESD has continued to fine-tune a comprehensive plan of school-to-home communication by using PhoneMaster as an integral tool.

On a daily basis, WESD faces the challenge of keeping busy parents aware of what’s happening in their children’s lives at school. It makes sense to make the most of the telephone, because “97 percent of homes have a telephone,” said Nedda Shafir, director of community services for the 32-school district. “Automated voice messaging and 24-7 access to school information through voice mail is a very convenient and effective way to keep parents informed.”

Equipped with a phone in each classroom, WESD teachers can conveniently record messages and retrieve messages from parents through the PhoneMaster technology. “Parents will be your partners if you let them,” said Pat Farmer, math teacher at Mountain Sky Elementary. “I can’t call 150 sets of parents every day, and even if five parents call in, it’s worth it.”

At the end of each school day, Shannon Bonnette, fifth-grade teacher at John Jacobs Elementary, records a message on her individual voice mail stating the day’s activities, homework, and a review question that can bring the student bonus points the next day. Parents or students can call Bonnette’s voice mail any time of the day or night to listen to her message. “It works pretty well,” Bonnette said. “The review question provides an incentive for students or their parents to call into the voice mail.”

WESD has also found that PhoneMaster is one of the quickest ways to get information out to parents in a crisis. When one school received a bomb threat, Shafir turned to the Service Bureau at U.S. Netcom headquarters to notify every parent in the school within just 20 minutes. In another incident, Shafir notified parents of a school lock-down while police searched the area near the school for an armed suspect. The police apprehended the suspect, and the children were kept safe.

How the technology works

U.S. Netcom offers central-office solutions that use from two to an unlimited number of phone lines, depending on the size of the school district and the issues it’s looking to solve, Warhol said.

Suppose a school attendance clerk wants to conduct a calling session to parents of absent students alerting them their children were not at school. The clerk would identify absent students from the school’s existing SIS package. A data file that includes the students’ name, student ID, parent phone number, and parent eMail address is extracted from the database and placed in a PhoneMaster folder located on the hard drive. Depending on the SIS package, this process can be automated, requiring no intervention from the school’s office staff.

PhoneMaster then continually polls the folder to see if new phone numbers or addresses have been added. When it sees a data file, PhoneMaster calls down the list of phone numbers to deliver a prerecorded absence notification message. It follows a similar method to deliver text messages to eMail addresses.

Completion of the calls depends on the number of calls made. A four-line system will deliver about 200 30-second messages per hour, which generally fills the calling requirements of schools with 2,500 or fewer students, Warhol said.


U.S. Netcom Corp.

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