When the School District of Clayton, Mo., added a voice broadcast system to its communication toolkit late last fall, school officials weren’t sure how parents would react when they started receiving district messages at home.

However, when a heavy snowstorm blanketed the St. Louis area in January and prompted an unusual Sunday evening closing announcement, the small suburban district decided to find out.

The SchoolReach service, designed and offered by a St. Louis-based company called GroupCast Messaging Systems, was ready. The district had updated its database and had tested the automated phone messaging system on two previous occasions.

Once the decision to close school was made, all district officials had to do was record a brief, personalized message and launch the broadcast with one keystroke. Within 10 minutes, the message was delivered to more than 2,500 households.

The result? Parents were thrilled. For the first time, they didn’t have to stay up late for the nightly news, scan web sites, call friends who were teachers, or get up at the crack of dawn to check weather conditions.

“We had an overwhelmingly positive response from parents,” says Chris Tennill, Clayton’s director of communications. “It’s an efficient and effective communication tool, and parents really appreciate it.”

Staff members benefited, too, as the voice broadcast system beat the schools’ traditional telephone trees.

Now Clayton middle school teachers are using the system to keep parents informed about their children’s home base activities, while Tennill is using it to remind parents about an important community-wide meeting this month regarding the end of state funding for desegregation.

“The personalized message recording really adds to the overall sense of the community feeling personally engaged in our schools,” says Tennill. “GroupCast fits in with what we’re already doing in terms of public engagement, and adds another component.”

With SchoolReach, a school or district can call all parents or merely segments of its enrollment to include only certain grade levels or schools. GroupCast also can modify the SchoolReach service to address specific school or district concerns.

“GroupCast was really easy to work with, and [company officials] were willing to tailor-make the system to meet our needs,” says Tennill. “The system’s flexibility offers opportunities for faculty and staff to use it for things other than crisis communication and emergency communications.”

St. Louis-area Catholic schools are also using GroupCast to contact parents during emergency situations and for more routine matters, according to Terry Edelmann, community relations director for the Catholic Education Office.

“We’re very impressed with it,” says Edelmann, whose office provides marketing and public relations guidance and support to 170 Catholic schools.

“Now that the unimaginable has become imaginable, the ability to contact people immediately, using every conceivable number where parents can be reached, sadly, has become very important,” says Edelmann.

GroupCast enables schools to prelist home, work, cell phone, and pager numbers for each child’s guardian in the event of an unplanned dismissal or school emergency.

Administrators then dial a toll-free number from any phone, record a message, and have that message delivered to each parent phone number listed within a matter of minutes.

The system costs just pennies a phone call and can be used for a variety of school communication purposes–from venue changes for school performances, to registration deadlines or sports team cancellations, to yearbook payment reminders and report card notices.

Although a variety of service plans are available, schools generally are charged on prepaid basis, with the base plan including up to 3,000 30-second calls, making the service affordable for most school budgets. Because the service is web-based, no equipment or software purchases are required, making it almost universally available.

“An emergency thankfully does not happen every day,” says Paul Langhorst, GroupCast vice president. “Calling one or two homes is easy, but when a large group of parents need to be contacted, schools usually do not have the staff or phone lines available to get the word out.”

Langhorst, a telecommunications management professional, came up with the phone messaging service concept for schools after he and his wife both missed a critical dismissal message and his daughter was the last one picked up at school.

Langhorst and partner Joseph Palacios founded GroupCast in 2002.

“We started GroupCast to fill a void in school-home communications,” says Langhorst. “By using our service, [school leaders] can communicate much more effectively and efficiently with their parents and staff.”

Because parents are so mobile today, having more than one contact number is critical, according to Tennill, who became interested in the system when a water main broke five minutes after school started, shutting down the school.

The district scrambled to contact parents, many of whom had just dropped their kids off and were still in their cars. “We realized, if we’d had the service then, we could’ve called all of these parents in one fell swoop rather than one at a time,” says Tennill.

Reaching out to parents via automated voice broadcast systems also lets parents know that school officials understand the time pressures they face, according to Edelmann.

“When it comes to marketing schools, anything that tells parents, We’re doing everything we can to make this easier for you, more manageable for you,’ is really very effective,” Edelmann says.

Marketing isn’t a new concept for the largest and oldest school system in Missouri. The Archdiocese of St. Louis has offered a five-session marketing workshop, called Marketing the Mission, for several years.

Each school team that participates is paired with local public relations, communications, or marketing professionals–all of whom volunteer their services pro bono–and each team must include at least one school board member.

“Marketing is really about changing the way you do business to meet the needs of parents today,” says Edelmann. “When schools have a state-of-the-art communication system like the one GroupCast provides, it makes them look good and gives them a futuristic image.”

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.

See these related links:

GroupCast
http://www.groupcast.com

SchoolReach
http://www.schoolreach.com

Archdiocese of St. Louis, Catholic Education Office
http://www.archstl.org

School District of Clayton
http://www.clayton.k12.mo.us