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Monthly Archives: June 2013 In school crises, technology a lifeline for parents

June 14, 2013

Twelve of the 13 UW campuses use text alerts, but at most schools, less than half of the campus population is signed up for them.

When a fugitive wanted by the FBI was spotted in the Madison area May 2, the Verona Area School District went into lockdown for more than two hours.

But many parents were unaware of the lockdown and of a manhunt launched by authorities. Text and email alerts were sent, but most parents of the district’s 5,000 students were not signed up to receive them.

In response to complaints from parents, Verona Superintendent Dean Gorrell pledged to start automatically signing up parents for text messages and other emergency communications when they register their students next fall.

“Timing is everything,” Gorrell said. “You don’t have those kind of emergency situations come up very often and when you do you’d like to be able to reach people.”

School officials use multiple approaches to notify parents, including emails and voice calls. Texting is the quickest method for some parents, but this option is not in widespread use.

Of the 10 largest school districts in Wisconsin, none automatically enrolls parents in text messages — as Verona, a smaller district, plans to do. But four of them allow parents to sign up for them by entering their cell phone number online.

Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, says schools need to be able to communicate rapidly with parents in emergencies. Photo courtesy Ken Trump.

Even when parents can sign up for text alerts, many do not. In Milwaukee, the largest district in the state with more than 78,000 students, the text message system has only 4,300 subscribers.
When something bad happens at school, news travels fast. Cell phone pictures, texts and tweets emanate from the site and find their way to parents.With parents increasingly plugged in with smartphones and laptops, schools are under pressure to use new technology to stay in touch with parents.

“With students and parents texting, information and misinformation gets out very rapidly,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. “Rumors that used to take hours and days to get out take seconds and minutes.”

By being the first to reach parents, Trump said, schools can mitigate panic and help avoid overloaded phone lines and packed parking lots.

“We’re in an information-now generation,” Trump said. “Schools will always be behind the curve on whatever information is out in the school community but they need to cut that gap.”

To this end, some Wisconsin schools are seeking to improve their ability to communicate with parents.

For instance, the Racine Unified School District recently updated its emergency communication system, adding the ability to send district-wide text messages.

“Parents expect to be notified ASAP, so we had to update our system so the message could go out more quickly,” said district spokeswoman Stacy Tapp.


Getting the word out

Besides texts, many school districts also use recorded voice calls, emails, website postings and social media to get out messages. Experts say the key is redundancy — the more channels, the more likely someone will get the message.

“If you want to get an emergency message out, you better use all available means,” said Ellen Miller, a former television journalist who now works as a consultant with National School Safety and Security Services.

“Parents hate hearing something from the media that their own school failed to tell them about,” Miller said.

In the Eau Claire Area School District, administrative assistant Patti Iverson said the district relies on the media, emails and phone calls to communicate with parents. She has not heard any complaints.

As for texting, she said, “We have looked into it and at this time, it was not in our opinion cost-effective to do that.”

One of the most popular companies that provides schools with emergency communication platforms is SchoolMessenger. More than 200 of the 445 school districts in Wisconsin use SchoolMessenger, according to the company.

SchoolMessenger systems cost $1 to $4 per student per year, and they all provide the capability for texting, according to Nate Brogan, vice president of marketing for SchoolMessenger.

The Janesville School District has the capacity to send texts through its AlertNow system, but spokesman Brett Berg said it is not operable. In order to use it, he said the district would need to find a way to separate cell phone numbers from landlines in the system.

This year, the Kenosha Unified School District launched a text message system through a free service, Celly, and so far has 430 people signed up, according to district spokeswoman Tanya Ruder. The district has about 23,000 students.

The Madison School District requires parents to provide at least one emergency phone number for its recorded voice message notification system. Parents can also request emails and texts. The system has about 4,500 numbers for texts, and 20,000 for voice calls, spokeswoman Marcia Standiford said.

The district recently surveyed parents about the system. One of the questions was whether parents would prefer to be automatically enrolled in texts. Results are now being tabulated.

The trouble with waiting

The Green Bay Area Public School District uses SchoolMessenger, but has not used the program’s texting feature because of the potential cost to parents under their cell phone plans, district spokeswoman Amanda Brooker said.

Brooker said the district hopes to start providing text messages next year if it can find a way to allow parents to choose to sign up for them, rather than automatically enrolling them.

“Sixty percent of the students in our district have free and reduced lunch, so we have to be cognizant of that cost,” Brooker said. “I think parents were just so happy that we started using SchoolMessenger this year.”

Before this year, the district could not do voice calls and rarely used emails. Its standard for communication was to send students home with a letter, translated into different languages, sealed in envelopes, said Barbara Dorff, the district’s executive director of pupil services.

Even if the district had the ability to text, Dorff said, it might wait until an emergency situation is resolved to notify parents. This could prevent something she’s seen before: parents flocking to the school and making the situation worse.

Her message to parents: “We will take care of your child before we take care of you, and you should take comfort in that.”

But Miller said schools may no longer have the luxury of waiting to tell parents about an ongoing situation.

“The problem with doing that is a neighbor across the street is going to see a police car outside the school,” she said. “And if they scoop you on Twitter, you’ve lost the trust of the community.”

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Posted in Community Outreach, Education
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Time to reexamine how schools communicate to their public

June 12, 2013

The necessity to reexamine the channels our education systems use to communicate with students, parents, and community is exemplified in our own lives.  Innovations in technology have produced myriad options for connecting with one-another and the world at-large. Rarely do we send snail-mail, or use our landlines for phone calls. These trends become stronger as time passes, and reemphasize the need for school districts to find creative ways to generate a higher level of parental and community investment in their institutions.

With the communications trend lines set, every school district has an imperative to adopt a communications strategy that uses contemporary technology to build a stronger relationship between their school and its supporting society.  In our current economy, finding revenue is a nothing short of a challenge. But by taking the initiative and investing in a strategic communications plan, it is possible to persuade reach supporters and persuade interested parties with your message.

Education, like all industries, requires marketing to garner a positive image. Key to this demand is a dialogue between schools, parents, and the community. The benefits of keeping parents and the surrounding community constantly informed build trust in the competency and value of an institution. A school that initiates contact to outside sources can open up a trove of goodwill that can be used to their advantage. Modern social media platforms allow a school to tell the public about developments and publicize school events during the year, providing the community with a sense of engagement and enrichment through their support for the students that represent them.

A strategic communications plan is founded upon analysis of a district’s position in relation to the public, which leads to research that helps chart a course for them to follow. When the analysis has provided actionable insights, a district must formulate strategies based upon specified objectives that can be reached by bending communal support. At all stages of a communications rollout, school administrators must constantly evaluate and measure the strategy’s progress to goals.

A call to action is what the majority of school districts need. With dwindling state and federal support, this is the time to lean on our communities to invest in their children’s futures. The saying goes that “it takes a village to raise a child.”  Through a strategic communications plan, let your community know that their help is needed.

Posted in Community Outreach, Education
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What’s your school’s communications game plan?

June 10, 2013

Education and teaching requires schools to plan, prepare and diagram all aspects of the educational process. For example, many educators have been planning for years for the new standards, curriculum, testing involved in the Common Core.

But when it comes to sharing news and informing the public about what goes on in our schools everyday, school districts often “go with the flow” and don’t have a comprehensive plan about how to stay connected with their community. In this era of “instant information,” it is more important than ever to map out a communications strategy to help build trust and credibility with the public.

A good place to start is with a communication plan. A communication plan provides a mix of tactics and tools needed to reach targeted audiences on a regular basis. Each plan should include key themes and messages that the public should know about your schools and that message should be cross-marketed via a variety of different tools. They range from traditional mediums, such as direct mail and local media, to 21st Century tools such as social media and videos and mobile apps, to good old- fashioned coffee klatches in people’s homes.

A good plan ensures you’re doing the right work, pursuing the right goals, and doing it the best way while maximizing the use of your limited resources. A good plan should also include a month-to-month checklist to make sure you are staying on target. Finally, your communications plan should be reviewed annually for updates and enhancements as new and more effective communications tools become available.

Why should you find yourself in a “reactive” mode when it comes to sharing information about your schools? Good communications and public outreach need to be a priority. Being proactive by creating a communication plan will help keep you on track, build trust in the community and ensure residents are informed about the value of their local schools bring to the community.

Posted in Community Outreach

Municipal Tweets: Social Media is the Future of Local Government Communication

June 3, 2013

Since its founding in 2006, the online social platform Twitter has rapidly become synonymous with the “new media” of the information age. It attracts 200 million monthly users – a 100% increase in just two years – including one in six American adults. The Internet information database Alexa consistently ranks Twitter among the top ten most trafficked websites worldwide. Twitter’s dramatic rise in popularity derives from its ability to do three things exceptionally well: releasing information, spreading information, and providing access to information. These capabilities hold vast potential for a range of uses, but one of the most promising is as a communications tool for city governments.

For instance, Twitter has revolutionized the speed that authorities in Evanston, IL can alert the public to beach closures and possible hazards along its Lake Michigan shoreline. Using a marketing campaign, city officials raised awareness and encouraged residents to follow their Twitter feed for up-to-date information on bacteria levels and weather conditions at their beaches. Evanston’s City Manager, Wally Bobkiewicz, gave this glowing summary in a 2010 report from ICMA: “Twitter is the way to go. It’s short and it allows people to communicate quickly… that’s the best way to alert people during emergencies.”

Even more importantly, Twitter has encouraged a more active and engaged collaboration between elected leaders and the citizens they serve. Take the small town of Manor, TX. Despite a population of fewer than 6,000, city officials embarked on an aggressive campaign including Twitter and other social media resources in an effort to make policy-making more transparent and collaborative. The culmination of these efforts is an interactive program meant to stimulate improvements across eight sectors of city management. By managing proposed improvements in a public forum, such as Twitter, the city has been able to attract a wide range of good ideas and put them into practice at practically zero cost. The results speak for themselves – Manor’s program has been recognized by Harvard University, the Wall Street Journal, and the Obama administration for its innovative approach. The challenges facing local governments in the 21st century are numerous and complex. As demonstrated by Evanston and Manor, Twitter may help in resolving them.

Posted in Community Outreach, Social Media
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