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E-alert system will get update


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The Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. plans to modify its email and text-alert system next fall to allow more targeted warnings to particular schools when there’s news of weather-related delays, closings or other emergencies that could affect students at a particular campus.

School officials also plan a fresh marketing push to get more parents to sign up for the alerts as part of school registration before the 2013-14 school year, director of technology Mike Jamerson said.

Today, there are 5,000 parent, student and school employee accounts in a 4-year-old database that manages text and email alerts for the 11,200-student system, but some of them likely are outdated or link to phones no longer in service, said Amy Wentworth, the district’s information systems leader.

School officials think they can substantially increase the number of valid accounts by distributing information on how to sign up for alerts as students register for the fall and by making it part of the enrollment process.

Sign up for alerts

Where: Go to www.bcsc.k12.in.us/ealertsubscription

Steps: Provide the required personal information; wait for a message asking for confirmation that you want to take part; respond to that confirmation request, and you’re all set.

Be alert: Some charges may apply for receiving texts depending on a customer’s cellphone pricing plan.

Options: If you don’t want to get text messages, opt for email alerts.

Who: Anyone can sign up for text or email alerts, even community members with no children in school.

Source: Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.

When parents register a child for the next school year, they’ll be asked to sign up for email or text alerts on mobile phones as part of filling out enrollment forms. Opting into the system will remain voluntary, however. Parents will have to go to the BCSC website and follow several steps to activate an account.

Once they take that step, their cellphones or email contacts will be visible electronically to a separate database known as PowerSchool, which allows parents to see their child’s grades and attendance records.

Since that database has every student’s personal information embedded in its files, including school of attendance, alerts can be targeted to particular campuses so only parents directly affected get the message, Jamerson and Wentworth said.

Parents say they like the idea of having such flexibility, especially if there’s a true emergency or a threat of violence at a particular campus.

“A lot of text alerts are about school closings (because of weather), and those things are generally systemwide. But if there was a problem at a school, I’d like to get the facts as quickly as possible,” said Eric Abendroth, PTO president at Parkside Elementary School.

“I’d definitely be in favor of something like that to get the real story to the right people,” said Abendroth, who has fourth- and sixth-graders attending Parkside and a third child who is a sophomore at Columbus North High School. “It’d be much better than relying on hearsay.”

Kelly Harmon, a PTO officer at W.D. Richards Elementary School, said she also likes the more flexible text alerts.

“Any change that lets parents receive specific and relevant messages in regards to their children — and safety — is a positive thing. It would also prevent parents from overreacting in a situation that doesn’t involve their children. It could prevent a lot of unnecessary worry,” she said.

An older text-alert software package known as Schoolwires couldn’t read or share files with PowerSchool, Jamerson said, and there was no way of knowing which campus was attached to a particular phone number.

But last year the school district spent $14,000 — or about $1.25 per student — for a new software system called SchoolMessenger that can share information with PowerSchool, Jamerson said.

He said the new software kit also manages the out-flow of text alerts much better, so they arrive more quickly at a student or parent’s mobile phone.

“We think it will work very well,” Jamerson said. “From the time we post a message to the time a parent receives it is generally one minute or less.”

Larry Perkinson, student assistance coordinator for BCSC, said making it easier to send school-by-school alerts is a welcome development.

“It may not always be used, but it’s good to have options,” he said.

“There may be times when that is invaluable, but we also have families with children in three separate schools, and staff members with relatives who worry about them, too,” Perkinson said.

That means there could be instances in which school officials want to provide updates to a broader population than simply one school population.

And there may be other instances in which school officials defer to police officials to provide most or all information to the public, Jamerson said, especially if it involves a fast-evolving situation where the details aren’t immediately clear.

Bartholomew Consolidated has used its text and email alert system only to notify parents of school delays or closings to this point, although it could be used in the event of school violence or other emergencies that put students in harm’s way.

“This year, so far we’ve used it for three weather delays and one closure,” Jamerson said.

The school system pays a set price for the emergency software and can send out text-alert, email or automated phone calls with warnings and weather updates as it pleases for no extra charge.

The school district also could use the SchoolMessenger software to send out more routine notices — everything from the dates for a school’s theater performances to start times for basketball practice — but that would cost extra, and school officials don’t want to overload parents with texts.

“We will only use it for true emergency alerts,” Wentworth said.

Kathy Griffey, superintendent of the Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp., said that 910-student system uses the Schoolwires software that Bartholomew Consolidated abandoned about a year ago.

Griffey said the district uses it to send parents automated phone call alerts and doesn’t use it to send text messages.

“We can have as many groups set up as we want, and it delivers almost instantaneously,” she said. “We haven’t had any problems. Each school has people trained to use it.”

Most messages have been for weather-related delays or school closures, the superintendent said.

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