05/27/04 — Schools get instant messaging system

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Schools get instant messaging system

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 27, 2004 2:01 PM

Wayne County public schools will spend $200,000 a year for the next three years on a service designed to improve emergency preparedness and communication with parents.

The school system signed a contract this week with Honeywell Building Solutions to be part of the Instant Alert network. Instant Alert is an automated notification and communication service that allows the school system to deliver emergency messages quicker and more directly.

In the past, school systems have relied on phone trees and radio broadcasts to communicate with the public during emergencies, said Sprunt Hill, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services. Students also carried messages home.

Those methods, though, became time-consuming, and sometimes messages were inaccurate or not received. With technology advances and more working parents has come a growing need for a way to reach parents more readily.

"The Honeywell Instant Alert service will provide a reliable and effective way to address all of our communication needs, both emergency and routine, through a single system," Hill said.

The service will be integrated into the school system's emergency preparedness plan.

It is also set up so that when an event during the school day forces an early dismissal or evacuation, a designated administrator can initiate an alert by computer or by phone. A message will be instantly broadcast to contact points -- telephones or computers -- provided by parents or guardians.

Likewise, parents and guardians can enter and update contact information at any time and indicate the preferable way they be notified. The options allow for parents to list as many contact points as necessary, from home, work and cell phone numbers to pagers and e-mail addresses.

Stan Alleyne, public information officer for the school system, said that one of the biggest complaints from parents has been the communication system.

"We feel like communication is critical to help us do our job better," he said. "We think it would help everybody for parents to know more about what's going on in the school system."

He cited an example that occurred this past school year where buses were on the road and had to be turned around because of bad weather. He said if an advanced communication system had been in place, parents could have been saved the time and anxiety involved in last-minute changes.

"With this system, we will be able to communicate our messages a lot faster," he said.

Sean Mahoney, national manager of the Instant Alert program, said that the system allows messages to be sent out at a rate of 18,000 in 15 minutes.

Explaining why the cost for the service contract might seem high, Alleyne said the school system actually negotiated it down from its original amount.

"The initial standard rate presented came out to be about $24 a person," he said. "With an estimated 20,000 in our school system, the cost actually comes closer to $10 a person."

He called Instant Alert a high-quality system and said Honeywell was selected because of its reputation. Alleyne also said the school system will get its money's worth, using the service on a daily basis.

It will not only be used for emergencies, but can be set up for an unlimited number of subgroups, such as sports teams, clubs, or committees, so that messages relevant to those groups can be sent.

School officials say the service will be fully installed by July, allowing the school system to begin communication with parents prior to the start of the 2004-2005 school year.

Dr. Steven Taylor, superintendent of schools, says that Instant Alert will be used to its fullest extent, keeping parents engaged and informed about everything from PTA meetings to sports practice cancellations.

"Parent involvement is critical to academic success," he said.

The school board was also receptive to the idea when it was discussed at its April board meeting.

Board member George Moye agreed that the service has the potential to encourage parental involvement.

"Parents should be tuned in to what's going on in the schools," he said. "You'll get better results if you have better parental involvement.

Board member Rick Pridgen said he liked the flexibility of being able to send messages in a variety of ways.

Board member Thelma Smith said, "Communication is important and the safety of our children is utmost."