Skipping school is about to get harder

The district considers a mass notification system to keep parents in the know.

Published January 20, 2006

INVERNESS - Sometimes, letters alerting parents of their child's absence never arrived. And parents sometimes disputed receiving a telephone call from the school's attendance office. In the worst cases, a student had missed too many days and was in danger of receiving a failing grade by the time his or her parents became aware of the problem.

School officials think they've found a solution: a switch to an instant parent notification system that delivers messages to home, work and cellular telephones, e-mail and PDAs.

The system is called Connect-Ed and allows school administrators to record, schedule, send and track voice messages to the families of all 16,000 students. It could be in place as early as next week for a trial run, though the School Board must still approve the purchase in February.

In an era of heightened accountability, school officials say communication with parents is crucial. The goal is to raise student attendance and ease parents' worries about student safety. The system can help keep parents abreast of upcoming school events, testing dates and, in emergency situations, the steps a school is taking to keep students safe.

"We need to have a quick way to notify everyone in case of an emergency,' said Steve Chamblin, district coordinator of information services. "It's (also) important to keep parents informed when their child misses school, especially at the high school level. Once a student has five unexcused absences, he cannot receive credit for a class."

The Connect-Ed system is used by other school districts, including Pasco and Pinellas. Citrus school officials say they were pleased with the results in those counties. The estimated annual cost to the district is $56,000.

The system is expected to replace phone-tree networks at many schools. Phone trees are seen as cumbersome, unreliable and slow, particularly during inclement weather when high winds can knock down power lines, rendering such networks useless.

Using the Connect-Ed system, an administrator can reach all parents within minutes on a cell phone or computer. A message will play informing parents of a school's closing or other emergency situation. The system will dial up to six telephone numbers in hopes that at least one message reaches a student's relative or family friend.

Last year, parents grumbled when the superintendent decided late in the day to close schools due to bad weather expected from a hurricane making its way north on the gulf. Some did not hear the announcement on local television.

"This wasn't the cheapest parent notification system, but the one that most people had success with," Chamblin said. "It was also easy for schools to use."

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.