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Schools

It's like a PA system for parents

The school district launches Connect-Ed, an automated notification system that dials students' homes to keep families better informed.

By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published April 16, 2006


INVERNESS - At 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, after parents had returned home from work and their children were watching television or doing homework, the telephones in at least 9,000 households started ringing.

Those who picked up heard a familiar voice: school superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel. A recorded message asked what families thought about the new school start times.

Himmel asked parents to respond by punching numbers on the dial pad. The next day, some of those people called or e-mailed to let Himmel know what they, in turn, thought about her telephone call.

"Got your recorded message last night. Sounded great! Very clear and easy to understand. What a great way to communicate with parents," Cathy Eckstein wrote.

Others were less happy to hear from Himmel.

"I am not a parent nor am I interested in receiving any information on my cell phone regarding the School Board," one person wrote.

For the most part, Himmel said, she was pleased with how well the school district's new parent notification system worked. 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.

On Monday, Himmel called all 10,981 telephone numbers in the district's directory to introduce parents to the system. She notified them that they would hear from her again Tuesday. She wanted to know where families stood on school start times.

Last spring, Himmel changed the schedule so younger students now start school later in the day and high schoolers start earlier. The new times made all schools more uniform and cut down on transportation costs. Young students no longer had to stand at bus stops in the dark.

But as recently as October, Himmel was being criticized by parents of younger children, including many who work early and must find child care before school. They also worried about their children's performance in the classroom, citing studies that show that younger children learn best at earlier times.

The overriding criticism against Himmel was that she made the decision without enough parental input.

On Tuesday, she sought to lay the issue to rest. Himmel got responses from 5,837 people using the instant notification system. The majority, 51 percent, said they supported the change in start times. Twenty-six percent responded that they wanted the district to switch to its former schedule. Fourteen percent said they originally opposed the change but grew accustomed to the new times. Nine percent said they had no opinion.

Himmel planned to stick with the same schedule next year.

The system did not reach every household. In 1,968 instances, there was a busy signal, no one answered the phone or the phone number was bad. Only seven people hung up when Himmel called.

Himmel said she planned to poll parents using the notification system in the future. For the most part, parents will be hearing from the principals and guidance counselors at their children's schools. The calls will let parents know when their child misses school.

The system can also keep parents abreast of upcoming school events, testing dates and, in emergency situations, the steps a school is taking to keep students safe.

"There's no easy way of getting parents involved," Himmel said. "This is a good start."

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 352 860-7305.

[Last modified April 16, 2006, 00:42:15]


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