November 27, 2012

Getting the word out: County schools approve new mass notification service

By Christopher Smith

— The belief statement of Whitfield County Schools stresses communication with parents, according to assistant superintendent Judy Gilreath.

That’s why members of the Whitfield County Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to approve a new communication system. Blackboard Connect — a mass notification company based in Washington, D.C. — provides a system allowing school officials to alert parents of events, severe weather, emergencies and class cancellations.

“Before, we had used Parentlink (a similar provider),” Eric Beavers, community and media relations specialist, said. “Our contract expires with them at the end of this year ... the price of Blackboard’s service has since come down and it’s the more affordable service.”

The pricing of the service is $1.45 per student. At a student population of 13,278 — which is not exact because students are weighted differently based on their needs — the yearly one-time payment for the service is $19,253.

“Parentlink was about $10,000 more last year,” Gilreath said. “They came down on their bid, but Blackboard was still cheaper. Parents won’t notice any difference between the two systems. They are very similar.”

The new system allows school officials to record an automated voice message and send it to parents, said Gilreath, who believes the service is essential.

“We want to communicate with parents — both in English and Spanish,” she said. “We’ve done this for six years and about every three years we will put it out for bid again. This year, we looked at whether we needed it or if we would cut it, but our principals said we need it to get information to parents.”

Britt Adams, principal for Northwest Whitfield High School, said the system is “vital.”

“I think the system is great,” he said. “It’s very nice to send out a message that will go to all our parents, especially in high school where students don’t always bring letters home. It’s great for things like spring musicals or a play or a band concert — events that aren’t routine, miscellaneous things.”

Asked if the old system increased parental involvement in school activities, Adams said, “It’s hard to say. I don’t know how parents get their information. We have to hit communication in as many ways as possible. I don’t know for sure what brings them in and what doesn’t, but I’m sure this service has an impact.”

Adams believes monthly or free mass texting services such as the Messenger dog and Remind101 are still the best form of communication between school officials and parents.

“The thing with texting is they (parents) have to say, ‘Yes I want this,’” he said. “With Blackboard or Parentlink, we’ve got the information from student registration and we send it out to those numbers. We might not even get the phone they’re using. They could get their phone numbers changed too. We try to update our system at least yearly. Texting seems to be the really good way to get parents though.”

The new service goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Gilreath said the yearly one-time payment will remain the same even if the student population adjusts during the next three years.