Schools' Alert Now system gets an A

Parents, teachers say automated calls keep them informed

February 18, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

From operating room nurses at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, who received cell phone messages about schools closing early, to parents who didn't have to scramble for the TV remote at dawn to find out that weather had curtailed classes for two days, the Harford schools' Alert Now system is proving its worth.

Schools employees, who are among the more than 41,000 called, also appreciate the service.

"I get a call at 5:45 a.m. and I know exactly what is happening," said Joe Voskuhl, principal of Bel Air High School, with an enrollment of 1,650. "I don't have to watch while the TV scrolls through thousands of school closings."

Parents have taken to the system, which lets them know about events, meetings and, in Bel Air High's case, what is happening with new school construction, he said.

"High school students do not always share school news at home," Voskuhl said. "This is a lot better than sending paper home. Parents say they like the phone reminders, and it gives me a chance to communicate efficiently and quickly. I also can tailor a message to a specific group, as limited as ninth-graders who won't be redistricted next year."

The system has its glitches, but those are easily remedied, officials said.

A woman on a business trip to the Southwest was alerted in her hotel room at 3:45 a.m. about her child's school closing in Bel Air.

"We took her cell phone off the system and will use only the land line," Voskuhl said.

The county began using the telephone alerts last fall with a "welcome back" message from Superintendent Jacqueline Haas to students and staff. It has now called more than 600 alerts, some systemwide, but most at individual schools.

At Joppatowne Elementary last week, a bus fell behind schedule and the system alerted only the parents of those riders that their children would be home a bit late.

"It is really an effective tool that is easy to implement," said Chris Cook, Joppatowne's principal. "It is strengthening the home-school connection and helping to increase attendance at school events."

Alert Now/Safe-T-Net of Raleigh, N.C., provides and maintains the computerized notification service for $80,000 annually, and the schools update the call information weekly. The system also informs schools which telephone numbers are no longer working or not responding.

"The system helps us correct numbers," Cook said.

Don Morrison, Harford schools spokesman, said Tuesday's three-hour early closing was a true test. The system clicked into emergency mode and made 98,000 calls within 15 minutes midmorning.

It notified parents at home, at work and on their cell phones - every number provided to the schools - about the early dismissal.

Within 45 minutes of those calls, the system had made all the necessary re-calls.

"In an emergency, the system notifies all phone numbers that parents have provided," Morrison said. "It also calls back when no caller picks up or when it encounters a busy signal."

Deb Merlock, an Abingdon mother of four, got a call on her home phone and her cell Tuesday, informing her of the early dismissal.

Several Upper Chesapeake Medical Center nurses with school-age children told Morrison that they have no access to radio or TV at work and thanked him for the notification system.

"What a great tool this is for parents," Merlock said. "It really tells you about anything that is happening in the school building. Our kids don't need to be carriers of information. I have one child whose locker is usually jammed with papers that should have been brought home."

Merlock, a former vice president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, received other calls at about 6 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday telling her schools were closed because of bad weather.

Snow calls are only part of the system's usefulness.

For general messages, the system makes about 41,000 calls to parents and staff - for everything from a "welcome back" to details on a free flu shot clinic.

"You also get the official version of something that happened in school that day," Merlock said.

Individual principals have relied on the system to let parents know report cards would be coming home or student photos were scheduled or that an absent student would need a note to return to school.

"Our principals say this system is a godsend that lets them get information out in a mass way," said Morrison, who is often the voice of the schoolwide alerts.

The system can also contact by e-mail, a process Harford officials said they might test later this year.

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