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Officials answer common questions about automated message alerts

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
August 28, 2009

Here are questions parents might have about automated parent-alert systems. Most answers come from the Janesville School District's safety manager Mat Haeger or trainers from AlertNow:


Q: Can I get messages on my cell phone?


A: Definitely.


Q: How about my cell AND my home phone?


A: Yup.


Q: What if I have a privacy/call blocker system?


A: In the Janesville School District, you won't get the messages unless you ask your provider to let your phone to allow calls from 411 and the district's main number, (608) 743-5000.


Q: How do I make sure that I get emergency messages on all my phones?


A: Make sure all your numbers are included in your emergency contact information at your school. Those numbers will be entered into the district's computer system, which communicates with AlertNow's computers. Note: In Janesville, non-emergency messages will go only to the first number listed on the family's contact card. Emergency messages go to all the numbers.


Q: Will the system send text messages?


A: It can. That's something the Janesville district will consider in the future, Haeger said.


Q: How much is this costing me?


A: Janesville is paying $2.40 per student, or $24,000 per year for 10,000 students. The system also might save you money.


Q: Really?


A: Yes. Superintendent Dennis McCarthy of the Beloit Turner School District, where they've used AlertNow for four years, said he's eliminated costs of printing paper notices and mailing them or sending them home with the student. And, the system is better at making sure that the message gets through than students are of delivering notes to their parents, McCarthy said.


"We far more than recover the cost of the system just in the cost of mailings," McCarthy said.


Q: So will I be "spammed" with lots of messages I don't care about, such as tomorrow's bake sale?


A: Administrators at several districts said they don't want to over-use the system. However, most districts use the system to send out reminders of important events, such as registration and parent-teacher conferences.


"I think it's important that you use it judiciously because it could be ignored" if used too often, said Delavan-Darien Superintendent Wendy Overturf.


I think we have to evaluate it and see how it's received by our parents and make sure it's meeting their needs as well," Overturf said.


McCarthy said he hasn't had overuse complaints. "We use it for just about everything "and I have yet to hear a parent tell me they don't appreciate getting those messages."


Q: Wow, it sounds wonderful, but how accurate is it, and what about security?


A: AlertNow keeps the telephone numbers confidential, Haeger said, and if officials question whether a message got through, they can download a report that tells them how many messages were received, how many got hung up on before the message concluded, and how many did not get through. They can then follow up with a more conventional note to those who didn't get the alert.


McCarthy said the reports typically show that just 6 percent of parents didn't receive the message.


Q: What if I don't want to receive messages?


A: Ask your school to take you off the list.


Q: Does that mean I won't hear about school closings or other emergencies on the radio or online anymore?


A: Janesville intends to continue informing the local news media as it always has, but parents also will get the AlertNow message, which might wake them up earlier on a snow day and give them more time to make arrangements for child care, McCarthy said.


"It's to serve as an adjunct rather than replace what we have used in the past," Haeger said.


Q: How early might I get the call?


A: Each district decides. Janesville was considering a ban on messages between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., but that might be revised.


Q: I got a call about Craig High School registration that I didn't need because my child has GRADUATED! What's up with THAT?


A: Principal Mike Kuehne said he inadvertently sent out the message to the parents of the Class of 2009, some of whom were not happy. Kuehne said the initial message list also didn't include incoming ninth-graders, but both mistakes were corrected, and all is now well. Kuehne said he's heard lots of positive comments about the messages.


Q: Will I hear a computer-generated voice?


A: A principal, for example, could record her own voice, or she could type the message into the AlertNow system and have the system record the message. Users are encouraged to use simple language because the translator will see "tater tots," for example, and turn that into "potato children" in Spanish.


Q: What if I'm on the phone when the message comes through?


A: AlertNow tries to get through four times, once every three minutes. If it still doesn't get through, it will let the call ring through and record the message on voice mail.


Q: What if the family doesn't speak English?


A: AlertNow can translate messages into 22 different languages. One language it doesn't have that is spoken in some local households is Khmer. But it does have the major European languages and Arabic, Hindi, Thai, Korean, Japanese and two kinds of Chinese.


Q: I get recorded messages now that tell me if my child was absent from school. What happens to those?


A: The system that used to do that in Janesville broke down last year. AlertNow will take over that function.


Q: How long will the messages be?


A: That's up to the sender, but AlertNow recommends nothing longer than 50 seconds. After that, parents start hanging up, an AlertNow trainer said.


Q: Will the system ever replace paper notes or newsletters?


A: AlertNow says a school district in Indiana has gone paperless, saving lots of money. So, it's possible.



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