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Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016

System puts parents on notice when students skip classes

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Mary McDowell, Sikesotn R-6 School Information Systems coordinator, demonstrates the new system.
SIKESTON -- Students in the Sikeston R-6 School District who are thinking about skipping school may want to reconsider.

That's because with a couple clicks of a computer mouse, their parents can be notified of the unexcused absences in minutes at work, home, on their cell phone or pager numbers.

Since Nov. 3 Sikeston Middle School has used the SISCall System, an Internet-based messaging service that integrates with the schools' student records system, to telephone parents when their children skip class.

Just last week the senior high began using the system, and the junior high and alternative school are also set to use the program. Sikeston's elementary schools currently do not utilize the system.

"What we do is go to a Web site and each school uploads the absentee list for that day. We have messages already programmed so we choose a list and message, and it will call all the absentees' parents," explained Mary McDowell, the district's School Information Systems coordinator.

St. Louis-based GroupCast LLC, a telecommunications company, and School Information Systems (SIS) Inc., a company that provides students records management software to nearly 400 districts in Missouri, recently joined forces and created SISCall to help schools improve communications with parents.

If the parents have an answering machine, the system can detect that and it leaves a message, McDowell said. And if the line is busy, it keeps trying until it gets through, she said, adding school officials also receive a record of whether a message was left with a machine or a person.

McDowell pointed out the system costs less than it takes to mail massive letters, and the schools always have a hard-copied list to fall back on if someone doesn't have a phone.

"Right now we're using it for the attendance and calling all the absentees' parents every day. But we can use it for lots of things. For example, if the basketball team is in Columbia and the bus breaks down and they're going to be late, we can send out a message to their parents," McDowell said.

In addition, the system also comes in handy for snow days, upcoming school meeting reminders and unexpected school dismissals, McDowell said. Since SIS contains all of the students records, the system can sort students into different groups or lists such as grade, club, team, etc., she said.

SISCall gives the power of the telephone back to school administrators, said Paul Langhorst, co-founder of GroupCast, which supplies automated messaging services to the business and education community.

"If you look at homes today, 60 percent have computers and 94 percent have telephones -- in their homes, pockets or cars and it puts the power of the telephone back in the hand of the school administrators," Langhorst said. "And they can send messages to every parent in literally seconds."

Also as part of the new Homeland Security, schools are mandated to have a communication plan with parents in case something happens in school and parents need to be notified. SISCall is one way to do it, Langhorst noted.

Langhorst pointed out the system doesn't take the place of the use of media or notes sent home to parents, but rather it enhances them.

"Our process just draws attention and adds an extra timely reminder," Langhorst said.

SISCall can administer 100,000 calls an hour even for largest districts, Langhorst said.

Langhorst, who's worked in the telecommunications industry for 15 years, said he came up with the concept after he and his wife didn't receive the message their daughter's school was unexpectedly dismissing early for the day. As a result, their daughter was the last child picked up from school.

Founded by Langhorst and Joseph Palacios in 2002, GroupCast began SISCall in August, and currently Sikeston is among about 10 other schools including Mehlville, Crystal City and Valley Park utilizing the SISCall System in the state. Sikeston Middle School Principal Roy Frakes said so far the new system is working well.

"It has just begun here, and it seems the main reason we're doing it is to try and make sure parents are aware of the attendance policy," Frakes said.

Carol Kirk, middle school attendance secretary, said the system saves time for administration and parental response has been positive.

Kirk recalled a parent who was contacted through SISCall: "One parent said she appreciated it because she thought her husband had called in their child's absence, and he thought she'd called in so she really appreciated the call."