When you have children enrolled in Wilton Public Schools and the caller ID on your ringing phone at 5:01 a.m. says, “Wilton Schools,” most days that usually means just one thing–a snow-delay or cancellation. But if you don’t have a child enrolled in the district and your phone still rings at 5:01 a.m. with “Wilton Schools” on the caller ID, that can make you say, “Hmmmmm…..”
Moreover, if you’re a parent of Wilton students and you don’t get that early morning, weather-related school call or text, but you wanted to get it? You might have that same puzzled “Hmmmm…” reaction, too.
So just what’s going on with communication from the Wilton School District that some people who should not have gotten the weather-related emergency notifications this past Monday and Tuesday did, while others who wanted to get the notifications, didn’t?
Right off the bat, Wilton schools superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith wants to make sure members of the district community know he wasn’t happy that some things got messed up. “I want to offer an apology, it’s not what we intended to happen,” he said.
Smith and the district’s technology director Erik Haakonsen explained that it’s an ongoing process of ironing out mishaps in a new system. In the last year, not only did the district’s former data manager retire, but the district also transitioned to new software that would allow data to be shared between PowerSchool, the district’s data management system, and School Messenger, the communication system.
“For years and years, the district ran separate and segregated systems. So we’ve been engaged in a process of creating inter-operability among our data systems, and PowerSchool is really the engine that drives it all,” Smith said.
Before, parents and guardians filled out multiple (often redundant) paper forms to provide medical information as well as phone, email and address contact information for their own families and emergency contacts. Now parents can provide that information electronically into software that feeds into PowerSchool. From contact info in PowerSchool, the schools can communicate to parents or guardians through School Messenger.
Making things more complicated is the major increase in the amount of data that the system has to handle. People have more ways of being contacted–multiple cell numbers, email addresses and physical addresses. Additionally, the district took steps to accommodate the variety of demographic situations families may have–where in the past only one primary parent was the gateway for all school communication, now the district is adapting to social reality.
“We now have the ability for multiple data accounts for families that have multiple parents that need custody, with separate communications. So some families have multiple data access accounts that are set up for the parents or guardians or whoever has custody of the child. One of the limitations of our old system is that alerts only went to one member and we thought that really wasn’t a good practice,” Smith says.
Information Flow: Parents ➔PowerSchool ➔Schools ➔Parents
Parents input contact information when their student registers in the district for the very first time; after that, parents can verify or update that information only once each year after that–at the beginning of the school year.
Smith says parents were reminded to do so several times at the beginning of this school year, and had until October to make sure information was up to date and correct. After that, the district “locked in” that information.
“For any subsequent changes in PowerSchool, then parents have to call the school secretary to correct the data,” Smith explains.
Parents do have some control over making periodic changes in School Messenger to their list of contacts–who can get what information, when they get it, and how (by phone, text and/or email)–by selecting “Preferences.”
Step 1: Go to PowerSchool, and click on School Messenger on the bottom left of the screen.
Step 2: In School Messenger, click on the three bars in the upper left corner of the screen.
Step 3: Click on ‘Preferences’
Step 4: Manage which contacts get calls, texts and/or emails and when they get contacted.
Step 5: Click on the types of information to manage who gets what notifications and how they’re notified.
Smith said the district has had some issues with data synching across the two systems, and they’re trying to work on perfecting that. What’s more, says Hakkonsen, there is some ‘historical data’ in the system that needs to get cleaned up. For example, students who have been in the district for many years may have old contact information that was entered at some point years ago that is no longer current–but the system still has that information.
It isn’t until the system is used–issuing weather related notifications this week, for example–that some of the problems reveal themselves.
“We’re getting better data but there is still historical data in the system that needs to get cleaned up. We do apologize–the goal is to get it all cleaned up. The first time many people noticed was with the weather delays,” Hakkonsen adds.
Smith and Hakkonsen are asking parents and guardians to check school messenger to make sure their preferences are set correctly. If any contact information is incorrect–or appears to be correct but problems are still happening (for example, emergency contacts getting notification for non-emergency reasons)–call the school directly to speak to someone in the front office who can look at the records and make whatever changes need to be made.
Trying to get it sorted out
Hopefully, says Smith, families will be relieved to know the district is working on making things work more smoothly.
“At the end of the day we want all of our families to receive communications to the right people in the right way, at the right time, that’s the goal. We didn’t have that before. We were limited because of the way the systems were structured. So that’s what we’re driving at and we’re obviously experiencing growing pains as we’re getting there. We appreciate all of our families’ patience and flexibility as we come across these various, snafus and we iron them out,” he says.
To help parents better understand the communications, they should keep in mind the following:
- Non-school hour emergencies: Notifications (calls, texts and emails) that get made before or after school for things like early morning delays, next-day cancellations, etc. “Most typically, that’s when your phone rings at 5 a.m.,” says Smith.
- School hour emergencies: Notifications (calls, texts and emails) that get made during school, such as emergency dismissals or, god forbid, something more serious like lockdowns–when kids are in school and the right people need to be contacted. “We can’t just assume that people are going to be around. That’s why we have the capacity in the system to have multiple people listed. As a service to families, you want everybody to have the information, so arrangements can be made to care for kids if they have to be sent home from school,” Smith reiterates.
As the person to whom the final decision falls when it comes time to cancelling school or setting a delay, Smith wants the community to understand how much goes into making that decision.
“For the record, I don’t control the weather, so I want everybody to know I do the best I can with the information I have. And I collect a lot of information from a range of sources to try to make the best decision possible,” he says, noting that he does have a process he follows “pretty religiously.”
- “It starts with me communicating with the Wilton police–whether that’s at 4 a.m. or 6 a.m., that’s usually my first phone call, and I get an assessment of the conditions in town–how are the roads? Is the DPW out, what are they saying about the roads? In Wilton, we have micro-climates so, in North Wilton–where I live now–it can be snowing and down on the Norwalk border, it can be raining.
- “We contract with a meteorological service which provides real time updates, and I participate in conference calls with him and superintendents of schools from across the region, and we share information. And then we kind of get the blow-by-blow, expected report of what could happen.
- “I take all that information and then I look at the timing of the bus runs, who’s going to be on them. Also, particularly at this time of year, we have a lot of young, inexperienced drivers in our high school–so I worry about them. The other piece is a number of our staff members travel from significant distances.
“So, we look at all that information qualitatively and then we make a judgment–is it safer to keep the kids in school or are we expecting weather? I think the Monday early dismissal was a great example. I was receiving reports early in the morning and I spoke with the meteorologist–he was suggesting strongly that there was a band of intense snow forming that was going to roll in right around that three o’clock hour. That didn’t materialize–it started to snow but wasn’t heavy until four. We just do the best we can with the information we have. I feel like the process for decision making has a lot of integrity, but sometimes the outcomes are a mess–that’s because we don’t control the weather,” Smith says.
And while he adds that he works very hard to avoid disrupting schedules if he can, when push comes to shove, he always wants to err on the side of safety.
“One hundred percent of the time.”
He acknowledges that district families do have options to get the information in addition to calls, texts and emails.
“Just as technology has gotten better over time, habits have changed. It used to be that we would communicate to radio and TV stations and people were expected to look for the listing on Channel 12 or STAR 99. Then, we posted a notice to the website, and now we have mass communication–we push everything out. Generally speaking there’s a preference to have an information push. That’s a system that we have in place–but I would recommend to everybody also, if you have a question, check the website, watch the local news because we will be sharing information on both venues as well,” he says, adding, “Like on GOOD Morning Wilton.”
Families can also follow Smith’s Twitter account for notifications.
Finally, parents can also download both PowerSchool and School Messenger apps for iPhone or Android.