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Federal Way schools pioneer automated alert system for student grades

Federal Way School District's "grade threshold phone call" program is one of a kind.

Automated phone calls go out when a student has a grade that drops to a C- or lower. It is the only program of its kind in the area. Blackboard Connect, the automated phone message system that enables the district to make the calls, is considering a study on Federal Way — the only school district in the nation that has used the system in that way, district spokeswoman Diane Turner said.

The company is expected to figure out details of the possible study in a conference call next week.

The automated calls begin three weeks into the reporting period, and go out every two weeks.

The program began as a pilot program at Federal Way High School and Kilo Middle School last fall and was integrated into all secondary schools in the district on March 16.

During that pilot phase, there were 5,813 grade calls to parents or guardians from Nov. 9 to January. Once the program went district-wide, there were 16,394 calls from March to May.

Evaluating the system

The system has now been around for several weeks. So far, the feedback from the schools is favorable, Turner said.

The phone calls have brought more parents to the district's online grades page. Since the calls began going out, more parents have logged in, using their password to check grades.

"As a parent who has received one of those calls, I greatly appreciate it," school board member Amye Bronson-Doherty said May 11.

Tweaking the system

Once the school year is over, district administration plans to get together with all the secondary school principals and discuss what's working and what's not.

"It's a good opportunity to evaluate the system," Turner said.

One thing the district is already working on is making sure that staff members update grades promptly to ensure students have an accurate grade.

The district has already earmarked some potential tweaks to the system.

Currently, someone from the district presses the button that sends out all the calls. The next stage is to set the calls to go out automatically, at a time that is after the dinner hour, but not too late in the evening.

The calls go out in Spanish and English, depending on which home language is registered with the district. The system recognizes the home language for each family and only sends a message in that language. If the district does expand the language choices in the future, Turner said the next languages would be Russian, Ukrainian and Korean.

The system can also detect if the message went to voice mail, or which messages are heard live.

Next year, the plan is to have the option of texting the grade message to parents' cell phones.

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