Parents of students in Santa Barbara’s public schools soon will begin receiving occasional phone messages from their schools providing bulletin updates and, if necessary, emergency notifications.

The Santa Barbara school board on Tuesday night unanimously approved the purchase of a $28,000 automated parent notification system.

The state-of-the-art system, purchased from a company called TeleParent, will allow the district to send voice messages to the cell phones and landlines of every family in the 16,000-student K-12 system, or for schools to send targeted messages to specific groups.

For instance, if an athletic event was canceled, a school could tailor a message for the families of all the players on the team, said Davis Hayden, the district’s research and technology director. Similarly, he said, the district could send a message to the families of all sophomores reminding them of an upcoming high school exist exam. It also will notify families when students are truant.

Hayden said it could take about a month before the system is operational, as it still needs to be purchased and installed, and district employees still need to be trained.

The system will plug directly into the school district’s database containing all landline and cell phone numbers. Officials are expecting some kinks in the early stages. Hayden said many phone numbers may need to be added or corrected, and parents will have the option of adding or opting out their cell phones. The system also includes e-mail and text functions, but it’s unclear how they will be used.

In the beginning, Hayden said, the schools probably will use the phone-message system sparingly. He added that it should never be overused.

“We don’t want to give 20 messages a day to parents,” he said. “But at the same time, we want to give messages they appreciate. I’m sure parents would appreciate knowing an event was canceled and they don’t have to drive their child to it.”

A major reason for purchasing the program was to improve emergency preparedness, officials said.

As it is, the elementary district doesn’t have a good way to send a message to all parents. The junior high and high school district possesses a system, but it is outmoded. Called School Messenger, the $3,000-a-year system uses just four dial-up lines, so it takes three to four hours to call every family for any given school, officials said.

By comparison, Teleparent uses hundreds of digital lines and can do the same job in 10 minutes, Hayden said.

During this summer’s Gap Fire, it took hours to notify all families that summer-school courses were canceled at Dos Pueblos High School because the campus was being used as a staging area for firefighters. 

In July, when an earthquake in the Los Angeles area sent ripples through Santa Barbara, the local year-round schools were flooded with calls from parents wanting assurance that everything was fine.

With the new system, “you can anticipate that and call the parents and say, ‘Something just happened, the students are safe, pickup time is the regular time’ — whatever the message is,” said Barbara Keyani, the district’s communications director.

If there is an emergency, the company has agreed to provide live Spanish translation on a 24/7 basis, officials said. The company said it would pilot this new feature in Santa Barbara for free using its “existing relationships with translation services,” a district report said.

TeleParent also will offer individual schools a month-long trial period of the same system on a smaller scale that could be used by teachers.

For instance, it would allow teachers to send voicemails to parents about their children. The teacher-specific messages are pre-recorded in several languages and listed on a menu containing thousands of options, such as “Your child gave a good presentation at class” and “Your child was writing notes to other students in class,” Hayden said.

Teachers also could send messages to every family in the class, reminding them about an upcoming math test, for example, or to pack a lunch for a field trip the next day.

Schools that opt in would have to pay for the smaller systems using their own site budgets. The $28,000 cost of the districtwide system amounts to about $1.75 per student, and the smaller school systems for teachers would cost each school an additional $1.50 per student, officials said.

“Some teachers are probably going to love this, and other teachers are potentially going to say, ‘No, it’s not my style,’” Hayden said. “And that’s fine.”

Hayden said other school districts have reported that the system tends to pay for itself because it improves enrollment. Most school districts in California receive money from the state based on enrollment.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at