NEWARK -- Students attending Newark Junior High can download a smartphone application that allows them to check homework assignments, confirm event dates and report on-campus crime.
But what really sold Mark Neal, the school's principal, on the free app was its ability to reach another key segment of the community: parents. "Every successful school has a high level of parental involvement, so we're trying to find another avenue to communicate with them," Neal said.
With the click of a button, Neal and other Newark Junior High officials now can do just that, using the app to send up-to-the-minute messages to parents and students on their mobile devices. Its features can be used for routine updates and major crises, such as a gas leak or campus lockdowns when police are investigating a criminal act.
"Instead of parents trying to figure out what's happening, our office manager or I can just shoot them a message from my smartphone," Neal said.
The app is being provided by SchoolInfoApp.com, a Louisiana-based company that was paid a $2,000 startup fee for the service, with annual renewal payments of $500, Neal said. "To be able to communicate effectively with parents is worth every penny; it's priceless essentially," he said. "And we're trying to get local businesses to sponsor it, to pay down the cost."
The app, which can be downloaded at Google Play or the Apple Store, offers a host of tools, such as receiving current school news, checking calendars for school clubs and sports teams, and accessing maps or even a GPS system to get directions to off-campus events. Students can use an anonymous tip line to report student bullying or violence, or use a feature called My Assignments to check grades and the dates of upcoming tests and homework projects.
Newark Junior High, whose 897 students attend grades 7 and 8, has a website and a Twitter account, but those media can't compete with the immediacy and rising popularity of mobile devices, Neal said.
The average U.S. consumer spends about 80 percent of daily smartphone usage on apps, according to Flurry, a San Francisco tech analytics firm. In fact, the number of Americans using smartphone apps -- which total more than 220 million -- is nearly equal to the amount of those who use laptop and desktop computers, Flurry reported.
"Websites have become almost passé because of smartphones," Neal said. "If most people are like me, they're on their smartphones two-thirds of the day."
The school app is the brainchild of Jordan and Julie Riggs, a married couple raising six children in Rustin, La. "We asked our kids' school about an app, and they didn't have one, so we started one," said Jordan Riggs, who cofounded the company in 2011. Two years later, SchoolInfoApp.com has 20 employees and about 200 school clients around the nation and a few overseas, Riggs said.
Dave Marken, Newark's superintendent of schools, said the junior high is Newark's only school using the app, but it could spread throughout the district if it goes well.
"I think it's an ingenious idea, and I'd like to see how well it works," Marken said. "We'll use Newark Junior High as a pilot, and we're really excited to have them lead the way for us."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.