Calling All Classrooms

It sounds like the tie-breaker question in an "Impossible Trivia" contest: Name the one profession that still operates at the turn of the millennium without access to a telephone. Of course, teachers across the country know the answer: education! For far too long, a teacher's only link with the outside world was a window -- or the ubiquitous black plastic handset that was useful only for buzzing the school office.

Now, however, schools are starting to buck this trend. How many are providing telephone access to classrooms is not known; according to an Education Week report in May, this statistic is not tracked by the U.S. Department of Education, Market Data Retrieval, or Quality Education Data. What is known is why it hasn't happened sooner: the familiar "not enough money in the budget" bugaboo, with available cash these days trickling toward computers and Internet access priorities.

The federal E-rate program, launched in 1998, promises some relief by including telephone cabling and service discounts alongside the more publicized high-tech financial assistance. But with such a lucrative market lying untapped, telephone service providers have begun competing for school accounts even without Uncle Sam's prodding.

"Like many companies, we believe we have the finest product, and if someone tries it, they will buy it," says Frank Bell, area vice president of Sprint PCS's North Florida district, which has distributed more than $300,000 in goods and services to schools in his territory in the 1998-99 education year. "The administrators did not ask -- we went to them, similar to the fruity soft drink entrepreneur who knocks on gas station doors one by one in New Jersey just to put his product in their hands. You have to let people know you exist, so frankly, it's an effective use of our advertising and marketing dollars."

Here are several examples of innovative public/private partnerships -- along with contact numbers to see whether you can duplicate their success in your area:

Sprint PCS Florida Education Connections

Craig Portwood, head athletic trainer at Mainland High School in Volusia County, FL, thanked God he had a cell phone in his hand when a varsity football player dislocated a shoulder during practice. Portwood tracked the boy's parent within minutes, calling the office, the home, and finally a pager, all without leaving the scene. He estimates the on-the-spot phone availability saved him at least an hour in this instance -- three to five hours overall each week as he stays in touch with parents, administration, and physicians. Portwood even claims to have improved communication with parents by 75 percent in just one year.

Daniel Grell doesn't quibble with those estimates. As the assistant principal at Thacker Avenue Elementary School in Osceola County, Grell, too, is thrilled with his improved parental communication -- just the fact that a portable unit eliminates the frustrating phone tag game saves him three hours each week. "Often when a parent returns a call to the school's main number, they don't know exactly who called. Cell service means they reach me directly, even if I'm in transit or the switchboard has closed," he adds.

Other Education Connection schools tell of using the cell phones to back up the building's primary phone system during a service outage, connecting students with their rides after extracurricular events, and supervision at sports events. Currently, Sprint PCS has given 120 digital wireless phones to 68 schools in the Jacksonville/Orlando/Tampa/St. Pete areas. The schools' only obligations are to complete an end-of-the-year evaluation form, and to hold on to the handsets. "The schools set up their own rules, so our involvement has been nothing more than monitoring the program," Bell says.

Still, the available cell phones don't equal the number of teachers and administrative staff per building by a long shot. Most administrators in the Education Connection experiment established check-out procedures for departments, similar to borrowing a library book for the day -- an adequate solution in Bell's opinion. The results at any rate caught Florida Governor Jeb Bush's eye -- at his request Sprint PCS expects to expand its gift to encompass some of the 68 state schools that received a "D" or "F" from his administration's evaluation this fall.

AT&T Safe Schools Program

Bob Fischer, the principal at Woodland Hills East Junior High School in Pittsburgh, admits he didn't have to prioritize between telephones and computers. The district's $9 million bond issue went straight to hardware and software; AT&T Learning Network picked up the slack for the communications side. Like his Sunshine State counterparts, Fischer discovered that wireless phones afford a flexibility he couldn't have predicted when Woodland Hills said yes to allowing the long-distance provider to put Ericsson Digital PCS phones in his hands two years ago.

"We really benefit from using the phones to establish communication networks with parents over student performance," he reports. "Several teachers have established an incentive program that calls each parent from the classroom at the end of each week to praise a child's progress." As an added treat, teachers allow excelling students to talk with a special adult in their lives from the classroom.

AT&T's program began as a focus on school safety in the Pittsburgh area in 1996, but response to its offer mushroomed quickly, says Paula McWilliams, director of corporate communications and public affairs at AT&T. It rolled out the program nationwide 12 months later. Currently, this free service involves nearly 2,000 schools in 30 cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Oklahoma City, and Seattle. Criteria for participation are based on need and the quality of AT&T's wireless coverage in the area. Totaled, this program accounts for 4,000 cell phones in an educational setting.

Each school receives 160 minutes of free local airtime a month per handset for the full school year. Individual schools ante up for any calls outside their zones and minutes beyond the standard package Ñ Fischer monitors his monthly invoice and passes along the charges to the individual teachers placing the calls. But with only 20 phones to pass among 53 teachers, telephone access still ranks as a privilege within his school --one that few will risk sacrificing over excessive or careless use.

The Safe Schools program may have started as an effort to put phones in the hands of crossing guards and playground supervisors, but now it is a tool for boosting classroom morale. "We have a lot of very creative teachers out there," McWilliams says. "They use this phone service to create homework hotlines, and contact parents on the spot to discuss classroom behavior."

The Bridge Project

Teachers at Washington Elementary School District in Phoenix, AZ, just received telephones on their desks, thanks to cash from a bond issue Ñ and most couldn't wait to pick up the receiver and call their voice mail box system. Thanks to the Bridge Project's software-based technology, establishing vocal contact with parents in this Southwestern city has become old hat after three years. In fact, it was a dedicated phone line to an IBM server that paved the way for telephones in each classroom faster than originally budgeted.

Washington Elementary teachers, who have up to nine voice mail boxes they can devote to nine different subjects, have relied on the old-fashioned telephone concept to relay school lunch menus, homework expectations, band practice results, meeting date changes, and Girl Scout troop schedules. Some schools enjoy a 64 percent daily call-in participation from parents, thanks to the variety. An outdial feature allows users to send broadcast messages to groups as well -- for example, a recorded reminder to all parents whose children are absent that day to review for a test the next day.

And the creativity continues to roll. Staff access the personnel line for explanations and updates on their insurance coverage. The district's story line -- local actors from the Screen Actors Guild lend their talents to entertaining the grade-schoolers -- receives 1,500 calls a month. And the Silent Witness line encourages students to report anonymously conversations and situations they find frightening. "We haven't had reports of someone planning to blow up the school, but they do tell us about parties without adult supervision," notes Mary Lou Micheaels, the district's Bridge Project coordinator.

Researcher Dr. Jerold P. Bauch of the Betty Phillips Center for Parenthood Education at Vanderbilt University applauds these efforts. After reviewing data from all Bridge Project participants in its first year, he discovered that parental involvement increased by an average of 487 percent in the pilot schools; teacher contact with parents increased to 14.46 contacts per day compared to 2.66 before the project. "Dramatic increases like these are virtually unheard of in educational programs," Bauch contends.

Of course, this is exactly the problem the American Business Collaboration (ABC) for Quality Dependent Care, a national coalition headed by 19 major corporations, set out to tackle when it conceived and funded the Bridge Project for schools where their employees reside. The member list reads like a Who's Who of business influence: Aetna, Allstate, American Express, BP Amoco, AT&T, Chevron, Texaco, Citigroup, Deloitte & Touche, Eastman Kodak, Exxon, GE Capital Services, Texas Instruments, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Lucent Technologies, Mobil, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and Xerox. Since 1995 these corporate titans have poured $1.4 million into computer hardware and software, teacher training, and on-going technical assistance -- all at no cost to the schools. ABC added 40 schools to this elite list for the 1999-2000 year, bringing the total number in their circle to 250 schools. The reward, these officials say, can be measured in their employees' satisfaction: Nearly three-quarters report feeling more positive about their employer; 34 percent say they feel less stress and 30 percent spend less time at work worrying about family issues. Twenty-one percent of employees claim their work productivity improved, 14 percent say they took off fewer days from work, and 16 percent were late less often.

"From Bridge Project's conception to now, we are very concerned with equity issues," says Leanne Barrett, the project's national program manager. "A lot of families do not have computers at home, but 95 percent own telephones."

"So voice communication reaches far more people than the Internet can at this point. But just as businesses have learned distinct uses for both voice mail and e-mail, most schools will eventually blend the two communication mediums in an effort to stay in touch efficiently," she adds.   

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