Improving School Communications With Television

“Compared to a PA system, a television broadcast adds a visual element to education, which is critical,” says Keith Kyker, educational media specialist at Northwood Elementary School in Crestview, FL.“Much more content can be given with the visual element.”

With 20 years experience in teaching television at all grade levels, Kyker knows what he’s talking about. He and his business partner, Christopher Churchy, have written six educational technology books for Greenwood - Libraries Unlimited. They also develop video production software, have authored a DVD and CD-ROM to supplement their latest textbooks, tackle public speaking engagements and provide education television advice on their Website, www.schooltv.com.

Kyker notes that television meets the needs of today’s students. “This generation was raised on the video image, and it’s the communication medium that they expect.”

Administrators at Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) in Fairfax County, VA, obviously agree, because they have a large television education presence. In fact, FCPS, the nation’s 13th largest school district, has television studios in most of its 239 schools and centers.

The Program at FCPS

“In the early 1990s, we began to have requests for television broadcasts of morning announcements in lieu of a traditional sound system,” says Kevin Sneed, assistant director of Design and Construction Services. “Initially, that was accomplished by sending it through an upstream modulator. In select rooms, you could broadcast through the local channels in the schools. You also could tie it into the camera, and it would allow you to take the camera anywhere in the school, as long as you had a television out-port.”

Things grew to the point where administrators felt a program was required. In 1995, the district began to include television studios in both middle and high school locations. “It was fairly simplistic in that we created a studio and a production room, where someone could use a soundboard and control the camera,” says Sneed.

Today, the district has two tiers of television studios. The lower-end studio is geared toward the elementary and middle schools. It varies in size from that of a large closet to a classroom, depending on what space is available. It is designed to give students an introductory feel for the equipment, as well as teach them how to produce a show and send programming throughout a school.

The higher-end studio, for the high schools, is more expensive and emulates a broadcast television station with high-grade commercial equipment in it. These studios have specific space requirements in terms of size, scope and power. The Design and Construction Services Department provides power and lighting, including a raised floor for conduit and cable and a quiet ventilation system.

“Also, the high-end studios are turnkey systems purchased under a bid contract rather than being installed by our in-house staff,” says Todd Blakeman, manager of Multimedia Engineering, in the Department of Information Technology (IT). “There are three different tiers from which the high schools can choose to meet their needs, and each tier can be customized.”

However, there also are a lot of variables. For example, all the studios contain different levels of equipment, depending on how strong the program is at each school. “Some studios look almost like a local newscast with different backdrops and additional light packages,” says Sneed.

“From our end,” says Laura Romstedt, manager of Media and Training Services, IT, “no two studios are the same.”

“Yet, we try to make the higher-end studios as modular as we can to keep the costs down,” says Blakeman. Which raises a good question: What does a television studio cost? Not surprisingly, there’s a tremendous price range.

“Most of the studios I set up are in the elementary schools, although some are in the middle schools,” says Llexell Evangelista, a teacher center technician in IT. “The cost ranges from $2,000 for basic equipment to $9,000 for higher-end equipment. Basic equipment includes a camera, monitor, a couple of microphones and a VCR to broadcast a live news show. Higher-end equipment includes multiple cameras, audio mixers, wireless microphones and videos to hook up multiple inputs.”

The higher-end studios cost from $40,000 to more than $100,000, depending on which of the three tiers the administrators choose.

And what can each school do with its investment? “Both levels of studios can be used for morning announcements, emergency messages and teleconferences,” says Romstedt. “The higher-end studios can also be used for distance learning.”

Ultimately, what can be accomplished depends on each school’s level of interest. “Some of them, depending on the equipment, record programs and do post production to teach editing,” says Romstedt. “Some do a live news show program in the morning. Some use the studio for silent bus dismissal. In addition, a lot of educational programs go through the studios to the schools.”

Tips for Getting Started

If you’ve been thinking about adding television studios to your district to enhance communication and education opportunities, our experts advise that you go for it and have fun, remembering that you’re only limited by your imagination. Here, they offer some advice to get you started.

1. Locate space for a studio. This can be an issue for some space-pressed schools. Still, what if you clean out the room where all the broken furniture is stored?

2. If you’re building a new school, plan for and design the studio from the beginning. It’s much easier than trying to find space in an existing school. “We’re doing this as we build new high schools,” says Blakeman.

3. Include a classroom for instruction. A television studio is necessary, of course, but Kyker urges administrators to include a classroom with desks for instruction. If you’re building a new facility, the classroom would ideally be attached to the studio and production room so that, regardless of which room the teacher is in, he can see what’s happening in the other two rooms.

4. Add sound isolation and proper lighting. “These are major aspects for any studio, small or large,” Blakeman says.

5. Start small and build as you go. If you try to do too much, you may get distracted from the goal of teaching the students, notes Kyker. If you start small, at the end of every year, you can review what went well and what needs additional support, as well as plan for how and where to grow.

6. Choose equipment that is scalable. “In the beginning, you may only have the funds to start out small,” says Romstedt. “As your program grows and changes, you may want to add equipment, which is easier to do if the original equipment accommodates additional tools.”

7. Negotiate equipment prices directly with the manufacturers. “The manufacturers would like to get their equipment into your school at the first step,” says Blakeman. “They are serving their own needs as well as yours and will give price breaks on the high cost of equipment.”

Kyker agrees, noting that it’s good to build a relationship with a vendor who you can consider part of the team. The vendor will make sure that new equipment is compatible with existing equipment and will let you know what’s needed to build the program. And, while it’s tempting to search for the best price instead of building a relationship, Kyker cautions: “If you’re not careful, you’ll buy something that can’t be supported.”

8. Purchase equipment for the industrial or professional setting. It’s a step above the low-end equipment that’s found in a video hobby shop and a step below equipment for the broadcast setting. For a school setting, it’s what works well in terms of durability and features.

9. Make sure your staff is trained. Hands-on training is a must for teachers and students. For example, in the past FCPS has provided a course for library media specialists on new show production at both the basic and advanced level.

10. Develop a support plan. Who’s the first person you call when you have a problem? “You need personnel who can come out and provide that needed support,” encourages Romstedt. “We also have personnel who will troubleshoot over the phone.”

11. Use a curriculum. There will be a certain small percentage of students who will be naturally talented and have the instinct to be camera operators and announcers. But most students need to be taught how to use the equipment and the steps involved in making a production. So Kyker recommends using a curriculum with a scope and sequence just like you would use for any other course.

12. Get commitment from the administration regarding scheduling. “You need a commitment to keep the class size manageable in relationship to the amount of equipment you have,” says Kyker. More students and less equipment means less learning and less accomplished.

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