Lifelines to the Office

The speaker on the classroom wall begins to crackle, and students look up from their desks to hear the important information emanating from the principal's office.

"Mrs. Smith, could you send Billy to the office?"

Now, instead of focusing on their school work, the children in Mrs. Smith's class are working their imaginations overtime wondering about Billy's fate: "Is he in trouble, or did he just forget his lunch? Is he going to get to leave early? Did something bad happen at home? Will we ever see him again?"

Those are the kinds of scenarios that occur with a school intercom system that blares its messages to an entire classroom. In many cases, the intercom is the quickest way for the school's office to communicate with a classroom, but something important is lost in the transaction-privacy.

Reaching out In a climate that demands quick and effective communication, many schools are looking to upgrade their intercoms.

Newer systems can integrate the intercom with a phone system and computer network. A system still can broadcast intercom announcements the old-fashioned way, but it also allows teachers to receive calls-from within or outside the school-privately over a phone receiver or have messages sent to a voice mailbox. Some systems, such as the one installed at Maple School in Northbrook, Ill., also control a school's clock and bell functions, and can transmit video to a classroom monitor.

"It's doing pretty much everything," says George Becker, supervisor of buildings and grounds for Northbrook/Glenview District 30.

Concord High School in Concord, N.H., installed a modern intercom system during a renovation and expansion about four years ago.

"The teachers love having the phone in the room and having voice mail," says Bob Monson, director of facilities and auxiliary services for the Concord School District.

On the other side of the country, Harvey Rau, director of facilities for the San Dieguito High School District in Encinitas, Calif., says teachers react the same way.

"They like to have that capability in the classrooms-for safety and for simple communication," says Rau.

La Costa Canyon High School in the San Dieguito district had a sophisticated communications system installed when the school was built a few years ago.

Privacy plus Combining the intercom with a phone system gives teachers the ability to talk to the principal's office and not have the discussion embarrass students or jeopardize their privacy.

"With our old system, if it was working, the office could speak to a teacher, but they couldn't talk privately," says Concord's Monson. "Now when the office calls, the teacher hears a tone and can pick up the receiver and have a private conversation."

With voice-mail capabilities, teachers can communicate with each other and with parents more effectively. At Concord, says Monson, an actual person answers all outside calls, but if a teacher is busy in the classroom or otherwise unavailable, the voice-mail system can store messages.

And with a phone in each classroom, teachers can call back parents at their convenience instead of searching the building during their lunch breaks for an unused phone.

"When we had phones in just three or four rooms, teachers would often be lined up waiting to use them," says Monson.

Teachers at Concord High also use their voice mail and Internet capabilities to send homework assignments to absent students.

In view The wiring that brings telephone and intercom capabilities to each room can also transmit video to an individual classroom monitor, or to several classrooms simultaneously.

At La Costa Canyon High School, teachers request a video, and an employee queues up the tape from the "head room" where all the videos are stored and transmits it to the classroom.

"You don't have to push televisions and VCRs all around the building," says Rau. "Technology has changed to such an extent to make communication like this possible."

Concord's system has similar capabilities, but Monson says the school keeps several VCRs available on carts for faculty members who are more comfortable with the old way of doing things.

A classroom without a phone or other means to connect to the outside world can be more than an inconvenience. When trouble erupts, it could prevent students and teachers from getting the emergency help they need.

That fear was on the minds of community leaders and education and law-enforcement officials in California when they met last year in the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy.

As an outgrowth of those meetings, AirTouch Cellular agreed to ease some of those schoolhouse fears. The company kicked off Gov. Gray Davis' School Safety Cell Phone Program by donating 10,000 cellular phones and free air time to about 1,000 public high schools in 23 California counties served by AirTouch.

Subsequently, Pacific Bell Wireless agreed to participate in the governor's program and also plans to donate 10,000 cell phones to schools in Northern California.

The phones are programmed to connect directly to local law-enforcement agencies so school officials can report emergencies. Large schools will receive 10 phones, and smaller to mid-sized schools will receive five. The governor's Office of Criminal Justice Planning and the Office of Education in each participating county are administering the program.

At Laguna Creek High School in the Elk Grove, Calif., district, the building is only six years old and each classroom already had a phone. Still, school officials believe the donated cell phones will enhance their communications and provide better security to the staff and 2,500 students.

"We plan to use them at student events where we have no access to phones," says Chris Hoffman, an assistant principal. "At a football game, you might have 5,000 or 6,000 people, and if something happens, you want to be able to make emergency phone calls."

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