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Networking Tools and Services Improve Communication, Help Ensure School Safety and Security

November 26, 2007

By Jenny Carless, News@Cisco

Anyone who has asked a child to help program his cell phone or personal digital assistant knows that today's children are tech-savvy. From computer games to social networking, this new generation of 21st century children uses technology in ways that even their older siblings never imagined.

So it's no surprise that savvy schools and educators are reaching out to children through technology. And it's proving to be a successful way to create engaging learning environments.

And reaching far beyond the classroom, technology also plays an even broader and more important role in school environments today. School districts are using the campus- and district-wide Internet Protocol (IP) networks they have built over the years to support a critical communication platform that improves district operations and enhances safety.

In this two-part feature, we look at how technology is serving education communities both inside and outside the classroom (among parents, communities and schools). In this article, we explore communication and school safety. Part two will feature classroom teaching technologies.

Improving Overall Communication

The most effective schools and communities are those that drive communication involvement through a seamlessly connected network of students, teachers, parents, administrators and citizens. To help ensure such wide-open communication, schools across the country are deploying district-wide IP-based communication tools.

In 2002, Katy Independent School District (outside Houston, Texas) concluded that neither its old network nor its disparate phone system was reliable or flexible enough to deal with the district's rapid growth. Officials decided to upgrade their network and moved to IP Communications.

The transformation has been a great success.

"We saw the speed of the network quadruple," says Lenny Schad, the district's deputy superintendent.

With new IP phones in all classrooms, district communication has improved tremendously. Further, additional channels have opened up between parents and teachers.

"Everybody has his or her own extension, so that a parent who wants to talk to a teacher can call directly to that classroom," says Kelly Carr, instructional technology facilitator. "With [Cisco Unity] Unified Messaging, they'll get voicemail that then turns into an e-mail."

Mississippi's Hattiesburg Public School District has also seen enormous benefits from the installation of an IP-based network and communication tools.

Hattiesburg, which is part of the Cisco 21st Century Schools (21S) Program (developed post-Hurricane Katrina, to help rebuild affected schools and create a blueprint for reconstructing and improving schools around the country), is using its network to improve communications.

"Our new infrastructure is just amazing," says Annie Wimbish, Hattiesburg's superintendent of schools. "Now, if I need to send all the principals a message, I record just one message and send it to them all instantly - with the touch of a button. Previously, I'd have sent an email, but they might not get it right away."

"We also have a video-enabled network, so when I need to have a meeting with all my principals, instead of requiring everyone to travel, we can pull up the teleconference and work together. It's effective, even though we're in different locations, because we can hear and see each other," she continues. "And it's going to save us a lot of time and money."

Communicating with the children's families is critical, also. Hattiesburg School District uses a tool called Connect-ED to schedule, send and track voice messages to all parents.

"We call parents to remind them about meetings, and that really makes a difference in attendance," Wimbish explains. "For example, we have a drop-out prevention committee, consisting of parents, teachers and community members. Previously, if I could get anyone there, it was just a blessing. But the other day I had a packed house. They all said, 'oh yes, we got your reminder!'."

"Our ability to communicate both internally and externally is much stronger now," she adds. "Further, the instructional engagement level at our schools has developed remarkably."

"In addition, promoting safe and orderly engagement is one of our goals. With the help of this technology, we believe we can keep our children and staff much safer," she continued. "Ironically, improving communication, instructional engagement and security happened to be our district's three goals. This new technology has been instrumental in helping us with all three."

Tools for Safety and Security

Network-based security technologies and services can do a lot to help make schools safer. In particular, three components are key: video surveillance, visitor management and outbound notification.

Rowan Elementary School (in Hattiesburg School District) recently installed 27 video surveillance cameras, connected with its Cisco IP network. These cameras monitor the school entrance, its perimeters, hallways and cafeterias. Recorded footage or live camera feeds can be viewed from any administrator's computer screen at the click of a mouse.

Rowan boosts security further with Lobby Guard, a visitor management technology that instantly checks all visitors against the national sex offender registry (from a driver's license or other identification) and can print badges for all visitors. Lobby Guard also runs over the school's IP-based network.

Voice over IP phones are another important part of a security program.

Simply having an IP phone in every classroom means that teachers have instant communication with the office or police, if necessary. And when used in conjunction with an outbound-calling software program, administrators can broadcast messages to parents or teachers and administrators in case of an emergency.

"Many of our teachers didn't have direct communication to the office before," says Wimbish. "It's very comforting to know that now, in an emergency, they can call for help immediately."

IP-based tools can also help improve and speed up communication with emergency responders in the event of a disaster or security incident.

Empire High School in Tucson, Arizona uses Cisco Emergency Responder to help ensure the fastest possible reaction in an emergency. The tool enhances the Emergency 911 functionality of Cisco Unified Communication Manager.

"It lets us handle emergency calls like never before," says Matt Federoff, Vail School District's director of technology. "For example, it reports the classroom number, so emergency personnel will know exactly which area of the school the emergency call came from."

From improving efficiency, transparency and productivity among administrators to saving precious time and providing critical information in an emergency, IP- based communication technology is improving the lives of students and educators alike.

In part two, learn about how technology is transforming classrooms and helping students develop vital 21st century skills.

Jenny Carless is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, CA.

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