Wireless service strengthens ties with this community

In a school where three computer terminals supply internet access to 750 students and only five telephone lines connect the staff to outside resources, communication poses a daily challenge. Thanks to a federal project called “Safe Schools,” however, officials at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., are using cellular phones to strengthen their links to the community while improving student safety.

Bell is one of 650 schools nationwide participating in the Safe Schools program sponsored by AT&T Wireless and Ericsson Mobile Phones. Under the program, participating schools receive wireless service and two cellular phones free of charge for a year.

Victor Molina, the school’s parent involvement coordinator, is one of many Bell officials grateful for the program. “The wireless phones have made our jobs much easier and more effective,” Molina said. “They allow us to be more visible to our students as well.”

Located in an economically disadvantaged section of Washington, Bell’s population includes students from 40 different countries. To meet the diverse needs of its students, the school operates 14 hours a day and offers more than 20 special programs, including after-school and evening language acquisition classes.

As the liaison between the school and its community, Molina often works 12-hour days coordinating the various programs. He finds the mobile service an invaluable tool for staying connected to parents and students.

“I’m outside my office at night, circulating from group to group,” Molina said. “If a parent or a student needs to reach me to convey a message, they are now able to do that. It makes us all feel more connected and makes the programs run more smoothly.”

During school hours, security personnel carry the phones as they patrol the building. Wireless service allows them the mobility to sweep the building while keeping emergency assistance just a speed-dial button away.

Irasema Salcido, one of Bell’s assistant principals, noted that students feel safer in the presence of the phones. “Unfortunately, the situation in a lot of areas like this one is getting worse in terms of crime. We need to be able to have easy access to 911,” Salcido said.

Cellular phones also travel with teachers and coaches to games and other events off-campus. Molina, who coaches soccer at Bell, recalled an episode last fall when a student had to be rushed to the hospital. Molina was able to use the cell phone to call for an ambulance and the student’s family.

Molina said the program has been so successful that school officials hope to expand it next year. They would like to see each counselor and department head have access to a wireless phone, and will apply for grants from other sources to make this happen.

Meanwhile, AT&T Wireless and Ericsson Mobile Phones are still accepting applications for this year’s Safe Schools program. Awards are based on need, the availability of AT&T Wireless service in the local area, and the defined limits of the program. If you’re interested in participating, call 888.482.9995 to have an application sent by mail.

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