Columbia Public School District in Columbia, Missouri, is using time-worn traditional approaches combined with cutting-edge telecommunications technology to provide an effective solution to making its schools safer.

Columbia has seen explosive growth over the last five years. With this growth, the district has had to struggle with overcrowding and its inevitable disciplinary problems and shifts in student population.

According to Curt Fuchs, director of instructional media services, the district has been growing at a rate of 300 to 500 students per year since 1993.

“In some ways, we’ve been a victim of our own success,” Fuchs notes. “For a few years running, we’ve won awards for the ‘best community’ to live in, and we’ve attracted a wide range of newcomers. That growth puts pressure on the entire system—especially [in terms of] safety.”

With its influx of new students, the district has struggled to upgrade its facilities, many dating from the early 1920s, to accommodate more students safely. Administrators found not only space limitations, but also infrastructure problems as the student body grew. Few classrooms had intercom access, computer drops, or adequate electrical outlets.

In the past few years, however, plans have come together for upgrading technology access, as well as improving security and communications. These plans have included introducing additional safety personnel, installing video surveillance, and upgrading network and phone systems in the schools.

First, district officials identified which schools were in greatest need of communications infrastructure; next, they tackled the problem of personnel. With local grants, they installed security officers in the two main high schools. Each of these officers also monitors the security of 13 other grammar and middle schools throughout the district from their high-school headquarters.

“It’s important to get to know the students,” said Preston Bass, coordinator of safety and security at David H. Hickman High School and one of Columbia School District’s supervising security officers. “The students are your allies.”

In an informal tour of the 40-acre, 2,100-student school, it was apparent that most students knew Mr. Bass, but more importantly, he knew the students as well. While on tour, he took a phone call from the main office. A local clerk at a convenience store down the street was on the line. He described a few girls who looked as if they were cutting classes. Mr. Bass had a good idea who the students might be from the clerk’s description. “It sounds like Kristen [name changed],” he said. “I’ll have to check up on that.”

Hickman and other schools in the district, as part of technology and safety upgrades, have installed a number of video cameras in the hallway.

“You can’t be too careful. This is an older building with easy access to it,” Bass explained. “We like to keep the entrances, main traffic areas under surveillance.”

Other advances at Hickman, a 74-year-old facility, include the installation of high-speed networks and a complete phone system. To bolster security, the new phone system affordably allowed the school to install a phone extension in every classroom in the school. The system, manufactured by Sphere Communications, runs over the new network connections to each classroom, essentially giving each room a phone over the network at no charge while also providing internet access.

Gloria Stephenson, the district’s technology coordinator, played a key role in implementing the new network and telephone systems. A former teacher, Stephenson knows the benefits the new technology will have. “Teachers need better communication with parents and with the offices. The phone system, the direct eMail and internet access give them that.”

Stephenson’s job has been daunting, but rewarding. “We’re running network connections and a phone into every classroom. In these older buildings, you run into many challenges doing that; but if the new network and phone system helps us in one emergency, it’s worth it.”

Stephenson is overseeing phone and network upgrades for the entire school system; the district project is scheduled for completion in 2002.

“Because we have direct communications from the classrooms, it’s very easy for me to contact teachers about students and, more importantly, for teachers to [reach] the security office right from the classroom,” said Bass.

As a further protection, one “hot line” phone extension sits in the main office as an incoming emergency line only; teachers dial this extension from their classes for an instant response in the office.

The phone system also carries enhanced 911. As a special feature of the phone network, whenever 911 is dialed from a classroom or remote extension, the 911 dispatcher is given exact geographical information about the origin of the call, such as “Hickman High School, west wing, second floor, room 217.” Such precise information could make a difference in an emergency response.

Bass also uses the phone system to keep in touch with off-duty police officers both in and around the campuses.

Columbia School District plans to add the network and phone service to every classroom in its district by the end of 2002. This communications upgrade actually will save the district money.

“We have negotiated a contract with the city to lease us their excess fiber lines,” explained Fuchs. “On the fiber alone, we’ll save hundreds of thousands of dollars versus leasing lines to each school.”

In addition, the use of the Sphericall phone system will allow him to add a phone and voice mail to every classroom and for every teacher and save money as well.

“To upgrade the existing phone systems or to add systems where they don’t exist would be very expensive,” Fuchs continued. “The savings on this system—because it is going in on the partially eRate-funded internet connections, is huge. I figure we’ll save about $97,000 a year.”

By providing voice mail and teacher phones extensions in every class, the district will be giving its teachers immediate access to security, administration, and—even more importantly—parents.

“When I announced [at a recent teacher’s meeting] that we were putting a phone in every classroom, the teachers applauded,” said Fuchs. Closer ties to parents, he believes, are essential to creating a safer, more secure environment.

With fiber to every school, network connections and phones to every classroom, video cameras on the entrances and dedicated, student-centered security officers in the schools themselves, Columbia School District has truly blended the best of old and new in creating a more secure school system. Improved communication—both high-tech and personal—is the key.

Between classes, Bass poked his head into a homeroom; students were milling around, taking their seats.

“Kristen! How you doing,” he announced. “Did you take off earlier, run off campus early?” Kristen looked at him, shocked. “Yes, I did,” she said. “I had to run home—but I’m back!” she smiled.

Mr. Bass nodded and went on his way. “She’s asking herself right now, ‘How did he know that?'” he laughed.

It’s simple, really. Good communication.

Links:


Columbia Public School District
1818 West Worley Street
Columbia, MO 65203
phone (573) 886-2100,
fax (573) 886-2171
http://www.ims.columbia.k12.mo.us


Sphere Communications
Two Energy Drive
Lake Bluff, IL 60044
phone (888) 774-3732
info@spherecom.com
http://www.spherecom.com