Use cost-cutting eMedia to sell your schools

With more than 40 states facing burgeoning deficits, school budgets are getting slashed from coast to coast. Often, public information and communications are among the first items to get the ax.

Facing shrinking print budgets for newsletters, brochures, fliers, lunch menus, and mailings, school leaders need to focus more on what works and less on what they’ve always done.

This means more relationship-building and personalized, one-to-one communications and fewer “Dear Parent” memos and “To Resident” mailings.

Thankfully, new media techniques such as electronic newsletters and online publications can support this kind of public relations effort with little or no additional budget impacts, other than staff time.

For example, armed with a customer contact management software program such as Interact Commerce Corp.’s ACT! (for under $200), a $15 per hour college student on summer break, and internet-based eMail, school leaders can start building a database of people they need to stay in close contact with.

Called “opinion leaders” or “key communicators” by PR pros, these are those “E.F. Hutton” folks in your community (when they talk, people listen) who can make or break your program, school, or district.

They can be power leaders—such as the mayor, county commissioners, corporate CEOs, and newspaper publishers—or influential community members, such as PTA presidents, realtors, school reporters, neighborhood activists, Kiwanis Club presidents, and the local ministerial alliance.

Large districts often break their databases into two distinct camps: one for internal audiences such as teachers, bus drivers, and support staff, and one for external targets such as Chamber of Commerce executives, arts leaders, and the region’s largest employers.

At the very least, every school should have contact information (including eMail, voice mail, cell phone, fax, and pager numbers) for all staff members, parents, volunteers, and business partners in a database.

That way, principals and other administrators can use eMail, voice mail, or fax broadcasting to stay in touch with VIPs on a regular basis (six to 12 times per year minimum) with news and information concerning their children and their schools.

If time allows, a school secretary or parent volunteer can use Microsoft Word, Publisher, or other user-friendly software to create an electronic version of the school newsletter. These one-pagers should be filled with short, to-the-point, bulleted news items, deadlines, and lots of kids’ and teachers’ names.

Once the basic template is created, it takes just a few minutes to plug in the weekly or monthly news items—especially if teachers and other school reporters eMail them to the editor.

The format should be easy to read and use, with lots of short, action-oriented headlines, subheads, bullets, and other graphic organizers. One or two font styles and colors are plenty. When it comes to electronic newsletters, content, accessibility, and speed matter more than graphic design.

The goal is to get and keep people interested in what is going on at your school or district. Each news item should just be a sentence or two, followed by a hotlink to your web page or another online resource

By focusing on “news you can use”—such as registration deadlines and school lunch menus—and by including memorable, fun facts that parents and teachers can share at the neighborhood grocery store, recreation center, or synagogue, you can help create a positive “buzz” about your school or district.

The content of electronic newsletters also can be targeted to meet the needs of specific audiences. Business leaders, for example, are less concerned about individual students (unless the student is their child) than they are about test scores, academic rigor, character education, teacher quality, and the wise use of tax dollars.

Frequency also is an issue. Rather than wait for months and then load up an eMail with 10 to 15 news items, you often get more leverage by sending more regular communications and focusing on one or two stellar announcements.

The key for any audience, however, is to keep your missives short. View the subject line on your eMail as your communication’s headline. If you don’t grab your readers in the first word or two, they may trash your eMail without reading it.

While this is less of a concern with affinity groups such as parents and PTA members, you still need to be respectful of their time. Everybody is busy, and no one has time for junk mail, even if it comes electronically and from your child’s school.

You’ll also need to resist the temptation to mark all school and district eMails as urgent or high priority. Like the little boy who cried “wolf” one too many times, you might find yourself wearing out your readers’ responsiveness.

The newsletter may be included in the body of the eMail or sent as an attachment. Attachments can backfire, however, as more and more businesses use blocking software to combat viruses and spam.

If you’re not sure which technique will suit your key audiences best, ask them—and then listen to what they tell you. Also, make sure you include an “opt out” message at the end of your newsletter or eMail, especially if you don’t get the contact information directly from the source.

In additional to eMail and electronic newsletters, more school communications professionals are developing online publications, from simple brochures posted in Adobe Acrobat, to electronic magazines (eZines) created specifically for the web that feature in-depth articles, photo displays, and interactive features such as editor chats and virtual tours.

While the initial conversion from print to online can be time-consuming and expensive, the ability to make changes on an as-needed basis is quickly making print obsolete, especially for data-intensive documents such as personnel directories, course catalogues, school profiles, and test results.

By posting its personnel directory online, for example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is saving more than $50,000 per year in printing costs as well as thousands of hours of staff time from several departments, including human resources, public information, graphic production, the print shop, storage, and distribution.

Once obsolete as soon as it was printed, the online personnel directory is now updated automatically every time there is a change in the mainframe employee database.

Firewalls and other safeguards keep private information in personnel files private; employees dictate whether their home addresses or phone numbers may be shared district-wide. Not surprisingly, the directory has become one of the most frequently visited features on the district’s sophisticated intranet (internal web site).

The intranet, including the personnel directory, is advertised via the district’s weekly electronic newsletter, “Direct Line,” which is eMailed to all staff members and posted on all school and department bulletin boards.

The new communication tools seem to be working. In a recent survey, employees said they appreciated the district’s new efforts to keep them informed—a marked improvement from two years ago, when a lack of communication from central administration caused many staff members to cite the daily news as their primary source of information.

Like CMS, districts across the country are shifting more publications to the internet and cutting print newsletters, brochures, catalogues, budget books, and other traditional communications tools.

Whether the growing emphasis on electronic and web-based communications helps improve morale and create better public engagement and support of our schools or widens the information gap is largely up to us.

We can seize these new tools to build and maintain relationships with the people that matter most, or we can simply repeat the same mistakes online that we made in print and hope our “one size fits all” communication approach manages to hit its target.

Related links:
Interact Commerce Corp.’s ACT!
http://www.act.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
http://www.cms.k12.nc.us

Electronic newsletter publishing
http://www.imakenews.com

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Product Spotlight

Apple expands into server market with Xserve

Apple Computer Inc. on May 14 introduced its first-ever rack-mountable server product, called Xserve. Aimed at environments where Macs are plentiful—such as schools—the device includes software that reportedly can check on the status of a client computer’s hard drive to predict when a failure might occur.

Designed to appeal to technology staff who want a compact, easy-to-use server for file serving, printing, video streaming, database applications, computational clustering, and web and eMail serving, Xserve is based on the UNIX operating system. The idea for an Apple server grew after the Cupertino-based company last year introduced its newest operating system, Mac OS X, which also is based on UNIX.

Xserve features remote management tools to make set-up and maintenance easier, Apple said. System administrators can receive notification of a client computer’s failure via eMail, pager, cell phone, or handheld computer.

Pricing starts at $2,999 for a 1-gigahertz G4 processor model with 256 megabytes of memory. A dual-processor model with 512 MB of memory costs $3,999.

(800) 800-2775

http://www.apple.com/education

VTech introduces handheld solutions for students

The VTech XL Series of handheld and notebook-styled electronic devices provides schools with a cost-effective way to introduce young kids to computers while reinforcing reading, writing, and math skills. Each of the four devices in VTech’s XL Series product line is portable and small enough to be stowed in a locker or backpack.

The devices feature a variety of education-specific software applications, including a calculator, unit converter, class scheduler, artwork studio, music creator, and more. They also include access to trusted educational resources such as Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Encyclopedia Britannica.

The ClassMaster Notebook ($149.99), geared toward nine to 12-year-olds, features educational games that let students practice grammar, reading, comprehension, basic geometry, and pre-algebra. The device also lets students do word processing and internet research. Students can upload their projects to a PC to save, eMail, or print. The notebook includes a free, one-year subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

The SkillStarter Handheld ($39.99) has a touch-screen interface that lets youngsters play games to practice reading and math skills. The SkillStarter Notebook ($59.99) includes a full LCD screen, keyboard, and mouse. In addition to playing educational games, kids can use it to make and record their own music and learn to type.

The MindBooster Notebook ($79.99), for kids ages seven to nine, is designed to promote independent learning and empower kids to apply what they already have learned in school to solve language, math, and logic activities, VTech said.

XL Series devices connect to a standard computer using VTech’s optional vPort Accesory ($19.99).

(800) 521-2010

http://www.vtechkids.com

Check out this automated check-out system from Sagebrush

Students and teachers now can check out library books and other resources by themselves with UCheck, a self-checkout program from Sagebrush Corp. of Minneapolis, Minn. The system aims to save library media specialists valuable time, freeing them to help students and staff members find the information they need.

“Checking out materials to patrons can be a time-consuming task, but it doesn’t have to be,” said Gail Mazure, UCheck product manager. “Using UCheck, librarians can successfully and conveniently let patrons check out their own materials from the library, so the library staff has more time for other library tasks.”

UCheck comes with a password-protected administration component that allows library staff to choose from a variety of methods for how materials will be checked out. Staff members can place restrictions for those who are not allowed to check out their own materials, such as young children. If a restricted person attempts to check out materials, the system will display a message indicating that the checkout process cannot proceed. The program also enables staff members to create, preview, and print status reports.

UCheck integrates seamlessly with Sagebrush’s Athena and Winnebago Spectrum library automation programs, according to the company.

(800) 533-5430

http://www.sagebrushcorp.com

New web-based early learning program teaches math and reading skills

K-2 Learning MileStones, from Achievement Technologies, is a web-based early learning program that helps instructors teach primary phonics and math while reinforcing word recognition skills.

Teachers can use the program to assess, teach, and review pre-reading and basic math concepts while helping first and second graders build critical thinking skills. Teachers can even create individual instruction plans for students by having each child take a 15-question pre-test from a bank of more than 500 test questions aligned to state objectives.

The software requires minimal reading or keyboarding skills from students but challenges kindergartners and serves as an intervention for struggling students, the company said. It supports special education classes and guides ESL learners with Spanish audio instructions. Audio feedback with an animated character provides students with helpful hints throughout the program.

K-2 Learning Milestones comes with a comprehensive Teacher’s Guide aligned to each state’s standards for language and math. The guide contains printable worksheets for take-home activities, and the software’s printable reports allow teachers to remain accountable with administrators and parents. The program costs $2,495 for a CD-ROM and one-year internet subscription; each additional year is $995 for unlimited use in a single building.

(888) 391-3245

http://www.skillstutor.com

Macromedia’s suite of web-design tools could save schools a bundle

Macromedia Inc. is offering a suite of software tools for building everything from web sites to multimedia applications at an attractive price for schools.

Under the company’s new site-licensing solution for education, schools with more than 500 students can purchase the Macromedia Studio MX suite for only $3,000, while schools with fewer than 500 students pay just $2,000.

The Studio MX package includes the latest versions of Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, FreeHand, and ColdFusion programs. The new site-licensing solution for education also includes sample curriculum and lesson plans to help teachers start teaching web design courses or integrate web projects into standard academic subjects. In addition, Macromedia offers an online course on its web site to help train teachers in the use of these tools.

(800) 457-1774

http://www.macromedia.com/go/studiomx

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Calendar of Events

July

July 5-7

San Diego. 2002 ESRI Education User Conference. Educators who use geographic information system (GIS) technology in their schools will have a unique opportunity to discuss their findings with peers and discover new classroom uses for mapping technology at this event. The conference also aims to answer any questions educators have about GIS and explore ways to implement the technology more efficiently.

Contact: (909) 793-2853, ext.1-2624

http://www.esri.com/industries/k-12/educ/index.html

July 14-17

Baltimore. Rural, Small School System Leaders Conference. Sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, this conference features technology and management content useful for superintendents of small or rural school districts. Sessions will address concepts such as data-driven decision making and using Palm handhelds to manage information.

Contact: (703) 875-0769

http://www.aasa.org/conferences/rural

July 20-21

Seattle. Exploring the Future of Learning: A ThinkQuest Live Event. Co-hosted by the University of Washington and Advanced Network and Services, the nonprofit organization that created the internationally renowned ThinkQuest competitions, this event offers an in-depth exploration of today’s most promising emerging technologies—and the opportunities and challenges they bring to the future of learning. The event will combine an interactive technology and learning laboratory with a series of in-depth discussions facilitated by a group of leading ed-tech thinkers.

Contact: ajustham@learningspace.org

http://www.thinkquestlive.org

July 24-26

Arlington, Va. Society for Applied Learning Technology (SALT) Education Technology 2002 Conference. The Education Technology 2002 conference will continue SALT’s practice of bringing professionals from the education, industry, and government communities together to present information on their accomplishments in the areas of technology-based learning systems, management systems, research, and applications. Focus areas will include knowledge management and instructional systems development, technical skills training, and eLearning.

Contact: (540) 347-0055

http://www.salt.org/Conference/frame.htm

July 25-27

Philadelphia. EDVentures 2002. Sponsored in part by the Association of Education Practitioners and Providers, this 12th annual conference will focus on entrepreneurship and new or developing opportunities in the education marketplace. Workshops and panel topics will include the virtual classroom, education reform legislation, funding, curriculum and accreditation. Attendees will have the opportunity to hear from more than 80 industry professionals and participate in 30 different discussion panels in all.

Contact: (800) 252-3280

http://www.aepp.org/edventures/edventures.html

August

Aug. 14-16

Madison, Wis. 18th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning. Sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this conference will offer more than 150 workshops, advanced seminars, cracker-barrel discussions, and information sessions that will examine a wide range of practical applications, teaching methods, course designs, innovative solutions, and emerging technologies in distance education.

Contact: (608) 265-4159

http://www.uwex.edu/disted/conference

Aug. 14-16

Orlando. International Security Conference & Exposition 2002. This conference, sponsored by Security Industry Association, will focus on technological advancements in security systems. The event will allow educators to explore new ways to improve security in their schools. More than 500 exhibitors will be on hand to showcase the latest developments in security technologies for school, business, and personal use.

Contact: (800) 840-5602

http://www.isceast.com/App/main.cfm?moduleid=42&appname=100036

September

Sept. 12-13

Oklahoma City. Encyclo-Media Conference 2002. This annual conference sponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Education is expected to bring together more than 3,200 participants and 400 vendors for two days of discussions and breakout programs designed to improve educational technology in schools.

Contact: (405) 521-2957

http://title3.sde.state.ok.us/encyclomedia

Sept. 22-25

Los Angeles. EdNET 2002. Sponsored by the Heller Reports, this business leadership forum gives industry executives a place to discuss trends on the business side of educational technology. Forums, roundtables, and discussion groups will focus on market trends, funding sources, new technologies, and activities of key players in the industry. The conference is billed as an opportunity for business leaders to forge key relationships with colleagues, potential customers, and government officials.

Contact: (847) 674-6282

http://www.hellerreports.com/ednet2002/Index.html

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Partners Index

3Com Corp., with headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., provides top-notch computer networking solutions for schools and businesses. Visit 3Com’s web site:

http://www.3com.com

(800) 638-3266

See 3Com’s ad on page 23

Advanced Academics, of Oklahoma City, offers accredited secondary education courses to students in grades 6-12 via the internet. Visit the Advanced Academics web site:

http://www.advancedacademics.com

(866) 2-eLEARN

See the ad for Advanced Academics on page 26

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., is the second-largest supplier of Microsoft Windows-compatible PC processors and a leading supplier of flash memory. Visit AMD’s web site:

http://www.amd.com/us-en

(800) 538-8450

See the ad for AMD on page 5

AutoSkill International Inc., of Ottawa, is a leading provider of software-based literacy interventions for underachieving students of any age or ability. Visit the AutoSkill web site:

http://www.autoskill.com

(800) 288-6754

See the ad for AutoSkill on page 12

Centurion Wireless Technologies Inc., of Lincoln, Neb., designs and manufactures antennae and power products for wireless applications. Visit the Centurion web site:

http://www.centurion.com

(800) 228-4563

See the ad for Centurion on page 18

Classwell Learning Group Inc., of Boston, seamlessly integrates instruction, assessment, and professional development to support any standards-based curriculum. Visit the Classwell web site:

http://www.classwell.com

(866) 351-1953

See the ad for Classwell on page 27

Excelsior Software Inc., of Greeley, Colo., is the largest company that is solely devoted to the development of electronic gradebook products and accessories. Visit the Excelsior Software web site:

http://www.gradebook.com

(800) 473-4572

See the ad for Excelsior Software on page 15

Gateway Inc., of San Diego, is a Fortune 250 company focusing on building lifelong relationships with businesses, schools, and consumers through complete technology personalization. Visit the Gateway web site:

http://www.gateway.com

(800) GATEWAY

See the Gateway ad on pages 2 and 3 Hewlett-Packard Co., of Palo Alto, Calif., is a leading manufacturer of all the essential components of technology infrastructure—servers, storage, management software, imaging solutions, personal computers, and personal access devices. Visit HP’s web site:

http://www.hp.com

(800) 752-0900

See HP’s ad on pages 20 and 21

InFocus Corp., of Wilsonville, Ore., is a worldwide leader in digital projection technology and services. Visit the InFocus web site:

http://www.infocus.com

(800) 294-6400

See the ad for InFocus on page 17

Keystone National, of Bloomsburg, Pa., is an accredited high school that provides students with the means to earn high school credits or a diploma from home. Visit the Keystone National web site:

http://www.keystonehighschool.com

(800) 255-4937

See the ad for Keystone National on page 28

NCS Learn, of Tucson, Ariz., is a leading provider of educational software and learning solutions to K-12 schools and adult learners. Visit the NCS Learn web site:

http://www.ncslearn.com

(800) 937-6682

See the ad for NCS Learn on the back cover

Renaissance Learning Inc., of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., combines learning information systems software, research, and professional development resources to help educators dramatically accelerate learning for all students. Visit Renaissance Learning’s web site:

http://www.renlearn.com

(800) 338-4204

See the Renaissance Learning ad on page 9

Scholastic Inc., headquartered in New York City, is a global children’s publishing and media company in both education and entertainment. Visit the Scholastic web site:

http://www.scholastic.com

(800) SCHOLASTIC

See the ad for Scholastic on page 7

SurfControl, of Scotts Valley, Ariz., provides filtering software that enables schools to manage internet access and provide a productive and safe environment. Visit SurfControl’s web site:

http://www.surfcontrol.com

(800) 828-2608

See the SurfControl ad on page 8

Telemate.Net Software, of Atlanta, is a division of Verso Technologies Inc. and the creators of the NetSpective web filtering and reporting product. Visit the Telemate.Net web site:

http://www.telemate.net

(770) 936-3700

See the ad for Telemate.Net on page 16

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High-tech leaders: America needs better math, science education

Improving math and science education ranked next to national security and broadband internet access in discussions at a recent White House forum, where President George W. Bush gathered with more than 100 high-tech executives to discuss the future of technology.

John Bailey, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, said the conversation kept coming back to education. “The tech sector was making a call for improved science and math education,” Bailey said.

The consensus was that high-tech companies still can’t find enough qualified employees, he said, partly because math and science too often are not being taught in ways that are enticing to students.

The lack of skilled workers causes national security concerns because of the need to hire foreign employees, executives said. And not having home-grown talent slows economic growth.

The White House has largely focused on improving literacy to date, Bailey said, so it was encouraging to see technology, math, and science education in the spotlight. “It was very, very positive,” he said.

Participants in the 21st Century High Tech Forum included AOL Time Warner Chief Executive Officer Steve Case, Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, and AT&T CEO Mike Armstrong.

Before hearing the president speak, attendees participated in three panel sessions: technology and national security; economic recovery and long-term growth; and education and the work force.

The discussion also focused on the deployment of broadband internet access, or lack thereof, and how it is delaying students’ access to high-quality teachers and education that distance learning makes possible, further compounding the math and science education problem.

“We have virtual classrooms in Texas, virtual school districts in Texas, where we’ve hooked up a fairly wealthy school district with rural or poor school districts. It made a huge difference,” Bush said. “It would have been a heck of a lot better if there had been broadband technology, however, to make the process move a lot quicker.”

Bush added, “Hopefully, we’re doing a pretty good job of working to eliminate hurdles and barriers to get broadband implemented.”

Bush said his administration has worked to prevent taxes on internet access, implemented sweeping education reform, and created the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The council is expected to make its recommendations this fall for how to speed the deployment of broadband access to schools and other customers in rural areas.

The new education law, No Child Left Behind, provides $160 million in 2002 for a new program called Mathematics and Science Partnerships, administered by the National Science Foundation. These funds mark the start of a five-year, $1 billion initiative to improve math and science education by encouraging elementary and secondary schools to form partnerships with technology-savvy colleges and universities. The deadline to apply for 2002 was April 30, but a new competition is expected to begin this fall.

Bailey said other grant programs, such as the Teacher Quality Enhancement state grants, also will help improve math and science education. Many teachers—math and science teachers in particular—are not qualified in the subject they’re teaching, he said, and the administration’s $2.85 billion teacher quality initiative aims to fix that.

States had until July 1 to apply for these funds, which will be passed on to school districts through local competitions later this year.

Links:

The White House
http://www.ed.gov

Mathematics and Science Partnerships
http://www.ehr.nsf.gov/msp/mathandsciencepp.asp

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