For 2003 ASBO attendees, technology means business

From automated vehicle-location (AVL) systems that track school buses via global positioning satellites to smart production systems that know whether it’s cheaper to photocopy and or duplicate a stack of documents based on the number of copies needed, technology has become a central element in every aspect of school business operations. And attendees at this year’s Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO) show saw some of the most innovative solutions.

At the conference, held Oct. 31 through Nov. 4 in Charlotte, N.C., 1,538 school business officials from the United States, Canada, and elsewhere learned about a brand-new communication system that will alert parents instantly via cell phones, pagers, eMail messages, and web sites in the event of school emergencies. They found computerized payroll systems that will cut just one payroll check for an employee even when that employee’s position is funded from half a dozen separate budget accounts.

Approximately 200 companies were represented at the ASBO show. Here, in alphabetical order, is a quick review of the offerings from some of the most notable:

AIG Technology, a developer of middleware workflow management software, demonstrated its intelligent laser printing, imaging workflow, and web-based form filler solutions. Using platform-independent solutions, AIG’s products–Doc e Serve, Doc e Scan, and Doc e Fill–aim to provide increased business productivity, foster better decision making, and help eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies in the distribution and administration of documents, the company said.

Doc e Serve enables schools saddled with old, poor-quality dot-matrix printers and publishing tools to produce clear, laser-quality transcripts and student reports without purchasing brand-new equipment and changing processes from the back end. Simply put, this add-on solution allows school users to step up their printing quality without making additional changes to their existing systems, AIG said.

Doc e Scan is an electronic filing cabinet that allows educators to move and group important documents, whether it be health forms or disciplinary records, from the file cabinet to the computer screen. Once the paper-based documents are scanned into the system, educators can search for information using key words and search terms, from Social Security numbers to last names and more.

Doc e Fill is a tool for filing out forms online. Instead of filing paper-based forms and then scanning them into the computer, Doc e Fill allows educators to fill out administrative forms online and can be configured to send those forms automatically to the appropriate channels. Users also can track the progress of documents to determine whether a form has been received. Schools can create electronic versions of the forms they need themselves, or AIG will work with schools to develop customized electronic forms for a one-time fee. http://www.aigtechnology.com

Brother International touted its Macintosh and Windows network-compatible laser printers, color inkjet and laser multifunction centers, and facsimile and cool lamination systems for schools and businesses. In the front office, school business officials can turn to one of Brother’s Color Multifunction Centers to provide color printing, copying, scanning, and fax services all in one portable, easily storable unit, the company said. Other featured tools for schools include the Intellifax-4750e High Speed Business Class Laser Fax and the HL-2460N Network-Ready Laser Printer. http://education1.brother.com/index.asp

ePlus, a provider of supply-chain management solutions, demonstrated a number of eBusiness tools for schools and other public-sector institutions, from financial and asset management software to procurement services. Through the company’s Enterprise Cost Management framework, school leaders are invited to implement a multidisciplinary approach to controlling and maintaining cost savings related to purchasing, life-cycle management, and financing. Company executives say the idea is to create a better return on investment by improving total cost of ownership for technology products and other goods, while leveraging an organization’s strategic spending power and reducing its overall enterprise costs. http://www.eplus.com

The Video Systems Group at GE Interlogix now offers schools a mobile digital recording system called BusSecure. When installed in school buses, the mountable video recorders store images from up to four cameras mounted inside or outside the vehicle. School leaders and other authorized personnel can access the stored footage using a laptop or desktop computer. The company also offers a host of security measures for school buildings, including electronic locks and keypads for doors, motion sensors, digital video recorders, and ceiling and wall surveillance tools, as well as advanced video identification tools that can single out possible intruders on campus automatically. If drugs or weapons pose a potential risk, the company offers IonTrack, a unique detection device used to sniff out contraband substances in lockers and in other popular hiding places throughout a school. http://www.geindustrial.com/ge-interlogix/index.html?SMSESSION=NO

Honeywell, perhaps best known for its aerospace and engineering services, has also been a leader in school security solutions for nearly 50 years. During the show, the company unveiled its latest in school building solutions, Honeywell Instant Alert for Schools. This automated emergency notification and communication system enables schools to broadcast information about an emergency situation to parents and guardians instantly through the use of various communication devices. According to Honeywell, the service allows parents to choose multiple points of contact; a single communication can be broadcast simultaneously to a parent or guardian’s cell phone, eMail program, and pager. Plus, a web site enables parents to update their contact information whenever they choose, ensuring they can be reached in times of an emergency. If, for example, a school is forced to close early because of inclement weather, the administrator can record a single voice message that is then relayed to the Instant Alert system and automatically broadcast to parents through their specified means of communication. The product already has been piloted by a number of schools. It is expected to be released nationwide in January. http://www.honeywell.com/instantalert

Lawson Software provides an entire suite of management solutions for schools and other public-sector organizations. Lawson’s enterprise applications are designed to help organizations improve operational efficiency, accountability, and results. For instance, educators at the Harford County Public Schools in Maryland recently began using the company’s Human Resources Suite to manage the district’s day-to-day payroll responsibilities, from hourly wages to salaried employees.

The software is sophisticated enough to draw from multiple budget categories and create a single paycheck for a teacher who also might earn money as a coach or other extracurricular leader. “The Lawson system eliminates duplication of effort, increases accuracy of data, and allows each department to enter and maintain its own data,” said Bob Smith, software administrator for the Harford County Public Schools.

Lawson also offers solutions for financial management and procurement. Each solution is designed to help schools stick to their purchasing policies and improve upon current inventory practices, the company said. http://www.lawson.com

Bearing in mind that technology often moves too fast for schools to keep pace with–especially when it comes to buying and upgrading video and computer systems–Philips Electronics showcased its latest SmartCard devices. Perhaps most notable were the company’s television cards, which can be inserted into standard commercial television sets to expand the devices’ capabilities. Certain cards enable educators to network wirelessly with several televisions simultaneously to coordinate broadcasts. Other cards make it possible for classroom TVs to interact with computers to broadcast streaming media, display applications, and browse the web, among other functions. According to Philips, the idea behind the SmartCards is to provide a cost-effective solution that enables schools and other customers to upgrade their television equipment without investing in entirely new systems, which often are expensive and out of the question for most schools, especially during a tough budget year. Several schools around the country already are using the technology, according to the company. http://www.itv.philips.com/naeducation.asp

Riso Inc. demonstrated its intelligent document management solutions for schools and businesses. The company’s products include the Riso Document Management Solution, a combination of hardware and software tools designed to copy, scan, fax, eMail, and print documents across multiple platforms. In one scenario suggested by Riso, suppose a school superintendent wants to distribute a warning to all students, faculty, and parents regarding a health emergency. Using the Riso Document Management Solution, someone from the district’s central office can send the warning to various school building printers. At the same time, the system also will broadcast the document automatically to all parents via eMail and will begin faxing the warning to local radio and television stations–all from a single, centralized location. The idea, according to Riso, is to provide a quicker, more efficient system for producing information and getting it to the public quickly. Company executives say the automated system can save time and money, offering a reprieve from what often is a highly labor-intensive distribution process. http://www.riso.com

SchoolDude.com displayed its online suite of more than 50 facility management tools to help schools save money and operate more efficiently. The subscription-based web site offers a number of business services, including Community Direct, an online forum that allows education leaders to exchange best practices and tips for better business management; Maintenance Direct, which contains a tool called the Internet Maintenance Management System that lets schools streamline the upkeep process by tracking repair requests, orders, and assignments; FS Direct, for managing and scheduling after-hours use of the school building and campus; Inventory Direct, an online tool to keep track of your school’s goods and services; Survey Direct, which enables school leaders to build surveys and questionnaires that will enable them to better determine the efficiency of their business units; and Utility Direct, for analyzing the costs associated with utility services. According to the company, the service starts at $995 a year and comes with a 15-day free trial. The South Carolina Energy Office recently chose SchoolDude’s Utility Direct to help schools in that state better manage their energy costs, the company said. SchoolDude is easily searchable by topic and also provides a place for school personnel to hunt for potential vendors and service providers, according to the company. http://www.schooldude.com/default.asp

Software Systems Unlimited, a distributor of products for school management software provider GICSOFT Inc., unveiled a number of new resources for schools, including Document Intelligence, an advanced software tool that enables school districts to organize and store all their paper-based documents in one secure, web-based location. Another product, Human Resources Plus, enables HR employees to post information such as job openings, recruitment schedules, news, and other required documents online, helping the district open better lines of communication between itself and current or prospective employees. Software applications also are available to redesign school web sites and to improve teachers’ instructional web pages, among other things. http://www.ssuinc.net

Trapeze Software Group, a maker of technology to better manage public transit systems, announced that its MapNet AVL interface is now operational in Georgia’s Gwinnett County Public Schools. According to the company, this is the first live implementation of the MapNet interface to automatically locate and track vehicles in a school bus fleet–and one of the largest installations of its kind in the country.

“With more than 1,100 buses performing 6,000 daily routes, we wanted to pinpoint the exact location of our buses in case of an emergency and to make sure safety restrictions were being followed by our drivers,” said Grant Reppert, director of transportation for Gwinnett County. “The Trapeze MapNet AVL interface [along with bus transceiver hardware from West Lawn, Pa.-based Everyday Wireless LLC] will allow us to monitor our entire fleet of buses and extract route and other data to analyze our operations.”

The MapNet AVL interface provides real-time location information and history for school buses. Additional features include driver alert notifications, safety zone alerts, and speed limit alerts. The information is compared automatically with the district’s school bus schedule to develop compliance information, ensuring accurate route planning. http://herecomesthebus.com/RealTime/RealTime.htm

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Up to $60,000 per year for shopping online and more

The Box Tops for Education program offers three ways for schools to earn cash through everyday activities such as buying groceries, shopping online, and making purchases with a credit card. When parents and community members clip box tops from General Mills products, schools can get 10 cents per box top. Schools also can earn up to 10 percent of each qualifying purchase made online at the Box Tops Marketplace. Box Tops also offers a Visa card that returns 1 percent of each purchase back to your school. Each program can generate up to $20,000 per year per school, for a maximum of $60,000 per year. Each participating school must designate a school coordinator to be enrolled in the program. Check the Box Tops for Education web site for more details.

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Free software, a mobile classroom, and travel to NECC

The Discourse Challenge asks educators to try the Discourse Starter Edition from ETS in their classrooms for 30 days, then write a 500-word essay that describes the benefits of Discourse in helping improve teacher productivity and student learning outcomes. ETS will choose five finalists to win a free trip to the 2004 National Educational Computing Conference in New Orleans, a Discourse site license, and training. The company then will choose one winner from among the five finalists during a reception at NECC to receive a Discourse-equipped mobile classroom system and training from HP.

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$400 plus software for innovative, tech-based literacy instruction

The goal of this grant competition is to inspire and foster the creative use of computer technologies in classrooms to “connect” students with literacy learning in a variety of ways. Eligible projects should use the unique capabilities of computer hardware and software applications to enhance the literacy curriculum, extend the communication capabilities of students, provide interventions, or offer students opportunities to assemble and express knowledge in authentic contexts. The grant recipient will receive up to $400 from the Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE SIG), plus literacy software from Don Johnston Inc. Applicants must be members of the International Reading Association and TILE SIG.

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Up to $35,000 in software to improve school-to-home communications

Believing that two-way communication between schools and homes results in greater student success, the No Parent Left Behind Parent-Communication grant program aims to foster parent involvement, increase attendance, and raise student achievement. Two applicants will be selected to receive the SchoolMessenger Desktop Calling System and two years of support from Reliance Communications, worth $5,000 per award. In addition to the fully funded grants, 10 partial-assistance matching grants, worth $2,500 per award, also will be made. The grants are intended for public schools. Special consideration is given to schools with attendance and performance levels that are historically below district, county, and/or state averages.

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Florida teachers fume as pension fund buys Edison for $174 million

Acting through a captive money management firm, the Florida Retirement System–whose members consist primarily of public school teachers and other public-sector employees–will pay off the debts and buy out the shareholders of the for-profit education firm Edison Schools Inc., it was revealed Nov. 12.

Reported price tag: $174 million.

The Florida Retirement System is chaired by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who supported the purchase despite vigorous objections from teacher unions and some investment experts. The decision to buy Edison, which has used school technology as a key sales point in its efforts to take over troubled public schools, is the most controversial move by the $92 billion pension fund since 2001. That’s when the fund lost a reported $325 million buying plummeting shares of Enron stock.

In New York City on Nov. 12, Edison shareholders quickly approved the management-led deal.

“Today’s vote is an important step in an exciting new chapter in Edison’s history,” said Chris Whittle, Edison’s founder and chief executive officer. “As we return to being a private company, Edison’s mission–to help our partners provide a world-class education to every child we serve–remains unchanged. We will continue to partner with school districts, charter boards, public school teachers, and community organizations to raise student achievement through schools and programs.”

Edison has been at the center of public debate about for-profit education.

Disappointments with some big contracts and complaints about its performance helped cause Edison’s share price to plunge.

Liberty Partners, one of the Florida pension fund’s money managers, will own 96.3 percent of Edison. Liberty invests a small portion of the Florida’s state pension fund. But the pension fund is the only client for which Liberty currently invests money.

In response to objections from teachers and Florida Democrats, Gov. Bush said financial decisions should be based on the bottom line: “We shouldn’t be making decisions based on politics.”

Edison posted its first quarterly profit in its 12-year history during the quarter ended June 30.

In an unsuccessful effort to head off the deal, Doug Wiles of St. Augustine, Democratic leader of the Florida House of Representatives, recently put his key objections into a letter to Gov. Bush.

“Our public employees have dedicated their lives to public service, and I’m certain that the majority would not approve of a significant investment in a business that seeks to eliminate their own jobs,” he wrote. He called on the state to cut all ties to Edison, adding: “We must take steps to ensure that the State of Florida is not in the business of bailing out failing private companies.”

Late in September, Democratic leader of the Florida Senate Ron Klein, of Delray Beach, said the investment would be “against the hearts” of most public school teachers. “Why do you need to do that? Is it to jab them, or is it just such an unbelievable investment that we can’t pass it up?”

Edison went public four years ago with shares initially trading at $18. Edison stock crested at $36.75 in 2001, but fell last year to a low of 15 cents a share. On the day of the announcement, its stock price rose, selling at $1.74 a share.

One financial analyst who follows Edison went on the record to praise the deal.

“It’s something of a steal,” said Trace Urdan, of San Francisco’s ThinkEquity Partners, in an interview with Florida’s St. Petersburg Times. The newspaper quoted Urdan as saying Edison has done a good job cutting costs, getting out of unprofitable contracts, and focusing more attention on less-controversial aspects of its business, such as running summer-school and after-school programs and licensing some of its software and systems.

According to Urdan, one benefit of the deal is that Edison will once again become a private company. That means it will be free to operate without the disclosure required of public corporations. “When they become private,” Urdan said in his Times interview, “they don’t have to tell the public anything. It will be much more difficult for unions and critics to go after things.”

Regardless of the merits or demerits of the investment for the Florida Retirement System, the deal looks good for Edison’s current owners, especially Whittle. According to news reports, Edison executives, including Whittle, will immediately get some $9-million for their shares and options.

The company will be required to purchase up to $7-million in additional shares from Whittle over the next five years, it was reported. He also is said to have a five-year employment agreement that will pay him an annual salary of at least $600,000 with a potential for a bonus of 275 percent of his base salary, in addition to other benefits.

Edison currently runs 150 schools in 23 states, including Florida.

Links:

Edison Schools Inc.
http://www.edisonschools.com/

Florida Retirement System
http://www.frs.state.fl.us/

Office of Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush
http://www.myflorida.com/b_eog/owa/b_eog_www.html.main_page

Liberty Partners
http://www.libertypartners.com

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Three-year-olds use wireless laptops

Are laptops appropriate teaching tools for three-year old children? At least one operator of for-profit preschools thinks so. The company is adding laptop computers and wireless internet access to the education curriculum taught at its 120 locations beginning this year.

After hearing success stories about the use of laptop computers in grade school, the Primrose School Franchising Co., which operates preschools in several states throughout the South and Southwest, decided to try laptops for preschoolers as well.

Since last January, the Primrose School at Bentwater in Atlanta has been piloting the use of laptops with students three years of age and older. Because of the program’s success, Primrose plans to expand the use of laptops to the rest of its locations.

The result is that children of Primrose clients will have access to more sophisticated technology than the majority of students in grade school or high school.

“Young children are fascinated by computers,” said Lee Scott, vice president of marketing at Primrose School Franchising Co. “We’re trying to bring it home to students that the computer [provides access to] important information, just as the storybook does.”

Primrose already provided its preschools with a few desktop computers in each classroom, but found laptops are easier to integrate into the company’s proprietary curriculum, called Balanced Learning.

“The kids would spend a few minutes a day on the computer. It wasn’t really integrated in a meaningful way,” Scott said. Now, children won’t have to leave what they are doing and head to the computer area. The internet also makes a larger library of classroom resources more readily accessible.

“It’s really hard to find age-appropriate material for three-, four-, and five-year-olds. The internet actually provides us with better resources,” Scott said. “There’s such a wealth of fabulous web sites for kids out there.”

Laptops also proved to be more affordable, because an entire preschool could easily share a cart with eight laptops.

“We found it more cost-effective,” Scott said. No longer will the company have to install and maintain a few desktop computers in each preschool classroom.

The children use the laptops about three times a week for 20 minutes at a time.

In small groups, each child sits with his or her own laptop and a child-sized mouse from Kidzmouse to explore pre-selected, kid-friendly web sites that relate to the current lesson, such as autumn leaves or farm animals.

“The children would focus on a web site for about 20 minutes. They are mesmerized, and then they are done,” Scott said.

The laptops are in constant use because they serve 80 to 100 students at each Primrose school, Scott said. Teachers also use them to make lesson plans, pre-select web sites, and send eMail to parents.

At first, officials were worried about how easily laptops might get damaged by preschoolers, but they haven’t had any problems so far. “We haven’t had one with milk spilled on it or go flying off the table. The children have been fine with [them],” Scott said.

Some find it shocking that preschoolers use computers at all, but a recent study from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation finds more and more children as young as six months old are regularly using computers.

According to survey respondents, 31 percent of children from birth to age three had used a computer, and 70 percent of children ages four to six had used a computer.

The children reportedly used computers to access software and visit web sites, but the time they spent with computers was still far less than the time they spent playing outside, watching television, or listening to music.

“Children are exposed to television and computers [at an earlier age], and we feel it should be made age-appropriate,” Scott said. Despite the increased use of technology at the Primrose preschools, Scott says the emphasis remains on activities suited to childhood development.

“We need to be conscious of doing age-appropriate activities with children,” Scott said. “Children shouldn’t be on computers for two hours a day.”

It remains unclear whether children who are exposed to computers and the internet at such an early age are more prepared for kindergarten and grade school–or whether kids who have used computers are no more likely to excel once they begin school.

Educators who spoke with eSchool News expressed mixed feelings about the appropriateness of laptops as teaching tools at the preschool level–but most agreed that young children’s use of computers should be limited.

“Very young children should spend a relatively small amount of time using a computer for any reason,” said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology at the Blue Valley Unified School District in Kansas. “Very young children need to run and play, not sit at a computer.”

“I think there are so many things that preschool children need instead of learning how to use a computer,” said Alan Whitworth, technology director for the Jefferson County School District in Kentucky. “They need to be read to on a regular basis; they need to have a home that is a print-rich environment, where they see their parents and other family members read on a regular basis; they need to creatively play, start learning their colors, start learning to count, learn to get along with others, learn that there are rules; and they need lots of personal attention.”

Whitworth added, “My advice to parents who have asked me, ‘What kind of computer should I get now that I have a two- or three-year-old?’ is ‘I don’t think it makes a difference. Get what you want to use, and let you child play with the boxes.'”

Others saw nothing wrong with the Primrose program.

“Anything that preschools can do to increase student technical skills prior to kindergarten is a good thing. If properly implemented, the preschoolers will have a head start on technology before they enter the public school system. The net effect will be to enhance early student computer literacy, which in turn will make our jobs easier,” said Charlie Reisinger, director of technology at the Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania.

“There are many ways for a child as young as three to experience good things on a computer,” said Karen Littlefield, instructional technology coordinator for the Mid-Del Schools in Oklahoma. “The computer is an automatic part of their world. Young children expect a computer in their life. That places more responsibility for proper use and educational validity of computers on the adults in the lives of these children.”

“Computers and a variety of media tools are a part of the environment kids are in. They relate to screens from early ages on, in the home or in public places,” said Nancy Messmer, director of library, media, and technology at the Bellingham School District in Washington. “I think children should be immersed in work and play that includes talking, rhyming, acting, running, painting, investigating, and maybe interacting with what they find on computers with adults and other kids.”

Links:

Primrose School Franchising Co.
http://www.primroseschools.com

“Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers”
http://www.kff.org/content/2003/20031028

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“Smithsonian Education” crafts lessons from the nation’s rich stores of cultural treasures

The Smithsonian Institution has launched a new educational web site where students and teachers can go to explore the findings and artifacts of all 16 Smithsonian museums, as well as the National Zoo and the Smithsonian’s many world-class research centers. The site contains nearly 1,000 educational resources searchable by both grade level and subject area. For educators, SmithsonianEducation.org provides resources to plan, prepare, and teach hundreds of lessons focused on a wide variety of subjects–from history and culture to science and technology. All lessons are correlated with national education standards. “Explore, Discover, and Learn,” the web site’s highly interactive student section, includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum complex, as well as historical information about its collections and book lists intended to help students continue their research after school hours. Thinking of taking a field trip to the nation’s capital? The site’s family section offers all sorts of ideas for fun and educational things to do while in town.

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Keep an eye on this security system from Sony

Sony’s e-Surveillance System is a new digital video security system that allows school administrators and law enforcement officials to observe emergency situations in real time via the internet.

Sony’s system consists of both fixed and pan-tilt-zoom-enabled, internet protocol (IP)-addressable cameras with built-in web servers and Ethernet ports; Sony Real Shot camera recording and video management software; and network servers for video storage and retrieval. The software runs on Cisco infrastructure.

The cameras produce JPEG data files that can be accessed, monitored, recorded, and printed through a network connection by authorized personnel. The system’s 720-gigabyte storage capacity can store 30 days worth of images. The cameras are equipped with motion sensors that can notify school officials on call by eMail or telephone automatically.

Sony’s e-Surveillance System was developed and first used at a San Diego County district made up of 11 high schools. After experiencing two separate shootings in a two-week period in 2001, the Grossmont Union School District searched for an economical way to protect its schools. In addition to securing its campus, school officials use the surveillance system to capture school sporting events and teachers’ best practices. The district also is renegotiating with its insurance company for lower rates to reflect its use of the new security system.

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Sample this new school lunch solution from COMPanion Corp.

eLunchroom, from COMPanion Corp., is a new point-of-sale automation solution for K-12 school cafeterias that builds upon the company’s Macintosh-based predecessor, MacLunchroom.

The new eLunchroom supports both Windows and Macintosh operating systems. It’s also web-based, enabling parents to log in, view their child’s account balance, and add money to their child’s account from any internet-connected computer.

eLunchroom currently works with bar-code scanners, and the company expects to add fingerprint scanning capability by the end of 2003. The software also generates a variety of reports necessary for government compliance and other needs. Reports can be customized and edited with the software’s built-in word processor.

eLunchroom’s database can be managed at each school building or at one central location that services an entire district. A single checkout license costs $1,495, and a site license with unlimited checkout points costs $2,495.

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