Get information about character education from this new federal web site

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools has unveiled a new web site for the Character Education and Civic Engagement Technical Assistance Center (CETAC), called CETAC Online. The site provides state program administrators, local educators, and the public with information about character education and civic engagement programs, as well as strategies that support academic goals and other reform efforts. It also will provide support and information for and about schools involved in character education and civic engagement across the country, officials said. The site contains publicly accessible information about legislative changes and news and events, as well as publications on character education and links to resources of interest to the field. “This new web site is an excellent tool for educators, parents, and the community across the nation because it provides significant information and resources on character education and civic engagement–two key components in the historic No Child Left Behind education reform law,” U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a statement announcing the online resource.


April’s eSN partners index

AAL Solutions Inc., of Ontario, offers a district-wide student information web solution called eSIS for real-time information access from a centralized location. Visit AAL’s web site:
(800) 668-8486
See the ad for AAL Solutions on page 8

CDW-G, of Chicago, provides direct computing solutions with a vast product offering tailored to fit the unique needs of education and government customers.Visit CDW-G’s web site:
(800) 328-4239
See CDW-G’s ad on pages 24 and 25

Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., is committed to helping schools take advantage of internet-based learning by providing eLearning initiatives and other programs designed to address the exchange of information and personal security in an increasingly digital world. Visit the Cisco Systems web site:
(800) 553-6387
See Cisco’s ad on page 7

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), of Washington, D.C., is a national nonprofit organization that promotes the use of information technologies and the internet in K-12 education to improve teaching and learning. Visit CoSN’s web site:
(888) 604-5209
See CoSN’s ad on page 16

Failure Free Reading, of Concord, N.C., offers a research-proven language development and reading comprehension program specializing in accelerating the learning curve of the lowest-literacy students. Visit the Failure Free Reading web site:
(800) 542-2170
See Failure Free Reading’s ad on page 22

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:
(888) 888-0294 or (888) 888-0438
See the Gateway ad on page 17

Global Internet Management, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., offers InfoServeCM, a suite of smart content and knowledge collaboration tools that enables schools to empower their existing web sites into dynamic, content-managed sites. Visit Global Internet Management’s web site:
(800) 538-3539
See the Global Internet Management ad on page 12

Hewlett-Packard Co. North America includes the company’s K-12 education division (part of the Enterprise Systems Group), which offers a host of technology products, services, and solutions to help transform schools into 21st-century learning environments. Visit HP’s K-12 Solutions web site:
(800) 88-TEACH
See HP North America’s ad on page 9

HOSTS Learning, of Vancouver, Wash., provides high-quality, research-based learning systems for the education market. Visit the HOSTS Learning web site:
(800) 833-4678
See the HOSTS Learning ad on page 19

InFocus Corp., of Wilsonville, Ore., is a worldwide leader in digital projection technology and solutions. Visit the InFocus web site:
(800) 294-6400
See the InFocus ad on page 5

The International Society for Technology in Education, of Eugene, Ore., is the sponsor of the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), the industry’s largest trade show. Visit the NECC web site:
(800) 280-6218
See the ad for this year’s NECC on page 38

LaserFiche Document Imaging, headquartered in Long Beach, Calif., strives to deliver smart, flexible, and easily integrated document management solutions for a broad range of business and government needs. Visit the LaserFiche web site:
(562) 988-1688
See the LaserFiche ad on page 26

Lawson Software, of St. Paul, Minn., provides business-process software solutions designed to serve the specialized needs of service industries, such as health care and education. Visit the Lawson Software web site:
(800) 477-1357
See the ad for Lawson Software on page 11

Macromedia Inc., of San Francisco, provides industry-leading software that empowers internet developers and designers. Visit the Macromedia web site:
(800) 470-7211
See Macromedia’s ad on the back cover

Meridian Creative Group, of Erie, Pa., provides math software for every student. Visit the Meridian Creative Group web site:
(800) 530-2355
See Meridian’s ad on page 34

Microsoft Corp., of Redmond, Wash., is a world leader in software for personal, business, and education use. Visit Microsoft’s web site:
(425) 882-8080
See the Microsoft ad on page 2

NetSupport Inc., of Cumming, Ga., is a member of the PCI Group of companies, developers of a range of award-winning remote control and IT training products. Visit NetSupport’s web site:
(888) 665-0808
See NetSupport’s ad on page 15

PLATO Learning Inc., of Bloomington, Minn., has created and delivered educational software solutions for curriculum and assessment since 1963. Visit the PLATO Learning web site:
See the ad for PLATO Learning on page 21

Sagebrush Corp., of Minneapolis, is a fast-growing leader in serving K-12 library media specialists in their efforts to provide access to information, stimulate interest in reading, and improve student performance. Visit the Sagebrush web site:
(800) 533-5430
See the Sagebrush ad on page 10

Serious Magic Inc., of Rancho Cordova, Calif., is looking to create the next generation of visual communication tools. The company’s Visual Communicator software enables students to create everything from school broadcasts to multimedia projects in just minutes. Visit the Serious Magic web site:
(916) 859-0100
See the ad for Serious Magic on page 14

TechSmith, of Okemos, Mich., makes software that enables students, faculty, and staff to capture and share text, video, and graphics from software applications and the internet easily. Visit TechSmith’s web site:
(800) 517-3001
See the ad for TechSmith on page 13

Tripp Lite, of Chicago, offers the most reliable, cost-efficient power protection, power supply, and connectivity solutions available. Visit the Tripp Lite web site:
(773) 869-1234
See the ad for Tripp Lite on page 6

eSchool News Online Partners
Be sure to visit eSchool News Online and the School Technology Buyer’s Guide to learn more about these leading companies that believe an informed educator is their best customer:

CDW-G, of Chicago, provides direct computing solutions with a vast product offering tailored to fit the unique needs of education and government ustomers.Visit CDW-G’s web site:
(800) 328-4239

Chancery Student Management Solutions, of British Columbia, helps K-12 educators and administrators gather, manage, analyze, and apply student data to enhance student achievement. Visit Chancery’s web site:
(800) 999-9931

Cisco Systems Inc., of San Jose, Calif., is committed to helping schools take advantage of internet-based learning by providing eLearning initiatives and other programs. Visit the Cisco Systems web site:
(800) 553-6387

Dell Inc., of Round Rock, Texas, designs, builds, and customizes a broad range of computer products and services for consumer and professional use. Visit the Dell web site:
(800) WWW-DELL

Hewlett-Packard Co. North America includes the company’s K-12 education division, which offers a host of technology products, services, and solutions to help transform schools into 21st-century learning environments. Visit HP’s K-12 Solutions web site:
(800) 88-TEACH

TechSmith, of Okemos, Mich., makes software that enables students, faculty, and staff to capture and share text, video, and graphics from software applications and the internet easily. Visit TechSmith’s web site:
(800) 517-3001


Why grants don’t cover operating expenses

Here in my home town of Lancaster, Pa., the School District of Lancaster is dealing with a crisis. The superintendent of the district is alleged to have used grant funds for consultants who had dubious backgrounds and might not have provided any service, yet were paid. The superintendent has resigned, and the district is being investigated by the state and the FBI. Past grants also are being reviewed and scrutinized closely for mismanagement.

This situation has raised a variety of issues within the community, one of which concerns the purpose of a grant. Like many school systems nationwide (and particularly large, urban districts), the School District of Lancaster struggles with finding the funds necessary to pay for its day-to-day operating costs. However, the district has been extremely successful at securing grants–some rather large in terms of dollars–for special projects. Now some members of the community are asking why the district does not have basic necessities in the classrooms, such as textbooks–and why the grant funds haven’t been used to buy them. (If it’s any consolation, in my experience many nonprofit organizations experience the same struggle in covering their daily operating expenses.)

Understanding the purpose of grants is essential for proposal writers, teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents. For the most part, grants are meant to provide seed money for new projects. Grants provide grantees with the financial resources to implement a new project and to see if the proposed outcomes for student achievement really will come to fruition. Or, grant funds might enable a grantee to discover a new model of teaching that significantly increases student achievement and impacts professional development. Or they might enable a district to use technology to carry out administrative responsibilities in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.

Those who have written several grant proposals realize that funding generally is allotted for a specific amount of time. Usually grants cover a 12-month time period, or in the case of multi-year grants, funding covers a three or five-year time period. For multi-year requests, it is common that the amount of money supplied by the funder shrinks in the latter years while the amount of support from the grantee grows. Funders are working under the assumption that if a project is successful and merits continuation, the grantee will find other ways to maintain the project after the grantor’s funding comes to an end. Budgets typically will not allow the inclusion of daily operating costs of the school or district. Only those costs associated with the project are allowable, and in some cases there are several restrictions as far as what can and cannot be included in the budget request.

I have seen directories in the past that list sources of funding for operating expenses. However, these directories are often very small–and for some states, there are no foundations listed that will accept proposals requesting operating funds.

I would suggest that if you haven’t done so already, explain the purpose of grants to your staff and school board members so they have a clear understanding and can educate community members should the question arise. Also, contact local funders and get their perspective on why they do not fund daily operating expenses, and then share this information at a board meeting or perhaps in your district newsletter. A clear understanding should make the grants process more comprehensible and will allow others to see how grants fit into your district’s overall funding plan.

As for the larger issue of accountability that Lancaster’s situation raises, see my column in next month’s issue for some lessons in grants management.

Deborah Ward, CFRE, is an independent grant writing consultant. She welcomes questions at (717) 295-9437 or


New Hampshire program teaches kids internet safety

A new interactive computer program offers New Hampshire kids a way to protect themselves from internet predators.

Gov. Craig Benson, Attorney General Peter Heed, and Education Commissioner Nicholas Donohue on Feb. 18 unveiled the program, known as NetSmartz Workshop, to educate children about the dangers of the internet.

“It feels to the kids like a computer game,” said Jenn Gillins of NetSmartz.

A recent study showed one in five kids has received a sexual solicitation over the internet. One in four was exposed to unwanted pictures of nudity or sexual activity while online last year.

Police will continue to search out internet predators, but Heed said knowledge is the best defense for our children.

The NetSmartz Workshop computer program will be sent to seven schools in the state as part of a pilot program.

“They’re going to help other schools learn how to use the program,” said Gillins, who will train the teachers.

In addition, parents at home and teachers at any school will be able to download the program and related materials from a new web site (

“This is something we need to do as a state,” Benson said. Children often are savvier about using computers than adults but remain naive about the ways people might try to take advantage of them, he said.

The NetSmartz program was developed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

The program uses computer animation and games to teach children about internet hazards. Children learn not to give out personal information online and to be wary of strangers they meet in chat rooms. It encourages children to talk to a trusted adult if they encounter something online that upsets them.

The program offers four levels for different ages from kindergarten to high school. For older teens, the program uses personal stories from kids who were victims of predators they met over the internet.

“Hopefully, it’ll be a wake-up call to teenagers,” Gillins said.

Teachers and parents can download supplemental activities to reinforce the lessons.

“We hope every community in New Hampshire eventually participates,” said Donohue.


2004 AASA conference highlights school leadership

Public education’s role in a democratic society–and what it takes to be a successful school leader–were the main themes of the American Association of School Administrators’ 136th Annual Conference and Exposition, held Feb. 19-23 in San Francisco.

Keynote speeches explored the role of the public school in America and the qualities needed for successful school governance in the 21st century. Participants agreed a chief concern was bridging the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent peers–a challenge many exhibiting companies aimed to address with software intended to identify struggling students and tailor instruction to help them succeed.

AASA also unveiled a new online master’s degree program for aspiring school principals, and several individuals were honored for their outstanding educational achievements–including AASA’s Superintendent of the Year and eSchool News’ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award winners (see accompanying story, page 29).

The conference began with a keynote speech from John Goodlad, founder and president of the Seattle-based Institute for Educational Inquiry and a celebrated author. Goodlad, who helped found the Center for Educational Renewal at the University of Washington and also served as dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, was blunt in his criticism of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal education law that requires annual testing of students in grades three through eight in reading and math.

“Test scores correlate with no social virtue,” said Goodlad. “The mission of education in a democracy is to stress not just the academic, not just the personal, not just the social, but all of those.”

Goodlad’s opening remarks preceded a number of sessions examining NCLB and its provisions. Staffers from the U.S. Department of Education were on hand to discuss key requirements of the law, and they urged superintendents to call the department’s new toll-free hotline (888-NCLBSUP) for answers to their questions.

Meanwhile, in a Feb. 20 luncheon session, two superintendents revealed they are considering challenging the law in federal court.

John J. Mackiel, superintendent of Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska, and Frederick Morton, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia, said they are pursuing possible legal action against the federal government for not providing adequate resources to help schools comply with NCLB. Though no lawsuits have been filed yet, Mackiel reportedly said other districts could join Omaha in a class-action suit if the district moves forward with its plan.

From good to great

The vagaries and difficulties of NCLB aside, schools don’t have to be limited from achieving greatness by their circumstances, according to Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, which identifies the common principles shared by companies that have made the leap from “good” to “great.”

In his keynote speech Feb. 20, Collins said these same principles can be applied to schools.

For one thing, he said, the process takes time–it’s never tied to a single momentous decision, but rather the cumulative effect of several smaller decisions over time. Also, the move from good to great starts with great people, then proceeds with great ideas, and only then results in great action.

“It’s not people who are your greatest asset,” Collins said. “It’s the right people.”

Great leaders have a tenacious will and an ambition for the success of the enterprise as a whole, not just themselves, Collins said. They attribute their institution’s successes to the team as a whole but accept full responsibility for its failures. They’re also able to keep faith in their ability to succeed, while not being blinded to the “brutal facts” of the difficulties they face.

It’s safe to say these qualities characterize Bill McNeal, superintendent of the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina, who before Collins’ speech was named AASA’s 2004 National Superintendent of the Year.

McNeal, a “home-grown” leader who worked his way up the ranks from social studies teacher to superintendent during his 30-year career with the Wake County schools, heads a district of 109,000 students that is growing at a clip of nearly 5 percent a year.

Since becoming superintendent, McNeal has focused all of the school system’s energies on meeting the goal of having 95 percent of third and eighth graders achieving at or above grade level. He has helped narrow the district’s achievement gap while continuing to challenge its most advanced students.

“I have the best group of children you will find anywhere, and their parents are not so bad either,” he said. “I have a team that supports me, protects me, and covers up my mistakes. I will do my best not to embarrass them.”

McNeal’s record also proves he understands the role technology can play in raising student achievement.

His district has piloted the use of an internet-based television system to narrow the achievement gap by creating a library of video lessons that students who are struggling to meet certain standards can use to help them get up to speed. Wake County also just announced a partnership with Wayne, Pa.-based firm Kenexa to implement a web-based system for screening potential teachers. The system reportedly can predict the ability of candidates to relate with students and exhibit good judgment.

To help foster more school leaders like McNeal, AASA announced the launch of an online master’s degree program that will prepare would-be principals for the demands of today’s school climate.

The program consists of 10 online courses that can be purchased for delivery by any accredited institution. Courses, which include “Ensuring Quality Education for Students with Diverse Needs,” “Using Data to Strengthen Schools,” and “Collaborating with Families and Communities for Student Success,” were developed by Los-Angeles-based professional development firm Canter & Associates.

Walden University, an online institution based in Minneapolis, Minn., is the first school to offer the degree program, with some 40 students already enrolled.

School accountability solutions

Many of the conference’s nearly 300 exhibitors demonstrated software designed to improve school accountability.

For instance, Renaissance Learning–probably best known for its Accelerated Reader software–demonstrated a new program called Standards Master, a solution intended to help school systems prepare their students for end-of-year exams, ensuring that all students can meet state standards in reading, math, and language arts.

The program consists of four formative assessments given to students throughout the year, each correlated with the state standards that students are expected to meet. Students can take the assessments either online or with a pencil and paper. The tests pinpoint the skills students still need to master, and they offer prescriptions for improvement that are aligned with Renaissance Learning’s instructional software.

Renaissance Learning also previewed a new solution that was formally announced in March. Called Renaissance Place, it’s a web-based information system that integrates state test data with information from Standards Master and the company’s entire line of curriculum products, bringing all of this information together into a single platform that will allow educators at all levels to monitor their students’ progress and improve teaching and learning.

Standards Master and Renaissance Place mark a shift in the company’s focus from classroom and school-based products to enterprise-level solutions, said Art Stellar, Renaissance Learning’s new chief education officer. Stellar joins the company after 17 years as a superintendent for a number of districts, including Oklahoma City, where he helped reduce the number of state-defined “at risk” schools from 32 to three over seven years.

Also, Software Technology Inc. (STI), of Mobile, Ala., unveiled a low-cost solution for meeting the highly qualified teacher and paraprofessional reporting requirements of NCLB. STIPD (STI Professional Development) is a web-based program that can identify non-highly qualified teachers and paraprofessionals in a district’s schools; monitor the expiration of credentials for certified staff members and paraprofessionals; create and track parent notification letters; manage all district-approved professional development activities; and allow the immediate application of all professional development activities toward the renewal of teacher certifications and paraprofessional credentials, the company said.

Safety & security technologies

The National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), with funding and encouragement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has initiated a project to help schools achieve greater levels of safety, health, and security by reducing and managing risks for a wide range of contingencies, NASFM announced at the conference.

The association’s Safe & Secure Schools project is moving forward on three tracks. One track is engaged in conducting a thorough review of risks and developing methodologies school administrators can use to prioritize the risks faced by their schools. A second track is evaluating, integrating and, where necessary, creating tools to help schools prevent and respond to a range of hazards. These tools include performance standards and requirements for safety and security technologies, model policies and procedures, and best practices. The third track is focused on determining how best to help school districts fund the safety and security enhancements they will need, and in helping schools to build community confidence in the safety and security measures they have taken.

Research began in the fall of 2003. Initial project offerings are expected to be ready for testing with select school districts in the spring of 2004.

“The goal of the Safe & Secure Schools project is to help schools decide for themselves which measures they need to take to become truly safer and more secure, in the most cost-effective way possible,” said James A. Burns, NASFM president and fire administrator for New York state. “Schools that successfully deal with issues of life safety, protection of property, and continuity of operations can then focus their efforts and resources where they belong–on education.”

NASFM is undertaking the initiative along with a number of partners and advisors, including Honeywell International and the National Infrastructure Institute.

Ingersoll-Rand (IR) Education Solutions promoted its Safe Schools Perimeter Security Program, an all-in-one, easy-to-use system for securing the perimeter of a school building. Available in 4, 8, 12, and 16-door packages, the program includes electronic access control, digital video recording, alarm monitoring, camera control, photo ID badging, and a visitor tracking system. IR says its system is completely scalable to fit any school’s needs.

IC Corporation–a division of International Truck and Engine Corp.–demonstrated new technologies for keeping students safe on the way to and from school. IC’s latest school buses come with kid-friendly escape hatches, rear door alarms, and switches on the steering wheel to activate warning lights and open bus doors. Before drivers can lock the bus for the night, an alarm requires them to walk to the back of the bus, open and close the rear door, and return to the front, thereby ensuring that “no child is left behind.”

Other exhibitor news

Preferred Educational Software, of Byron, Ill., demonstrated The Administrative Observer, software that enables school administrators to create high-quality staff evaluations using a Palm or Pocket PC handheld computer. Once an observation or evaluation is complete, you can sync to your desktop computer and print your finished report, enabling you to give immediate feedback after a classroom visit. The desktop version of the software requires a PC running the Windows operating system.

Maynard, Mass.-based Virtual High School Inc. (VHS) said it has signed an agreement with the Massachusetts Department of Education to create an Online Advanced Placement Academy for the state’s high school students. The department has awarded $693,000 to VHS this year, with a potential three-year award of $2.1 million, to create a virtual school that will deliver pre-AP and AP courses online to low-income and rural schools.

The courses will target Massachusetts schools where at least 40 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. The goal is to increase the participation of low-income students in AP-level courses, and program officials say they expect to serve at least 52 targeted schools.

See this related link:

American Association of School Administrators



Florida’s Osceola County School District is using software from Portland, Ore.-based to accomplish two important goals: teaching students–and teachers–meaningful technology skills. The program, called EasyTech, teaches these skills in the context of standards-based, core curricular lessons, making it an ideal technology training and integration tool for K-8 educators, district officials say.

“EasyTech is now our main vehicle to teach students technology skills,” said Rosalind Riser, the district’s director of media and instructional technology. “And it’s also the way we track their mastery, to be able to say, ‘This child passed these lessons and learned these skills.'”

Recently, EasyTech has begun to play a pivotal role in staff training as well, allowing teachers and administrators to improve their own technology skills, in private, by using the web-based software’s interactive lessons.

EasyTech’s lessons begin with the basics–such as the parts of a computer, keyboarding, or mouse skills–and then steadily progress up to using word processors, spreadsheets, presentation software, and more. The software explains what you’re going to learn and why it’s useful, then guides you every step of the way.

Best of all, though, students learn these skills in the context of standard classroom lessons in the key areas of language arts, math, science, and social studies. Students don’t just learn how to use software, they learn how to apply it to solve problems in the classroom and in real life. In a lesson on spreadsheets, for instance, students learn how to create pie charts, at the same time strengthening math, analysis, and communication skills.

“Students get totally absorbed by EasyTech’s lessons, which they do in the schools’ labs. They go back to class and tell the other kids what they’ve learned,” said Judy Edge. An instructional technology trainer for Osceola, Edge added that teachers also have been spreading the word. “Teachers are prompting each other to use it,” she said, noting that they really appreciate how it takes them step-by-step through applications.

“We do a lot of training here, but much of that is in a classroom setting, which doesn’t suit some teachers,” Edge said. Perhaps it’s the travel time, she elaborated, or perhaps they just don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers. But because EasyTech’s lessons can be done online, at home and at their convenience, “EasyTech is perfect for them.”

One faculty member who teaches trainable mentally handicapped (TMH) students wanted to move to electronic grading, but was unsure of how to go about it. “After going through EasyTech’s lessons on spreadsheets,” said Edge, “the teacher put together a customized spreadsheet to track her TMH students’ skills.” She was able to create charts out of the data to better track each student’s discrete skills level. “She told me she never would have tried that if it weren’t for her experience with the EasyTech lessons,” Edge recalled.

Osceola’s teachers and administrators can earn up to 24 hours of professional development credit in technology skills by completing EasyTech lessons. This helps them meet Florida’s recertification requirements of 120 hours per area.

“Most of Osceola’s teachers are flexible about how they use EasyTech” with students, said Edge, who has delivered much of the training on the web-based program to district staff. Some pick lessons according to what curriculum areas they are teaching at the time. Others use it during their lab block and have students complete a series of lessons based on their grade level.

Michael Cohen, the computer lab teacher at Boggy Creek Elementary School in Kissimmee, sees all of the school’s 900 K-5 students in the course of six weeks in his computer lab, and he says almost all of them go home and do more of EasyTech’s lessons or repeat ones they’ve done in the lab. Many even come to his lab to do their lessons when they’re excused from physical education for the day.

Cohen is just starting to explore EasyTech’s library of integration activities but says he plans to use a lot more of them next year because they supply “some really great ideas.” He agrees with Riser that EasyTech’s built-in tracking of students’ skills is a major highlight. “It gives me immediate feedback on the kids and automatically grades them, too,” he explained. “It’s the icing on the cake.”




The No Child Left Behind Act has put even greater pressure on the nation’s schools to perform. Automated messages have helped thousands of school systems across the country meet the law’s strict parental notification requirements by providing a unique way to communicate in a timely and efficient manner.

Automated communications have solved communication challenges for schools and districts by distributing an almost unlimited pipeline of school and student information to parents. Communication with parents has been shown to improve attendance, and studies show that increased attendance improves student performance. Many schools have learned how to use automated messages to increase attendance, achievement, student safety and overall parent satisfaction dramatically.

From absent student alert calls, to emergency notification, to grade and lunch balance information, schools and districts are generating and passing information electronically and efficiently to parents. “Two-way communication between the home and the school is the critical component to increasing parental involvement,” said Jeff Warhol, marketing director for U.S. Netcom Corp.–developer of PhoneMaster, an easy-to-use, automated communication solution.

U.S. Netcom delivers messages to parents via telephone and eMail with information generated directly from a school’s student management software. Parents have access to grades, test scores, lunch balances, bus schedules, library fees, classroom information, and almost any student data, available to them whenever they need it and no matter what their schedule is. In school systems using the product, parents can call and access information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

More communication equals improved attendance

One school using automated communications to improve attendance is Largo High School in Pinellas County, Fla. The school has cut its absences almost in half since it began using PhoneMaster’s EasyCaller application during the 2001-2002 school year to contact parents on a daily basis about student absences.

Nearly 400 students were absent from class either all day or part of the day out of a school population of 2,000 students. A staff person recorded a message, downloaded a student call list, and PhoneMaster’s EasyCaller systematically called each parent to deliver the message about his or her student’s absence. Today, the number of absences is down to 250 (nearly half).

The school decided to upgrade this year to PhoneMaster for Windows, which on a daily basis automatically downloads the student call list from SASI, the school’s student information system (SIS). “The system virtually runs itself,” said Kent Vermeer, assistant principal for curriculum, who spends only three to five minutes each day printing the call report. PhoneMaster is also used to communicate regularly with parents about PTA meetings, standardized tests, and other events. “Every school should have this system,” said Vermeer. “The more information you give parents, the better it is for the students.”

PhoneMaster not only delivers absence and tardy notifications, but can also deliver emergency notifications and instructions, progress reports, invitations to school events, voice newsletters, weekly class curriculum and activities, missing child neighborhood alerts, report card announcements, physical and shots reminders, and almost any information schools and districts need to communicate to parents.

Diverse communication equals more parental involvement

Falls Church High School in Falls Church, Va., began using PhoneMaster for Windows to help school officials increase and improve communication with the parents of a very diverse student population. Of the school’s 1,500 students, about 70 percent are Hispanic, 10 percent are Caucasian, and the rest are Asian and African-American.

“PhoneMaster is one of the best technology tools I’ve seen in my 20 years in public schools,” said Conrad Hollingsworth, ninth-grade administrator at Falls Church High School. “Not only do many of these parents speak their native language, but they work two to three jobs, which increases the communication challenges.” Using PhoneMaster for Windows, the school is able to reach every parent with a personal message in one of the three dominant languages represented at the school–English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

One way Hollingsworth has used PhoneMaster was to notify parents of a spring parent-teacher conference. “Eight hundred parents showed up, double what we had in the fall when we didn’t use PhoneMaster for these reminders,” he said. “A person without any technical experience can use PhoneMaster because it’s a Windows product. It provides so many prompts that it easily walks you through the steps.”

PhoneMaster helps create a comprehensive school-to-home communication plan

The Washington Elementary School District (WESD) in Phoenix has received national, state, and local recognition for its commitment to enhancing the school-family relationship. WESD has continued to fine-tune a comprehensive plan of school-to-home communication by using PhoneMaster as an integral tool.

On a daily basis, WESD faces the challenge of keeping busy parents aware of what’s happening in their children’s lives at school. It makes sense to make the most of the telephone, because “97 percent of homes have a telephone,” said Nedda Shafir, director of community services for the 32-school district. “Automated voice messaging and 24-7 access to school information through voice mail is a very convenient and effective way to keep parents informed.”

Equipped with a phone in each classroom, WESD teachers can conveniently record messages and retrieve messages from parents through the PhoneMaster technology. “Parents will be your partners if you let them,” said Pat Farmer, math teacher at Mountain Sky Elementary. “I can’t call 150 sets of parents every day, and even if five parents call in, it’s worth it.”

At the end of each school day, Shannon Bonnette, fifth-grade teacher at John Jacobs Elementary, records a message on her individual voice mail stating the day’s activities, homework, and a review question that can bring the student bonus points the next day. Parents or students can call Bonnette’s voice mail any time of the day or night to listen to her message. “It works pretty well,” Bonnette said. “The review question provides an incentive for students or their parents to call into the voice mail.”

WESD has also found that PhoneMaster is one of the quickest ways to get information out to parents in a crisis. When one school received a bomb threat, Shafir turned to the Service Bureau at U.S. Netcom headquarters to notify every parent in the school within just 20 minutes. In another incident, Shafir notified parents of a school lock-down while police searched the area near the school for an armed suspect. The police apprehended the suspect, and the children were kept safe.

How the technology works

U.S. Netcom offers central-office solutions that use from two to an unlimited number of phone lines, depending on the size of the school district and the issues it’s looking to solve, Warhol said.

Suppose a school attendance clerk wants to conduct a calling session to parents of absent students alerting them their children were not at school. The clerk would identify absent students from the school’s existing SIS package. A data file that includes the students’ name, student ID, parent phone number, and parent eMail address is extracted from the database and placed in a PhoneMaster folder located on the hard drive. Depending on the SIS package, this process can be automated, requiring no intervention from the school’s office staff.

PhoneMaster then continually polls the folder to see if new phone numbers or addresses have been added. When it sees a data file, PhoneMaster calls down the list of phone numbers to deliver a prerecorded absence notification message. It follows a similar method to deliver text messages to eMail addresses.

Completion of the calls depends on the number of calls made. A four-line system will deliver about 200 30-second messages per hour, which generally fills the calling requirements of schools with 2,500 or fewer students, Warhol said.


U.S. Netcom Corp.



A room full of youngsters, from grades five through eight, sat on cafeteria benches with their eyes glued to a television screen split three ways.

At the bottom was a live chat. Half of the top showed a still picture that changed periodically. On the other half was a live stream video of Solen-Cannon Ball School District No. 3 fourth-grade teacher Todd Hanson along with the North Dakota district’s reading specialist, Tammy Brown.

Brown and Hanson were in Lake Placid, N.Y., taking part in a NASA Explorer School program called “The History of Winter.” The teachers were working with NASA scientists at the weeklong training session, doing experiments and projects related to snow and ice.

As part of the program, the two joined more than 10 other teachers Feb. 19 in an interactive video conference with students across the country.

“It was exciting,” said Thomas Faye, a Solen-Cannon Ball sixth-grader. “I didn’t know they (snowflakes) had names. It was cool because the teachers were so far away.”

NASA selected the Solen-Cannon Ball district to be an Explorer School last spring. The agency launched its Explorer School program last year in an effort to extend exciting learning opportunities to educators, students, and their families. Through the program, NASA forms three-year partnerships with teams from 50 new schools each year.

The program equips schools with the tools to improve their science, technology, and math curriculum. It also provides customized professional development for educators and pushes schools to increase parental involvement.

Four teachers and an administrator from the Solen-Cannon Ball district attended training in Houston in July to work on a plan for using technology with math and science instruction in grades three through eight. They outlined ways their district would use $17,500 in grant money as an Explorer School.

The Solen-Cannon Ball district plans to spend a majority of the $10,000 it gets this year on 15 handheld computers and laptops for students. The rest will go to fund family nights and computer training classes for parents.

“Technology has to be seriously looked at in the community in order for our students to succeed,” eighth-grade teacher Joe Two Bears said. “It’s critical we get parental involvement.”

In the classroom, teachers and students will focus on astronomy and Lakota star knowledge, which helps incorporate culture into the program, Two Bears said. Also, teachers can use the video conferencing to develop new lesson plans and take part in staff development with NASA and other Explorer Schools.

“The main goal is to inspire the students in those three areas (science, math, and technology),” Two Bears said. “It’s critical in that it will prepare them for post high school or whatever their goals will be. They have to be prepared.”

Students will be taking part in more interactive video conferences, learning from scientists and teachers from across the country.

“It’s like professional development, plus an opportunity for students to interact with other schools and scientists,” Two Bears said of the program.

According to the program’s web site, “The NASA Explorer School program provides wonderful opportunities for schools, administrators, students, and their families to partner with NASA to improve student learning; participate in authentic experiences with NASA science and technology; apply NASA science, mathematics, and technology knowledge to real-world issues and problems; and participate in special events and other opportunities.”

The site continues, “The benefits to NASA, the nation, and the world of engaging students in scientific and engineering adventures cannot be overstated. By stimulating their imaginations and creativity and by meaningfully communicating the significance of NASA’s discoveries and developments to them, we expect to improve the scientific and technological literacy of our young people and inspire them to pursue careers in science, technology, and engineering.”

NASA already has chosen 50 new schools to take part beginning this year, but check the program’s web site for information about how to apply in 2005.


NASA Explorer School program


Students see tech as necessity, say schools fall short

A recent survey suggests the pervasiveness of internet-connected computers at home and in the nation’s schools has given rise to a new breed of tech-savvy student: “ultra-communicators,” who say they approach their daily lives differently as a result of technology. The survey’s findings have important implications for school leaders as they seek to design learning environments that meet the needs of today’s students.

“Voices & Views from Today’s Tech-Savvy Students”–part of a national report sponsored by the nonprofit group NetDay–surveyed more than 210,000 K-12 students from all 50 states to learn what role technology plays in their day-to-day activities.

The survey is part of a nationwide effort to capture the views of students regarding the importance of educational technology. NetDay plans to offer its research to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for inclusion in the third National Education Technology Plan, officials said.

Although today’s students indicated they are technology savvy, feel strongly about technology’s value, and rely on technology as an essential and preferred component of every aspect of their lives, what surprised the survey’s authors most was students’ flexibility in side-stepping the pitfalls of the digital divide, according to Julie Evans, NetDay’s chief executive.

Students across the board indicated they were using technology at a fairly sophisticated level, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status. Whether students have access to a computer from home or school doesn’t necessarily matter, Evans said: Kids are finding ways to get connected. If they don’t have home access, many flock to community centers such as their local library or Boys’ and Girls’ Club. Either way, students say technology plays an integral role in their lives.

And not just for schoolwork. Overwhelmingly, students said they use computers as a communication tool to exchange information, conduct research, and chat with friends.

According to the study, students across all grade levels view eMail as a communication tool, with a significant increase in accessibility as the student gets older.

Twenty-nine percent of students in grades K-3 have their own personal eMail accounts, but 79 percent of students in grades 7-12 say they use eMail to communicate.

Importantly, researchers found the key watershed for eMail accessibility is sixth grade, the point at which a majority of students (56 percent) said they have their own eMail accounts.

Even more significant than eMail is the popularity of instant-messaging (IM) technologies among students. Unlike adult computer users, Evans said, who tend to rely heavily on eMail to send messages with periodic responses, students are more likely to use IM, where the dialogue is instantaneous and, in many cases, takes the place of a telephone call.

To students, she said, IM represents a level of intimacy that is lacking in many traditional modes of communication. This observation contradicts the theory that technology has served to undercut the value of human interaction among the online generation.

Using most IM services, students are able to create personalized screen names that are easy for friends to memorize and often indicate something about their personality, Evans said. Students also favor IM because it allows them to communicate instantaneously with several people at once and can be done day or night, especially in places that offer the option of always-on internet access.

Students in grades 7-12 are the most active users of IM, the study found. In fact, 70 percent of all students in grades 7-12 have at least one IM screen name, and 18 percent have more than four names, according to the survey. Significantly, 54 percent of students surveyed knew more of their friends’ screen names than home phone numbers.

For many students, the ability to use IM and eMail is viewed not as a privilege, but as a practice that is essential to their day-to-day lives, Evans said.

This sea change in communication styles has created a rift between students and educators in some schools, where pupils have objected to administrators placing limits on eMail access and instant messaging.

According to the survey, students want to expand their active online lives into their school environment. Students in grades 7-12 said that if they could change one thing about technology at their school, it would be to allow the use of IM and eMail at school. That response outpolled having online classes and online textbooks by nearly 3 to 1.

In talking with students, Evans said, it becomes clear most of them do not view IM and eMail solely as social tools. Instead, many rely on the technologies to complete group projects and discuss assignments handed out in school. In many cases, she added, students question why these technologies–which have become such a part of their daily routine–are restricted during the school day.

Students also had a lot to say about what types of computing devices they’d like to use in school.

Consider, for instance, the issue of one-to-one computing. Educators have traditionally focused on the use of personal digital assistants and wireless laptops in their quest for viable solutions, Evans said, but students are less picky. As long as the technology will get them online, she said, they don’t care what it is.

Having grown up on the technology, many students are just as comfortable getting online with their cell phones and PDAs as they are with school-provided laptops. What really matters is whether the technology will enable them to perform the types of communication and information processes they are accustomed to, she said.

According to the survey, students in all grades have access to a wide range of technology devices. Among the most frequently cited devices were the desktop computer, cell phone, and CD burner. Similarly, the survey found that students are familiar with a variety of online applications, including eMail, search engines such as Google, IM, and online gaming, among others.

But the news could be better for advocates of educational technology. Students said they learn more about the effective use of technology from their own personal exploration at home than from their teachers in school.

Primarily, students said they find out about new technologies and internet sites from friends, parents, and through personal use outside of the formal learning environment, rather than from a class or a teacher recommendation.

Although two-thirds of students in grades 7-12 consider their technology knowledge “average,” nearly four times more students consider themselves “advanced” (26 percent) than students who label themselves “beginners” (7 percent), the study found.

Students from all grades said they believe strongly that technology use is important to their education.

For instance, 74 percent of respondents in grades K-6 said technology helps them with their assignments. In grades 7-12, that number jumps to 91 percent, the survey found.

The majority of this work is done from home. Seventy percent of the students in grades 7-12 and 57 percent of the students in grades 4-6 said they use technology more from home than from school.

The internet has dramatically changed the way students conduct research and write school reports, according to the survey.

Sixty-seven percent of students in grades 7-12 said they would conduct an internet search or visit a bookmarked web site when researching a school project. This compares to the percentage opting to visit a school library to find a book on the same topic (10 percent) or asking their teacher for help (9 percent). Even fewer would turn to their textbooks (5 percent). In the information age, Evans said, most students view textbooks as informational relics; they want the most up-to-date information at their fingertips, edited in real time.

Students who responded to the survey said they had little trouble getting on line from home or from some other outside source, but many said gaining internet access from school remains a problem.

For students in grades 7-12, the most frequently cited obstacles are a lack of time during the school day, slow internet access, school web filters and firewalls, not enough computers, and non-functioning computers.

Students not only highly value internet access for their education; they depend on it, the survey found. More than three-quarters of students in grades 7-12 said the loss of internet access would have an impact on their schoolwork, and 79 percent said it would affect their personal lives.

Students who participated in the survey also were asked to express their thoughts on improving the use of technology in schools. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Students have very strong ideas about how technology funds should be spent in their schools, the survey found. When asked to prioritize expenditure items, overwhelmingly across all grades the top priorities were to buy more computers and better software for student use.
  • Students in grades 4-12 are frustrated by the access obstacles at their school and would design a new school with fast, wireless access throughout the school building, new computers so students could go online anywhere in the school, and computer labs that stayed open after school and on weekends, the survey found.
  • Students have a clear sense of the value of technology to their education. If their school were to make technology readily available, students in grades 4-12 believe they would learn more, school would be more fun, student projects would be better, and students would get higher grades in class and on tests.

The survey results were based on voluntary participation by schools and students. Students in grades K-3 were surveyed using a teacher-facilitated format, but students in grades 4-12 filled out individual surveys independently. Next year, the organization will offer the individual option to younger students as well, Evans said.

NetDay was scheduled to release the full results of its nationwide survey as part of a congressional briefing March 24 at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The organization also will hold a National Speak Up Day for Teachers April 29.

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Record industry files more copyright suits

The recording industry has sued at least 531 additional computer users whom it said were illegally distributing songs over the internet in what has become a routine reminder that college students, teenagers, and others can face expensive lawsuits for swapping music online.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed the latest complaints Feb. 17 against “John Doe” defendants in lawsuits in Atlanta; Philadelphia; Orlando, Fla.; and Trenton, N.J. It said the defendants were customers of one of five internet providers based in those cities.

Philadelphia is the headquarters for Comcast Cable Communications Inc., the nation’s largest cable company. Atlanta is headquarters for Earthlink Inc., another of the nation’s biggest internet providers.

Music industry lawyers identified the defendants only by their numeric internet protocol addresses and expected to work through the courts to learn their names and where they live.

The RIAA’s president, Cary Sherman, said illegal downloads continue hurting new, legitimate internet services for selling music. “We are sending a clear message that downloading or ‘sharing’ music from a peer-to-peer network without authorization is illegal, it can have consequences, and it undermines the creative future of music itself,” Sherman said in a statement.

In January, the recording group filed lawsuits against 532 computers users who were customers of internet providers based in Washington and New York. The latest actions represent the largest number of complaints filed at one time since the trade group launched its legal campaign last summer to cripple internet music piracy.

The recording group has said previously that after its lawyers discover the identity of each defendant, they will contact each person to negotiate a financial settlement before amending the lawsuit to formally name the defendant and, if necessary, transfer the case to the proper courthouse. Settlements in previous cases have averaged $3,000 each.