Some forward-thinking schools across the country have replaced the traditional school bell that signals the end of classes with a more high-tech version that is cheaper to install and can be programmed easily by computer.

The familiar ring now can be replaced by chimes, music, or even customized sounds like chirping birds, all made possible by a software called BellCommander.

Released by AcroVista, a technology company based in Austin, Texas, BellCommander is a PC-controlled bell system that schools can install on their networks in the form of a small device. The system is compatible with a standard TCP/IP network that all computers use to communicate with each other, said Danny Weidig, founder of AcroVista.

The device can be connected to a school’s public address system or a central computer. Once installed, BellCommander plays audio files at scheduled times from the school’s computer.

The BellCommander software comes in two versions–one version can be used in single-zone school systems where there is only one bell schedule, and the second version is designed for schools with two or more bell schedules, Weidig said. The software contains several MP3 files with chimes, bells, and different sound sequences, and other MP3 files can be uploaded to the system.

Schools whose bell systems are in fine operating condition do not necessarily need BellCommander, but many new schools or schools with extremely outdated, malfunctioning bell systems can benefit from the technology, said Weidig.

“Lots of schools have older systems that require specialists to come in and fix them,” he said. “The BellCommander software is very simple to use, and school IT specialists or administrators can program it without needing outside help.” Another benefit to using BellCommander, he said, is that new cables for bell systems do not have to be installed, because the system uses a school’s computer network.

The system is especially useful when schools have different classrooms on different bell schedules, Weidig said. If a school has two or three different lunch periods, students in each lunch will be on different bell schedules for some part of the school day. BellCommander can play two different audio sounds during that portion of the day, so teachers know when their specific class period is over.

BellCommander can also be used in schools with multiple buildings, such as the Ross School, a private school in East Hampton, N.Y. The Ross School’s previous bell system was unable to synchronize the bells in all the school’s buildings, causing confusion when some teachers dismissed their classes earlier or later than other teachers.

School administrators chose to install BellCommander network devices in each school building. All the devices were connected to the school’s main network, and then school administrators logged into a computer running the BellCommander software to set the bell schedule.

Weidig said approximately 140 schools use BellCommander’s single-zone software, and 10 schools use the multi-zone software.

BellCommander software supports many different school schedules in addition to regular bell schedules, such as block schedules and holiday or early dismissal schedules, Weidig said.

AcroVista’s single-zone BellCommander software, which is a sound card version of the product, sells for $49.95. The multiple-zone software, which is the network audio device version, sells for $299.95. Each network device costs between $100 and $150, depending on the quantity ordered. AcroVista also offers discounts for multiple-license purchases.

“BellCommander is an awesome program,” said Chris Noles, computer administrator for Midway Baptist Schools, a small private school system in San Diego.

Last year, Midway Baptist was searching for a new school bell system, and administrators there got estimates on the installation of a new system priced around several thousand dollars, Noles said. The school system could not afford that expense, said Noles, but came across the BellCommander software on the internet.

“We have three different buildings that needed bells installed, and BellCommander was very inexpensive because we already had a computer network installed,” Noles said.

A network MP3 player is plugged into the school’s network, then runs into an amplifier and connects to all the school’s speakers. “Right now, our bells are set to a baseball theme, and the kids love it,” Noles said. Students and teachers complained when the system was set to the regular bell sound and preferred more original sounds, he said.

Installation was simple, Noles reported, and each building needed only the BellCommander software, a network MP3 player, an amplifier, a speaker, and speaker wire. The total cost of installation was about $700, much less than the school originally thought it would have to spend, Noles said.

Links:

BellCommander
http://www.acrovista.com/bellcommander

The Ross School
http://www.ross.org

Midway Baptist Schools
http://www.midwaybaptistschools.com