No failure to communicate: School-wide communication systems for the 21st century

The CM-3000 is coupled with Conductor, Calypso's software package.
The CM-3000 is coupled with Conductor, Calypso's software package.

For most of us who remember classroom announcements in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, we recall the tinny, muffled “voice of God” summoning an unlucky classmate to the principal’s office. Some may remember an old rotary phone on the teacher’s desk–similar to the Cold War-era U.S.-Soviet nuclear “hotline”–that frequently interrupted class with a ring loud enough to derail even the most dedicated students’ concentration.

With four new elementary school buildings under construction in my district, and a powerful new data network forming the technological backbone for each building, we didn’t want our communication systems to be throwbacks to 1970s telephony, with no ability to adapt for today’s intercom and paging needs. Our district’s technology team–including network engineer Scott Sibert and network administrator Randy Martz–had a rare opportunity to start fresh and harness the power of 21st century technology throughout these buildings, and we weren’t about to let the school-wide communication systems be an afterthought.

From the moment construction began, finding a single, integrated communication system for school-wide administrative audio functions was challenging. Because every school has multiple priorities for building communications, a “one-size-fits-all” approach can present major integration problems.

When we started looking at options in 2007, most schools used separate two-way and broadcast communications–with broadcasts controlled from a central location, usually the office, using a series of switches and dials. Unfortunately, these systems came up short for emergency communications purposes. Also, there was no way to ensure broadcast announcements were being heard in classrooms where multimedia lessons, such as DVDs or presentations, were taking place.

That’s why we needed a single, dedicated system in each building that could control communications functions–such as paging, bell tones, and emergency alerts–over a school-wide Internet Protocol (IP) network. But when we started specifying hardware and software for this project, we realized the type of solution we imagined hadn’t been invented yet.

We met with several manufacturers early in the process and learned that one company–Calypso Systems–planned to launch a system that suited our needs perfectly. Their CM-3000 is a networked, streaming audio controller and amplifier that encodes analog audio at the head-end (such as an administrative office) for delivery on a standard IP network. In the classroom, the CM-3000 decodes the audio stream for standard playback over conventional, analog speakers and encodes any return audio (such as a two-way intercom call) for delivery over the network.

The CM-3000 is coupled with Conductor, Calypso’s unique software package that controls all aspects of administrative audio through a remote console. Bell tones, intercom systems, and emergency communications all converge in a single, easy-to-use interface that is pre-programmable, yet easily adapts on the fly without complicated setup and configuration.

One of the CM-3000’s most important features is message prioritization. When building administrators issue an emergency alert, the system overrides any queued messages and broadcasts the alert school-wide, automatically muting volume controls on every classroom A/V peripheral to ensure the message is heard loud and clear. Our administrators simply love that their severe weather sirens, fire alarms, and emergency pages are now clearly delivered to all rooms in the building, without delay or confusion.

The Conductor software allows for intelligible voice instructions to be broadcast in the classroom during emergencies, rather than relying only on an alarm tone. The system also will lower the alarm volume to deliver voice instructions, and then restore the alarm at full volume. When used in conjunction with a fire alarm/life safety alert system, Conductor is a very effective enhancement that will help keep students safe.

This single system does much more than a traditional intercom or A/V control system can do, but our goal was never technology for its own sake. Rather, we wanted the technology to make teachers’ and administrators’ lives easier and improve school communications in the process. Its simplicity makes the Calypso solution even more attractive because we know it’s being used every day.

We see our jobs as integral to the education process, and we believe technology has a huge impact on academic outcomes. Engaging students and inspiring them to learn is the raison d’etre behind everything we do, whether it’s installing cable or buying new projectors. We expect our technology partners to share our vision for the role technology plays in Warsaw Community Schools. No matter how many digital devices you have in the classroom, and no matter how well connected your schools might be, what matters most is figuring out the most effective ways to use these tools.

Fortunately, our technology partners share this vision and commitment, and it shows in their thoughtful product designs and dedicated sales representatives. Our technology has to perform well for the lowest possible price. But during this project, we never felt as if we were being “sold” a solution –we always felt our vendors were true partners in the process.

Like all good students, we never want to stop learning about new solutions to old challenges. Whenever someone thinks they have everything figured out, we like to remind them that technology is always a moving target. Fortunately, we have vendor partners who are always moving at high speeds and adjusting their solutions appropriately. Had this not been the case, we might have been stuck with 1970s technology in our 21st century classrooms.

Jim LeMasters is the technology director for Warsaw Community Schools in Warsaw, Indiana.

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