Advertising Supplement originally published July 1998
Making the Right Connection:
Handling the Communications Needs of Today’s Schools
We live in an age where being able to communicate quickly, easily, and effectively can be a matter of life and death. Nowhere is this more true than in our nation’s schools. Schools have unique communications needs. From being able to alert students to a classroom change or a tornado, to providing teachers and parents a way to quickly and easily exchange information, to accessing the Internet, the telephone provides schools with a vital link to information and the outside world.
Schools Have Special Communications Needs.
Because children’s safety is at stake, schools must have a reliable communications system. Speakers need to be placed throughout the building, so that emergency and other important announcements can be heard by everyone. And the person making the announcement, usually a busy administrator, should have a quick and easy way to do so. Most schools still have cumbersome public address systems. But what if administrators could just pick up their phone, something right in front of them that’s easy to use, and make an announcement?
Often, an administrator just needs to contact a specific teacher. Instead of making a schoolwide announcement or having to walk down the hall, wouldn’t it be more efficient to have the administrator call that teacher in her classroom?
Answering the Call for Help
And what about teacher’s needs? Say Sue Billings, a first grade teacher at Bright Elementary School, hears over the loudspeaker that she has a call. How is she going to take it? She can’t leave her class of six-year-olds unattended while she flies down the hall to the administrative office. That could be disastrous. However, if she had a speaker and a telephone in her classroom, she wouldn’t have to worry. Similarly, if Sue or one of her students gets injured or falls ill during class, with a phone close by she can get help instantly.
Getting Your Message Across
Even in non-emergency situations, teachers, administrators, and students have special communication needs. Jim Johnson, a concerned parent, would feel a lot better if he could leave a voice mail message for Sue Billings, telling her that Jim, Jr. will be late for school (but did his homework), than trusting that the overworked receptionist will deliver the message in a timely fashion. And speaking of homework, Jim, Sr., would love to be able to find out what Jim, Jr.’s homework assignment was for that night, or if there was a big activity coming up. That way he could be sure to set aside some time that evening to go over it and plan a trip to the library over the weekend.
When the Final Bell Rings
A school’s busiest phone time is shortly after the final bell rings. Those first 20 or 30 minutes can be crazy especially if there are only a few lines available. However, what if teachers at Bright Elementary could access the now idle telephone lines at Sunshine Elementary, which lets out its students 45 minutes earlier? Then the district would be using its lines more efficiently. And the fewer lines the district needed to use, the more money it could save.
And What about the Internet?
In order for schools to connect to the Internet, they not only need to have a computer, they need to have a high-speed phone line. And what if a school or an entire school district wants to connect several computers to the Internet, via a wide area network? Or to connect several computers within one location to each other, via a local area network? They need a phone system that can handle both data and voice transmissions quickly, efficiently, and cost effectively.
While there are many smart phone systems on the market, only a handful are designed specifically for the special needs of schools. One such product is the Rauland-Borg Telecenter® System. Rauland, a sound and communications leader with more than 60 years experience servicing the school market, introduced the first Telecenter® more than 25 years ago. Since then, the Telecenter® System has grown and changed to meet schools’ changing needs.
Now, in its fifth generation, Telecenter® offers schools a unique, integrated communications system, putting dozens of critical functions at teachers’ and administrators’ fingertips. With Telecenter®, schools can have a full feature telephone, analog or digital service, and intercom, emergency call, public address, voice mail, and media retrieval functions all in one place.
A Ringing Success: The Pattonville Project
In 1991, administrators at the Pattonville School District in St. Ann, Missouri (just outside of St. Louis), knew it was time to review their communications needs. They had installed a state-of-the-art IBM AS400 main computing system several years before, but they knew more work needed to be done.
So they created a committee, headed by Jayne Kasten, Director of Pattonville’s School/Business Partnerships and Community Education, and executive secretary Nancy Greenblatt, to determine what those needs were. The committee, made up of teachers, administrators, and support staff, met with a consultant, devised a questionnaire, and sent it to hundreds of employees throughout the 11-school district.
My Kingdom for a Phone
While there were dozens of good ideas, one suggestion, noted on almost every survey, surprised practically everyone. More than a computer, teachers wanted a phone in their classrooms. And though many of the items on the list the committee presented to the Board of Education were ruled out as too expensive, a phone in every classroom was not only doable but was deemed a necessity.
Laying the Groundwork
In January 1993, after the passage of a $31 million bond issue ($2 million of which was earmarked for technology), Pattonville began contacting potential bidders. One of the first companies the committee called was Sonacom, Inc., a locally-based provider of voice, video, and data networks, and also the Rauland distributor in the St. Louis area. Sonacom owner Rick Oertli sent Craig Johnston and Gregg Mueller to present the Rauland Telecenter® integrated phone system to Pattonville. The telecommunications committee was impressed with what they saw. They particularly like that with Telecenter®, administrators could call directly into classrooms via speaker or telephone.
A Brilliant Idea—and Money-saving, too!
Soon after the initial presentation, Mike McNeil, one of Sonacom’s top salespeople, met with Kirk Yates, Pattonville’s Director of Data Processing. At that time, Yates was organizing a districtwide data network. After speaking with Yates, McNeil came up with a brilliant idea, something that had never been accomplished in a school setting.
What if Sonacom could combine the two projects and create a network phone system? And what if this combined network actually saved the district money? Yates and the committee were all ears. McNeil’s plan: Instead of the school buying more than 200 individual lines, as originally intended, the district would share approximately 120 lines, which would be distributed to each school from the administrative building.
Finding Someone Who Shares Your Vision
Throughout 1993, Sonacom continued to work with Pattonville, giving presentations and demonstrations and helping the committee finalize a basic design and write the project specification. In October, the spec was released and the bidding process began. Sonacom made it to the final cut, along with Southwestern Bell, AT&T, and another local communications provider.
The competition was brutal. All the competitors were respected, established companies. Yet which one was right for the job? As Dr. Tom Huddleston, Pattonville’s Associate Superintendent, explains, the committee was looking to find a company that had a vision and was willing to work hard to bring that vision to light.
Knowing What Questions to Ask
Figuring out which phone solution would best serve the district was difficult for the committee. The committee members were not telephone experts.
However, they knew, recalls district Superintendent Dr. Roger A. Clough, that they wanted a system that would not only improve communication between people within the organization and with the community but a system that would be user friendly. So the committee asked all the vendors to provide them with a list of questions they would like them to ask their competition. The result: an impressive 148 questions, which the committee bound into a booklet along with the answers.
Good Relationships with Your Suppliers Are Key
Next, the committee asked each of the potential vendors to show them one of their sites. Sonacom chose Rauland. An experienced educator, Dr. Clough was familiar with Rauland and knew of Rauland’s reputation as an industry leader. Many of his colleagues were unfamiliar with the company, though. So, to acquaint the Pattonville contingent with Rauland, Sonacom arranged a tour of the Rauland facility in Skokie, Illinois, and a demonstration of the new generation Telecenter®. They also had the committee members meet with key Rauland personnel.
The Pattonvile committee liked what they saw and endorsed the Sonacom/Rauland solution. At the same time, the district had architects and staff technology people evaluate each of the vendor’s solutions independently. Both groups recommended the board go with Sonacom. As a result, in June 1994, the district formally awarded the telephone system contract to Sonacom.
Working with Someone Who Cares
One of the things that differentiated Sonacom from the competition, explains Greenblatt, was that they understood that education and industry have different telecommunication needs. They were also very flexible and responsive to the district’s goals, adds Dr. Clough. Committee members would say, “Are you familiar with this technology?” And if they weren’t, McNeil and his staff would become familiar with it in a hurry.
In the summer of 1994, Sonacom began the installation process, which was completed over several stages. The last stage, activating the homework help line and absentee notification system, will be finished this summer. In the meantime, Sonacom representatives have been busy training staff how to use the new phones as well as the voice mail system. Teacher telephone training, done soon after the phones were installed, was done en masse.
Sonacom customer service representative Stan Sittmann conducted a detailed question and answer session and gave teachers a packet of information to take home and study, including a handy “cheat sheet.” Over the next few weeks, Sittmann made several following up visits to the individual schools, going from classroom to classroom, asking if anyone had any questions.
Since becoming fully operational, the Pattonville/Telecenter® system has handled over 300,000 telephone transactions per month. And to make sure the system is running smoothly, Sonacom assigned one their top technicians, Joe Fettkether (who had helped install the system), to service the district’s 1,000 phones.
The Right Connection
When asked to compare the current system to the old, Dr. Clough states, “There is no comparison.” Adds Greenblatt, “I can’t imagine what we did before we had phones in the classrooms. [The teachers] forget how inconvenient it was before we all had telephones. Now they have instant contact with the world, right from their classroom.”
The new phone system has also had a positive effect on the community at large. “There’s a family bond now with teachers, because they can make contact,” says Greenblatt.
“Do we believe in technology and telecommunications? Yes,” says Dr. Huddleston. “Have we maximized them? No. We believe they are tools that need to be used, and we are going to do everything we can to use them. If we hadn’t done this [updating our technology and telecommunications systems], out academic program would not be moving as well as it is.”
The Pattonville Networked Phone System
The Pattonville School District consists of eight elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school, an administrative building (the Learning Center), and 1,000 phones. The main Telecenter® system, or hub, is located in the Learning Center, construction of which was completed in early 1995.
This system serves as a gateway to the local service provider, Southwestern Bell (SBS), and controls all communications with in the district. Five high-speed, 24-channel, T1 lines from the central administrative office are terminated at the Hub EDSI. These lines provide 115 trunks, or direct connections, for inbound and outbound calls from anywhere in the district.
A leased clear channel T1 line, carrying voice and data (for wide and local area networking), connects each of the smaller, elementary school Telecenter® to the hub Telecenter®. Pattonvile Heights Middle School, which supports the district’s maintenance department, print shop, and custodial office on its system, has two T1 lines, one dedicated to voice, the other carrying both voice and data. Pattonville High School, which serves 2,000 students, has three T1 lines: one dedicated to data, one dedicated to voice, and one mixed use. Holman Middle School is connected to the Learning Center via fiber.
Two Interactive Voice Response systems are located at the Learning Center. The primary IVR system, which became fully operational this April, provides districtwide voice mail as well as auto-attendant functions and can route calls to any phone in the district. The district’s homework help line and absentee notification service are part of the second IVR system, which is scheduled to go on-line this fall.
If You Can’t Figure Out How To Use All The Bells and Whistles, They’re just making A Lot Of Noise.
At Rauland-Borg, we realize that if you can’t figure out how to make all those nifty features on your communications system work for you, they can cause a really big headache.
Rauland Telecenter® systems use advanced technology to create integrated communications systems without all of the complications. Designed with you in mind, Telecenter is easy to use, allowing you to manage all of your communication needs—from telephone to intercom to media management. What’s more, Telecenter can change as you change, often with little more than software upgrade or program change.
Simplify your school’s communication system today.