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Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as 'Attendance Technology' Easing Recordkeeping Burden

'Attendance Technology' Easing Recordkeeping Burden

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A new attendance-policing technology is helping to make cut slips a quaint memory in certain Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland urban schools.

Using the traditional method of preparing weekly or monthly truancy records, attendance policing can be a complicated and long-term process. But where the new technology is in place, when a student cuts a class, the ramifications begin the next morning. Once students swipe their identification cards in an attendance-monitoring processor at the school's entrance, bar-coded details are automatically registered in a master computer.

And the "cock-a-doodle-doo" of a computerized rooster immediately helps administrators identify truant students.

Developing the system began in 1996, when high-tech expert John Amatruda designed a wireless personal-computer device and showed it to a friend, Marilyn Rondeau, who at the time happened to be the principal of the 1,400-student Walbrook Senior High School in Baltimore. Intrigued by the technology, she asked Mr. Amatruda if the device could possibly be modified to track student attendance.

Unsure, Mr. Amatruda, 34, enlisted the computer-software expertise of a 27-year-old friend, Imran Khan, to find out.

During the summer of 1996, they devised the first version of the Comprehensive Attendance Administration and Security System in Mr. Kahn's basement. They began testing their product during the 1996-97 school year at Walbrook.

"The idea was to build something that would capture attendance at the front door of the school," Mr. Amatruda said. "We made it so that students could swipe ID cards and the machine would be able to tell if they cut classes the day before."

The test CAASS system at Walbrook proved so successful that Mr. Amatruda's company, School Technology Management, was rewarded with six contracts for the machines at other Baltimore schools.

The attendance system is now also being used by the entire Philadelphia public school system and at various schools in Massachusetts.

Clerical Streamlining

So far, CAASS has received positive reviews. Administrators say the technology makes it much easier to monitor truancy problems accurately and efficiently.

"I don't know that it has improved attendance rates, but it has eliminated clerical errors and sped up the way we deal with kids who cut classes," said Mitchell Baron, an assistant principal at the 3,000-student George Washington High School in Philadelphia. "When 7th period ends, I will be able to address whatever classes students missed immediately. It is also a system that we can do our accounting for the books on."

Mr. Baron said students at his school have grown to accept the machines, which double as security devices since they make it more difficult for outsiders to gain entry. Students "especially like when it sings 'Happy Birthday' to them," he said.

Michael W. Hawkins, the dean of students at the 1,500-student Germantown High School in Baltimore, said that the complicated chore of policing his school's 64 exits had been made easier by the attendance technology.

"We have used it to identify and isolate cutters so that we can effectively deal with them on the spot," he said. "Attendance has gone up 6 percent, and the possibility may exist in the future that we can eliminate the advisory period [homeroom] and use the time for instruction."

Occasional software problems have forced most schools using the system to balance their old method of having teachers take attendance in homeroom with CAASS serving as a backup until the kinks are worked out.

"Because every school uses different symbols for their school schedules, the hardest problem that we face is importing student- schedule data," Mr. Amatruda said. "After we install [the necessary equipment and software in] a school, we have to trouble-shoot." In the case of lingering problems, the Laurel., Md.-based School Technology Management offers computer technicians and upgraded software packages free to participating schools.

"I'm the kind of guy who thinks things are never good enough, and the CAASS system can always be better," Mr. Amatruda said.

Privacy Concerns

Peter D. Blauvelt, the president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, based in Slanesville, W. Va., said the expansion of bar-coding systems such as CAASS will undoubtedly raise questions about student privacy. However, he said he believes that using such technology benefits students.

"If I worked for the federal government, my badge would be my access to my particular building. I often laugh that kids will master a system and then find 20 ways to beat it," he said. "Using ID cards for attendance and security purposes makes it harder for them to beat the system."

Mr. Baron, the Philadelphia assistant principal who says that his own deterrent from skipping school came in the not-so-high-tech form of his father, believes that CAASS has the potential to be used by school districts nationwide.

"One of the biggest problems we've always faced was kids who cut classes," he said. "I would have to tell you overall that this system has great potential in dealing with that problem, and we have only scratched the surface with this technology."

Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 7

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