'Electronic Mailboxes': Novel Phone Links Closing Gap Between Parents and Schools

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When a measles epidemic threatened the Blue Valley Middle School in Stanley, Kan., this year, Principal Richard M. Seipel got the word out to nearly 600 students' parents simply by pushing a few buttons on his telephone.

He was able to notify "95 percent" of them within minutes, he said, by broadcasting a recorded message to their "electronic mailboxes" over the district's two-way voice-messaging system.

"The only delay came when the nurse and I met to write up the announcement," he said.

The Blue Valley school district, located in an affluent and rapidly growing suburb of Kansas City, is one of the first in the nation to experiment with voice-messaging as a way to improve the communications flow between schools and parents.

But indications are growing that it may soon be joined by many others, as an interactive technology being used extensively by business concerns for internal communications opens up for wider applications.

A recent federal-court ruling has permitted regional telephone companies to offer such services for the first time on a residential basis. And that has prompted researchers and industry leaders to probe the technology's usefulness to educators.

In its most basic form, a voice-messaging system is similar to a standard telephone answering machine, recording incoming phone messages that can be replayed later.

But the computer-based interactive systems are far more flexible than answering machines.

The computerized systems can store a recorded message, then route it to any number of intended receivers, who will know of its existence by a break in their dial tone when they pick up the telephone. They can then dial in their coded number to retrieve the message.

At schools experimenting with the technology, parents on the receiving end of messages can also dial specific numbers to leave their own messages with teachers and administrators--or even other parents--or to receive further information on various topics.

According to Mr. Seipel, the Blue Valley network allowed him, during the measles outbreak, to slash the typical three-day "turn-around time" of complying with health-department regulations by printing and distributing fliers. It also ensured that the messages reached the majority of students' homes.

And, within hours, he said, he was able to quiet the fears of anxious parents who had requested more information over the system.

Principals also could use the broadcasting capability to automatically notify substitute teachers that they were needed to teach.

"It's interesting when you sit down with a group of administrators and they come up with uses that you've never even thought of," said Jim Breedlove, director of educational affairs at the Bell South Telephone Company, which is undertaking a voice-messaging trial of its own at the Inman Middle School in Atlanta.

Teachers routinely leave messages of broad interest to parents--or specific information for a particular home--in parents' "electronic mailboxes" at the three schools in the Blue Valley district where the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company is experimenting with voice-messaging.

The costs of the project there are being borne by the telephone company, which provides the service free during the trial, and the Octel Communications Corporation, a California-based leader in the field, which is supplying the technological components for the project.

School districts wishing to create their own voice-messaging systems could be looking at reasonably high initial outlays, however, depending on the type of service they choose. The prices on Octel's systems, for example, reportedly run from $13,500 to $583,000.

The phone companies themselves are conducting the trials partly to develop cost and profit projections in order to present state regulatory agencies with realistic tariff proposals.

But to officials in the Blue Valley school district, where the cost of continuing the service after the Southwestern Bell test ends has been estimated at as much as $60,000 a year, the benefits may be worth the investment.

Because the individual mailboxes are "on-line" 24 hours a day--and are accessible from any push-button telephone--messages can be left, or responded to, at the convenience of busy teachers and parents, they note.

The Blue Valley system also includes "electronic bulletin boards" that contain information on p.t.a. meetings, school menus, weather-related closings, and other news of general interest.

And it has allowed teachers to communciate with one another electronically and parents to send each another electronic bulletins.

The computer forwards calls automatically. And because the calls are processed by a central computer, officials say, parents are less likely to recieve a busy signal when they attempt to reach the school.

At other schools considering voice-messaging pilot tests, even more specific uses are envisioned.

Russell O. Mays, principal of the Harpeth Valley Elementary School in suburban Nashville, Tenn., said his goal in seeking a voice-messaging system through Vanderbilt University's research project in the area is to increase the involvement of parents in his economically diverse population.

One method he has proposed for doing that is to poll parents electronically on matters to be debated by the local school board and other political bodies.

Daniel L. Brubaker, a curriculum specialist at the Inman school, said the system there may encourage parents of low-income students, who often are nervous about coming to school or who are intimidated by the thought of meeting teachers face to face, to become more involved in their children's education.

"There's a fear that that group of people has toward the school," he said. "This opens up a line to them that is nonthreatening."

Teachers at the school also have suggested using the system to send students' oral presentations in class to the electronic mailboxes of their parents.

"It's really up to the imagination of the school district to put the technology to use," said Kristi Jamason, a spokesman for Octel Communications, which also is supplying the components for the Atlanta project.

Voice-messaging is attractive, said Jerold Bauch, director of Vanderbilt's Betty Phillips Center for Parenthood Education, because it requires less hardware and is "electronically more efficient" than conventional answering machines. Mr. Bauch is overseeing the experiments at the Harpeth Valley and Inman schools.

Unlike answering machines,8which require individual telephone lines, voice-messaging systems process calls through a central computer, located either at the telephone company or at a private messaging service. Cutting the amount of hardware needed also cuts the costs of the system.

As a result, Mr. Bauch said, "electronic messaging usually costs half or less per month than what the telephone bill would be" for individual telephone lines to serve a comparable number of answering machines.

Mr. Bauch's voice-messaging projects are "second-generation" versions of his "transparent schools" project, begun two years ago as a way to "increase the flow of good news home." Initially, the project involved the use of a handful of answering machines at the Academy for Academics and Arts in Huntsville, Ala.

Mr. Bauch said the initial results of that project indicated that when parents are able "call and hear in a teacher's natural voice" information about homework, they tend to become more involved in their children's education.

"You get two or three times the parental involvment," he said.

Yet the technology involved in the answering-machine project was limiting, he said, and "just at the time that was starting to be discouraging," electronic voice-messaging became more widely available.

Although the technology behind voice-messaging became commercially practical a decade ago, it was not until the mid-1980's that companies began to offer electronic-mail services for internal communications.

Since then, such business giants as McDonald's, Eastman Kodak, and General Electric have adopted the systems to streamline internal telephone communications and to route incoming calls more efficiently.

As a result, industry analysts expect the voice-messaging market to almost double from its $308-million sales level in 1987 to reach $734 million this year and as much as $1 billion by 1990.

Until recently, most systems were of limited use to school districts because federal communications laws would not allow the regional telephone companies established in the divestiture of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company to provide the necessary links between schools and homes.

That prohibition was lifted, however, last March, when U.S. District Judge Harold Green, presiding in the at & t case, permitted local companies to offer voice-processing to residential customers.

Schools now "seem to be a natural market" for voice-messaging, said John Johnson, a spokesman for New England Bell, which is planning to offer the service to its customers.

And although others are experimenting with the technology, Southwestern Bell claims to have been the first to see the possibilities opened in the school market by Judge Green's ruling.

"They were looking for a site in the educational market to test" voice-messaging, explained John Gilfillan, assistant superintendent of support services for the Blue Valley district. "What we found was a tool that appeared to meet a lot of parent and teacher needs."

Michael W. Tune, chief executive officer of Dialpro of Tennessee, an independent voice-messaging company, said his company already serves 30 businesses in the Nashville area.

He is undertaking the Harpeth Valley project, Mr. Tune said, because he believes schools will be anxious to adopt the new systems, once they are aware of the benefits.

"Education is a business, like any other business," he said. "[Educators] have their internal communications problems with the faculty and they certainly have communications problems with the parents."

Mr. Gilfillan of Blue Valley said the trial there, begun last September, had been an enormous success with parents.

And Southwestern Bell officials said it may well be extended beyond its intial six-month trial period till the end of the school year.

But others, including Mr. Breedlove, of Bell South, pointed out that there are some disadvantages to the system, not the least of which is the fact that, currently, the technology on which it is based is available only in a limited number of cities.

"If the superintendent of the Frankfort, Kentucky schools read this and wanted the service, well, it's just not available in that area yet," he said.

In addition, without technical modifications, voice-messaging is accessible only to homes with push-button telephones. That problem can be overcome with a device costing approximately $15, said Ms. Jamason.

However, push-button telephones are now available to more than 90 percent of homes nationwide, industry spokesmen estimate.

Richard Lewis, principal of Morse Elementary School in the Blue Valley district, suggested that many parents there might forego such services as call-waiting to pay for voice-messaging.

Although parents who are taking part in the Blue Valley project now pay nothing for the service, that may change when the results of the trial, and of other studies Southwestern Bell is performing, are analyzed, said Norma Mitchell, a spokesman for the company.

"It could be an expensive venture for a school," said Mr. Brubaker, of Atlanta's Inman school.

At the end of the trial there, which is expected to run through December, "the school-board members [might] say, 'Hey, you can get a lot of pencils and paper for that'," he added.

But he said the school's pta might step in to support the project if it became popular enough with parents.

Mr. Mays of the Harpeth Valley school in Nashville added that cost may be a limiting factor there, even though Dialpro intends to donate much of its services for a trial project.

But, he added, "I'm still optimistic that we'll be able to do it."

Meanwhile, Mr. Gilfillan said the Blue Valley District was considering continuing the service--while conceding that costs are a "key factor"--once the Southwestern Bell test ends.

Parents like it so much, he said, that the district might be willing to pick up the additional costs to keep them well informed.

"You get into a situation where the parents are zealots," he said, describing school meetings at which "they'll say to the principal, 'That's the best damned thing you've ever done."'

Vol. 08, Issue 24

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