More Schools Giving Classroom Phones a Ringing Endorsement

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From the chilling accounts of the Columbine High School shootings emerged stories of teachers and students using cellular and classroom telephones to call for help and even staying on the line with emergency people throughout the rampage.

Those reports didn't go unnoticed by administrators whose schools have no classroom phones.

"Given the events of the last month, we know we need to be able to communicate with our classrooms," said Deryl H. Nissen, the principal of the 150- student Jeffrey Elementary School in Osceola, Neb. "We don't even have an intercom system. The only way I can communicate now is running up and down the hallway."

Mr. Nissen said that while his school board had been discussing ways to improve communications before the Columbine tragedy, the incident brought the issue "to the forefront of everybody's thoughts."

In California, in a direct response to the fatal shootings in Jefferson County, Colo., San Francisco-based AirTouch Cellular, a division of AirTouch Communications Inc., announced this month that it would give 10,000 cellular phones to high schools in the company's service area. The phones would be set up to reach emergency phone numbers only.

The state's Democratic governor, Gray Davis, asked other cellular-phone companies to match the gift so all California high schools would have classroom phones.

While the Colorado shootings may have lent a sense of urgency to the need for classroom phones, support for the idea has been quietly but steadily building over the past few years.

And not only because of concerns over safety. Many educators say it's high time that teachers could call parents or other people in the community without waiting to use a phone in the faculty room or main office.

"The attitude has changed," said Jerry Smith, the senior market manager for education markets for the Kansas City, Mo.-based Sprint Corp. "Five years ago, when I would talk with a superintendent, he would say, 'Why do you need to have a telephone in the classroom? It rings in the middle of class. It's a distraction.' "

Now, Mr. Smith said, administrators are more receptive to the idea.

Barbara Stein, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, said she can now reach some union members in their classrooms.

"A few years ago, it never would have crossed my mind to try to do so," she said.

Day-to-Day Uses

Teachers seem to appreciate classroom telephones first and foremost for making it easier to carry out day-to-day tasks.

Donna DeKraai, a 3rd grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in Brookings, S.D., uses her phone to call staff members in the main office to say she's sending them a sick child. Or, if a child doesn't show up at school for a few days, she calls the parents to find out if anything is seriously wrong.

She also used the phone recently to talk with some people in the community about making a presentation to her students, a strategy that worked a lot better than sending notes "flying back and forth," she said.

And on the issue of whether having a classroom phone is disruptive, Ms. DeKraai maintains it is much less disruptive than receiving a message broadcast over the intercom.

After all, she said, "we don't have to answer the phone," explaining that calls can be picked up by voice mail.

David G. Schoales, who up until this year was a history teacher at Peoples Academy, a public school in Morrisville, Vt., used his phone for a multitude of tasks that ultimately improved instruction, he said.

Without a phone, "just things like ordering videos or software for preview--I wouldn't even do it because it was such a pain," said Mr. Schoales, now an applied-learning curriculum coordinator in the Burlington, Vt., school system.

Mr. Schoales regularly used his phone to call the parents of one of his students who was nearly flunking out of his ancient-cultures class. On a daily basis, he and the girl made arrangements with the parents so the student could stay after school to finish work she'd been unable to complete in class. Mr. Schoales credits the telephone calls with helping the student pass.

He once used his phone to invite someone in the insurance business to talk with his students about the importance of writing in the workplace. When his students studied the stock market, they used the phone to interview local brokers and business executives.

Pluses and Minuses

R. Gaynor McCown, the vice president for corporate strategy for the Edison Project, a for-profit company that manages 51 public schools, agreed that giving teachers telephones can improve instruction. The New York City-based company has gone to considerable expense to outfit all of its classrooms with phones--an important part of its design for school reform.

Like many schools with classroom telephones, one Edison school uses its phones to operate a homework hot line. Teachers record a message each day for parents about the work their children are expected to do each evening.

"Whatever we do is about improving student achievement," Ms. McCown said, "We view technology and classroom telephones as part of that."

Some teachers acknowledge that while they don't want to give up their phones, they do have a downside.

After he got a classroom phone six years ago, John Baughman, a 4th grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary School in Everett, Wash., felt his teaching was unnecessarily interrupted by calls from school employees who didn't know his schedule or from parents who made it past the main office by claiming "an emergency" for small matters. He eased the problem by assigning a student to answer the phone and take messages.

Given the possibility he might need to use his telephone in an emergency someday, Mr. Baughman said he'd rather have it. "But if you didn't consider the emergency factor," he added,"I wouldn't."

Internet First

No one seems to know what percentage of classrooms in the nation's schools have telephones. While the U.S. Department of Education and two prominent education-market-research firms--Market Data Retrieval and Quality Education Data--collect detailed information about computers and other relatively glitzy forms of school technology, they have no data on telephones.

But officials of the three largest school systems--New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago--say classroom telephones are very uncommon in their schools and low on the communications priority list.

"Principals and parents and teachers are concerned with Internet access that is supervised and up-to-date computers," said Phil Russo, a spokesman for the New York board of education. The 1.1 million-student system has virtually no telephones in classrooms, he added.

The push for Internet access in schools is helping the cause of classroom phones as well.

Many schools are wiring classrooms for telephones at the same time they're wiring for Internet access, according to Mr. Smith, the Sprint manager.

In Kentucky, every district's technology plan since 1992 has included having a telephone handset in every teacher's room, said Linda A. Pittenger, the director of planning services for the state office of education technology. But few schools actually installed phone systems until the federal E-rate program was launched last year. That program, which is best known for providing education-rate discounts on Internet access, also offers discounts on telephone cabling and service.

Because of the discounts, "we have a lot of phone-system activity now, and we'll have a lot more over the next 12 months," Ms. Pittenger said.

Exposure to Internet access has also helped increase acceptance for classroom phones, observed Carol Utay, the technology coordinator for the 7,300-student Jessamine County, Ky., district.

"Our principals were all teachers first, and they taught for years without a phone," she said, noting that as a result, they often didn't see the need for one in the classroom. "The Internet has helped us with that," she said. "It's opened people's eyes. Think of how many people a few years ago said, 'What would you use the Internet or e-mail for?' "

Some educators say there really isn't a good excuse for not giving teachers a communications tool that almost every other professional has long taken for granted.

"There are many schools where the professional work life of teachers is not where it ought to be," said Joyce Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "With the year 2000 coming up, the telephone problem should have been solved by now. We shouldn't be having this conversation."

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as More Schools Giving Classroom Phones a Ringing Endorsement
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