It’s hard to forget the panicky voices of the students and teachers trapped inside Columbine High School. Barricaded in classrooms and closets, they used cell phones and classroom telephones to call police and even Denver-area radio stations, pleading for help.
School staff elsewhere in the country certainly haven’t forgotten. Classroom phones have been a hot topic for teachers and administrators in recent years, and the horror of the Columbine killings last spring has given these discussions new urgency. “We don’t even have an intercom system,” says Deryl Nissen, principal of the 150-student Jeffrey Elementary School in Osceola, Nebraska. “The only way I can communicate now is running up and down the hallway.”
Jerry Smith, Spring Corp.'s senior market manager for education markets, says teachers and administrators once believed that phones in class would be a nuisance. “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, says Smith, some educators have changed their tune. In a direct response to the Columbine tragedy, California high schools in AirTouch Cellular’s service area accepted 10,000 cellular phones donated by the company this summer. The phones reach emergency phone numbers only. California Governor Gray Davis asked other cellular-phone companies to match the gift and equip all the state’s high schools with classroom phones.
For some teachers, phones are a convenience as well as a safety measure. Donna DeKraai, a 3rd grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in Brookings, South Dakota, uses her phone to alert main-office staffers that she’s sending them a sick child. And if one of her students doesn’t show up at school for a few days, she calls their parents to find out why. She also coordinates class presentations by outside speakers via the phone--a strategy that works a lot better than sending notes “flying back and forth,” she says.
Classroom phones, DeKraai continues, are less disruptive than an announcement blasted over the intercom. And, she says, there’s always voice mail. “We don’t have to answer the phone.”
Other teachers say classroom phones are handy instructional aides. David Schoales, formerly a history teacher at Peoples Academy in Morrisville, Vermont, says that when his students studied the stock market, they conducted phone interviews of local brokers and business executives during class time.
The Edison Project, a for-profit company that manages 51 public schools, sees phones as important teacher tools. The New York City-based company has outfitted all its classrooms with phones, according to Gaynor McCown, Edison’s vice president for corporate strategy. One popular use: a homework “hotline” for parents to listen to a recorded message from teachers discussing daily student assignments.
There are no statistics on the number of classrooms with phones. But officials in the country’s three largest school systems-New York City, Los Angeles,v and Chicago--say they are rare.
That could change with the growing popularity of the Internet, which has won over some skeptics who doubted the benefits of technology in the classroom. “It’s opened people’s eyes,” says Carol Utay, technology coordinator for the 7,300- student Jessamine County district in Kentucky. “Think of how many people a few years ago said, ‘What would you use the Internet or e-mail for?’''
New federal discounts for telephone cabling and service in schools also appear to be fueling interest. In Kentucky, every district’s technology plan since 1992 has called for a telephone handset in teachers’ rooms. But according to state officials, few schools installed phones until the government discounts became available last year as part of the so-called “E-rate” program, which is best known for providing “education-rate” savings for Internet access.
For some, the scarcity of classroom phones proves that teachers aren’t treated like professionals. “There are many schools where the professional work life of teachers is not where it ought to be,” says Joyce Epstein, 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.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1999 edition of Teacher