When Richard Stringer learned last month that his U.S. Army engineer father would be transferred from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Fort Carson, Colo., he was on edge.
After six years in Fayetteville, N.C., the high school junior was facing a new city, a new school, and new graduation requirements. New everything.
But then, using what for American school systems still counts as a futuristic videoconferencing system, school officials found a way to bridge the nearly continental divide the student was facing. After his on-camera session, aimed at helping ease the transition to new schools, especially for students from military families, Mr. Stringer said his worries lessened.
Sitting in his guidance counselor’s office in Fayetteville, Mr. Stringer looked at a computer monitor broadcasting images from his soon-to-be new school of Fountain-Fort Carson High School in the Colorado Springs suburbs. In the Fort Carson office, guidance department chairwoman Vicki Brown had gathered two students to speak with their soon-to-be schoolmate.
Over the computer monitor, Mr. Stringer asked the two Fort Carson students about the weather, athletics, and the toughness of classes. He saw live video of their faces and heard their voices through the computer, and they could see and hear him. Last week, when he arrived at Fountain-Fort Carson, he recognized the two students right away. They gave him a tour of the school and ate lunch with him.
“It gave me somebody that I knew,” Mr. Stringer said. “I was new, but I knew a few people there. It made me feel better.”
‘Fear of the Unknown’
There are now 34 such “interactive counseling centers” placed in school districts located near military bases around the country, and more are on the way.
The nonprofit Military Child Education Coalition, based in Harker Heights, Texas, is donating the systems and hopes to put hundreds in place in the next few years. The Department of Defense Education Activity, which also runs its own schools on military bases, has purchased nine systems for schools overseas and in the United States as part of a pilot project.
With some 800,000 school-age U.S. children with active-duty military connections—students who can change schools as often as every two years—MCEC Executive Director Mary M. Keller says her group believes the interactive counseling centers will have a huge impact in allaying fears and cutting through red tape that can plague those transitions.
“The biggest challenge with [changing] schools is fear of the unknown,” she said. “This is the human connection. ... The quicker we can build community, even if it starts virtually, the better we can help the kids.”
The first systems were installed 10 months ago, said the military- child coalition’s board chairman, retired Lt. Gen. Horace “Pete” Taylor.
“On too many occasions, a counselor didn’t know where the child was going ... , and when the child departed, that was the last they saw or heard of them,” he said.
The coalition donates a system for one school to districts that are members of the coalition’s organization, and districts can purchase additional systems for $5,000 each. The nonprofit group also supplies training and technical support.
Aside from the real-time video and audio link between distant schools, the conferencing equipment also comes with a scanner that permits counselors to enter a student’s transcript or other documents into the computer so that people at both locations can see it. Then, using a football play-to-play whiteboard, each side can use a computer mouse to draw, circle, highlight, or make notes on the scanned documents.
The link is secure, so privacy concerns about transcripts aren’t an issue, said counselor Jeffrey Glendening of Fayetteville’s Pine Forest High School. During a demonstration of the interactive system last week, Mr. Glendening linked up with counselor Lisa Perrine at Liberty County High school in Hinesville, Ga.
Getting transcripts scanned in for each side to look at is crucial, Mr. Glendening said. Often, those foundational records can take weeks to arrive at students’ new schools. In the meantime, based on preliminary information, students may have been placed in the wrong classes, wasting learning time.
Now, students can be preregistered and start in the right place from day one, Mr. Glendening said.
“We could use a phone and a fax, but this way we can be looking at it together,” he said. “This thing has enormous potential.”
But the setup does have flaws.
Many counselors haven’t become comfortable with the technology yet and haven’t used it much. The systems themselves can be awkward, too.
At times during Mr. Glendening’s demonstrational link to Georgia, Ms. Perrine had to repeat herself or could not be heard in Mr. Glendening’s North Carolina office. Scanned documents took several minutes to show up on Ms. Perrine’s screen. And an earlier scheduled demonstration at another Fayetteville school didn’t materialize because part of the system was not working.
Also, with limited schools to connect with, there aren’t many opportunities to use the system yet, Mr. Glendening said.
Barry W. Adams, a guidance counselor at Carlisle High School near the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said he has used his system only two or three times since he received it this school year.
In one situation, a student was moving to a school in Washington state, and the two schools set up a video meeting. The student particularly wanted to know more about the school band and spoke face to face, as it were, with the band teacher. They even considered holding a preliminary tryout over the Internet.
But Mr. Adams said, “I’m not convinced that this couldn’t have been done in a more traditional modality.”
However, Brenda Melton, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based American School Counselors Association and a counselor in the 56,505-student San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, said she sees huge potential for students from military families as well as others.
“This [new system] is really fantastic and would be cutting-edge,” she said. “It’s phenomenal.”
She sees more schools demanding the technology as word gets out about its uses. And more will be coming.
The Department of Defense schools has bought the systems for its pilot program at $5,000 each, said Mary S. Patton, the coordinator of pupil-personnel services for the DODEA. They’re set up in high schools from Vicenza, Italy, and Wurzburg, Germany, to Kentucky.
Ms. Patton said the pilot program will end next month. And if reports are favorable, the Defense Department may place them in the rest of its 48 high schools.
“Rather than spending hours on the phone, we can pull up a transcript right there,” she said. “It also gives students a whole different idea of the friendliness of the place. Emotionally, it’s a good thing.”
Ms. Brown, the Fountain-Fort Carson High School counselor, certainly believes that. She was surprised how quickly the interaction between Richard Stringer and the students she introduced him to online became friendly.
“It was fun to watch them,” she said. “They were really bonding.”
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.