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Speak Easier

Read how Fairfax County strives to shrink its communication gap with parents by making its data mobile.

By Pamela H. Derringer | June , 2006
Ted Davis is charged with finding the right technology to communicate with the parents of the 163,000-plus students in Fairfax County Public Schools.
Ted Davis is charged with finding the right technology to communicate with the parents of the 163,000-plus students in Fairfax County Public Schools.

No one knows how many times a year parents call or are called by administrators at Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools (FCPS) because of a student’s illness, injury, or behavior problem, but be sure that it’s a lot. Fairfax serves more than 163,000 students in 228 schools. Student suspensions alone totaled 8,524 during the 2002–03 school year, and ambulance runs to the high schools for athletic injuries regularly occur once or twice a week. Contacting parents—whatever the reason—is somewhere between daunting and impossible. “Any small information request becomes big for us,” says Ted Davis, IT director of enterprise information services for FCPS.

The paperwork is a problem, too. It takes two months each fall for FCPS to collect paper-based emergency-contact forms and enter the information into the database. Updating data with housing and job changes, new phone numbers, and e-mail addresses swallows even more time.

Each school’s emergency-contact information is collected in a series of large three-ring binders (high schools can have 10 or more), which become the key parental-reference resource in any crisis, from a sports injury to illness, behavior problem, or school-wide emergency. In an evacuation, administrators need to be concerned about not only escorting children safely from the building but also ensuring that the multivolume
emergency-contact binders are carted out as well.

Get good information during bad times
Debra Lane, principal of 740-student Oak View Elementary in Fairfax County, says that “having information at our fingertips” is invaluable. An emergency situation arose during a first-grade field trip on foot to nearby George Mason University. Two students became ill, and the clinic aide and parents had difficulty locating one another, significantly delaying the departure of the sick kids for home, Lane says.

On another afternoon, a bus was involved in a hit-and-run accident. The accident occurred near the school, and no one was hurt. But Lane, not knowing the severity of the collision, jumped in her car with two suitcases full of emergency-contact records and raced to the site. Lane had to identify all the students, sort through the suitcases to find their contact information, and then return to school and begin to notify parents.

You can just imagine how time consuming it was,” she recalls. “Especially when I’d call a number, and it hadn’t been updated. Then there’s no way of getting in touch.”

Ultimately, the students were transported home on another bus. But the potential ramifications of poor communication—from ambulances leaving without proper hospitalization information to parents’ driving to the scene—can result in a worsening situation, all preventable with the new mobile communication system.

Technology Helps You Make the Call
Ever since the advent of the Palm Pilot, FCPS recognized that an online, mobile system had the potential to improve data access for parents and for schools. But the infrastructure for secure, 24/7 service was not available, according to Davis.

“We knew the parents wanted it, but the technology was not yet there,” he says. Security, wireless functionality, and data synchronization just were not robust enough for the task.

In spring 2004, the schools embarked on a two-part strategy to plug the school-parent gap, bolstering communication internally and externally. In the latter instance, schools implemented the weCare@schools initiative, which enables parents to update emergency-contact data via the parents’ section of the school web portal, which is accessible from home or designated community centers. The parents’ area of the site will also include homework assignments, school calendar, student assessments, and portfolios.

Second, Fairfax County began a search for a wireless system that would make emergency-contact information accessible throughout the district whenever and wherever it was needed.

Timing is everything. Two years ago at a trade show, Davis stumbled upon the launch of Defywire mobile technology. The software allows the secure exchange of information between applications via the web. That information can be downloaded on several brands of handhelds, including BlackBerry. Davis saw this data architecture as the answer to his district’s infrastructure worries. Information is entered into back-office applications (in Fairfax’s case, Pearson) as needed and updated automatically to the handhelds so there is no duplication of effort.

To secure funding for the software, Davis applied for a Technology Opportunity Grant through the U.S. Department of Commerce. “We were the only K–12 system to win,” Davis says. With the $662,000 grant (with in-kind services qualifying for the local match), Fairfax County elected to buy Defywire’s Mobility Suite software framework and work with the company to build a customized application. For example, Fairfax’s version runs on BlackBerry PDA instead of Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system.

Customize the solution to fit your needs
In addition, Fairfax added faxing capability to its system, which will eventually enable school medical staff to transmit emergency-care forms directly from the student’s location to the hospital, Davis says. The way it works now, a couple of students have to run back to the school office, locate the player’s emergency-contact information in one of 10 binders, and then run back to the player so the nurse can call for an ambulance, he says.

With the new communication system in place, the nurse will be able to go directly to the student, retrieve the emergency-contact data, summon an ambulance, and fax a report to the hospital, all without leaving the injured player.

With a district this size, implementation occurs one step at a time. Fairfax will begin rolling out Defywire-equipped BlackBerry PDAs to principals, assistant principals, school clinics, and school police officers this fall, Davis says.

Phys-ed teachers and bus drivers might be included in the near future. In subsequent phases, the schools may add student schedules, photos, and field trips to the system. But not any time soon. “It’s very easy to expand capabilities later,” Davis says. “We need to stay focused.”

About the Author

Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.

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