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Some Schools Opt to Go Wireless

Although people often use the terms cellular and wireless interchangeably when they talk about phones, the two are different. A wireless phone system that has no monthly charges and works only on school grounds is becoming popular with certain school systems. Education World chats with school leaders in districts that have adopted wireless phone technology. Included: How do wireless systems work?

Administrators contemplating back-up communications systems for their schools now have an option other than cellular phones and walkie-talkies.

Several companies are marketing wireless phone systems to school districts. Wireless systems enable every staff member to carry a phone, and no monthly air-time charges are incurred.

Although people tend to use the terms wireless and cellular interchangeably, wireless phone systems are integrated with a school's in-house phones. Calls can be transferred between handsets and the main phone system, and there is a voice mail system. The phones operate on batteries, which are charged every two to four days. The handsets work only on campus, so they are less likely to be stolen than cellular phones are.


Among the advantages of wireless phones for school staff, users and sellers say, is that they allow teachers to contact parents at their convenience or when an issue arises rather than having to wait to use an office phone later in the day. Teachers also can call for help in the event of an emergency.

"It is wonderful for teachers because their time is such a valuable thing," says Linda Tidmore, principal of Cross Timbers Middle School in the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in Grapevine, Texas. All the teachers in the school district have wireless phones.

Teachers can step into the hallway to call parents to ask a question, sometimes with the student present, Tidmore says. Coaches are able to use the phones on school athletic fields; however, much beyond that distance from the school's base, the phones cease to operate.

Staff members often loan the phones to students so they can call home for rides after an event, Tidmore adds.

Teachers also feel more secure having the phones, according to Tidmore. "It's very reassuring for teachers to know that if we have a lockdown or an emergency, they can call the outside."


Because the phones operate from equipment installed in the schools and connect to regular phone systems, they do not require additional phone lines, according to Ben Guderian, director of product marketing for the Boulder- (Colorado) based SpectraLink Corporation, which sells and installs wireless phone systems. The company has installed systems in about 200 schools, including the Grapevine-Colleyville School District.

"We saw compelling reasons people in schools would want this," Guderian tells Education World. For schools with goals focused on student safety, a wireless system can be a practical tool, notes Guderian, adding, "We work with the school system after the phones are installed."

Chad West, president and chief executive officer of Ascom Wireless Solutions Inc., based in Morrisville, North Carolina, says the main benefits of wireless systems over cellular phones are lower long-term costs and better coverage. "You get crystal clear reception in the buildings, and there is no monthly fee for air time, so it is easier to budget for the costs."

Although Ascom has primarily concentrated on installing phone systems in hospitals and other health care facilities, it now plans to focus more on school systems. "We see tremendous opportunities in the K-12 market," West tells Education World. The company has about four education customers now.

Wireless phone systems do not incur monthly charges separate from the in-house system, but the initial cost of the equipment can be high. The handsets cost between $500 and $1,000 each.

Tidmore says a few phones left in classrooms were stolen when the school first adopted the system, but then the thieves seemed to realize the phones do not work off-campus. Now, because of the expense of the handsets, teachers are told that if they lose a handset, they must pay to replace it.

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a school security consulting firm, says that although he is not prepared to analyze the differences between cellular and wireless phones, he thinks school systems need a supplement to the in-house phone system for security purposes.

If something happens to a school's main phone system, however, the wireless phone system will not operate either.


Another school district convinced of the benefits of wireless phones is New Brunswick, New Jersey. Administrators there plan to spend about $700,000 over two years for SpectraLink to install wireless systems in its 14 school buildings.

Installation of the system has begun, and by the end of this school year, all security, maintenance, custodial, and technology staff and administrators will have phones, according to Brian Auker, director of technology for the district. By the end of next school year, all 750 teachers in the district will have phones.

The school district wanted a mobile communications system that was convenient and easy to control, Auker tells Education World "If someone takes one, the phone can be tracked," he says. "And it is useless once it leaves the property."

The phones also offer a number of desirable features -- such as caller identification and voice mail -- and can be used to reach staff in remote sections of buildings, Auker continues.

Teachers will be able to use the phones not only from their classrooms but also from the playground or other areas if there is an emergency, Auker notes. "The initial cost is high but, with the perks, it is worth it."

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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