School-Centered Community Utilizes VoIP Solution to Reap Benefits Beyond the Classroom
We expect a lot of communication between our parents and teachers. Having the phone right in the classroom makes it more convenient for teachers to connect with parents."
Michelle Dirksen, Director of Technology, Hancock Place School District
About Hancock Place Schools
Hancock Place School District Facts
Improve teachers’ ability to communicate with parents, strengthen classroom safety
Hosted Voice over IP (VoIP) delivers advanced tools to keep teachers connected
Stronger bonds between parents and teachers; increased school security
Three schools serving 1,800 students
Located in south St. Louis County, Hancock Place School District includes three schools with 135 certified teachers, 11 administrators and 56 support staff serving students in preschool through grade 12. The small community faces sizeable economic challenges – more than three-quarters of its students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Despite financial hardships, Hancock Place was one of the first districts to be rated “AAA” by the Missouri State Department of Education, a distinction the district has maintained ever since.
The district used a hodgepodge of aging phone systems that were in need of repair but out of warranty, making it difficult for its three-person technology staff to manage. Although federal and state funding for education was cut dramatically, Hancock Place wanted to upgrade its phones to keep classrooms safe for teachers and students. Because parent involvement is a vital component of education, the district also wanted to make it easier for parents to communicate directly with teachers.
AT&T Voice DNA®, a network-based Voice over Internet Protocol service, gives Hancock Place schools affordable, advanced communication tools. A phone in each classroom enhances school security and makes it easier for parents to reach their children’s teachers. Because the system is hosted by AT&T, it requires virtually no maintenance from the district’s busy technology team.
From Books to Booster Shots
Hancock Place Schools began as a one-room country school house in a small neighborhood in St. Louis County. While many surrounding communities have become part of the giant St. Louis school district, Hancock Place has maintained its independence. Today the district consists of an early childhood center, an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, all dedicated to students’ academic achievement. Its classes are relatively small, enabling teachers to form solid relationships with students and develop a strong stake in the educational success of each child. The teacher turnover rate is very low, and the staff is made up of mostly veteran educators who have been with the district for a number of years.
Communication is key and technology is at the forefront of our efforts"
Michelle Dirksen, Director of Technology, Hancock Place School District
Hancock Place schools have always played a vital role in their small community, but education is sometimes a low priority for people who are struggling to put food on the table. “Many of our students don't have parents who have graduated from high school themselves or they’ve just graduated from high school and don't have any further degree,” said Michelle Dirksen, the district’s Director of Technology.
For that reason, Hancock Place offers continuing education for people who want to earn a GED or learn other skills, along with family reading nights that highlight the importance of education and nurture a desire to read. These are part of an amazing array of free programs that benefit families: pre-school and full-day kindergarten, tutoring, summer school, before-school reading programs and after-school homework time.
The school district has even become the healthcare provider for many families. Recognizing that getting medical care was a problem for many students, the district opened Hancock Health Center, the first on-campus medical office in the St. Louis area. “We found that families couldn't get their kids to the doctor or they didn't have insurance so they wouldn't go, so now we do all their physicals and other healthcare here on the grounds,” Dirksen said. The clinic is also available to students’ families. It accepts medical cards and most private health insurance. For families without health insurance the visits are free.
“Hancock Place is really a school-centered community,” she said. “Our parents and other residents are very supportive of the schools – we’ve never had a bond issue denied – and so we try to do everything we can to help them.”
Making Connections with Parents
There aren’t many businesses in Hancock Place, which means the school district has a limited tax base; most of its funding comes from the federal and state government. Like many school districts, Hancock Place has struggled as government education funding has been curtailed. Because so many of its students come from families without much money, the budget cuts hit the district especially hard.
The district has so far kept community programs running by carefully weighing student, teacher and community needs against available resources. This balancing act meant that every purchase had to be considered carefully. When officials began some necessary renovations to its school buildings, they saw an opportunity to enhance student and teacher security in the classroom and develop stronger connections with parents by strengthening the district’s communications network. “We had a phone system that was so old it wasn’t under warranty and nobody serviced it,” she noted. “And we were at our capacity for phone lines.”
As she studied how best to address the issue, Dirksen called on her years of experience as a third grade teacher in Hancock Place schools, which gave her a deep understanding of teachers’ technology needs. “Many of my counterparts in other school districts have business backgrounds,” she said. “It’s nice that I have an education background, because I feel empathy for the teachers and understand what they need to do their jobs.”
Dirksen knew that the system had to be cost-effective because of budget limitations and easy to deploy and maintain for her small technology staff.
A Clean, Simple Solution
AT&T Voice DNA is a cutting-edge, fully hosted, network-based Voice over IP service that supports voice calls on Hancock Place’s data network. It provides unlimited local and long-distance calling, controlling costs for the cash-strapped district and simplifying its phone bills. The district also avoids the cost of phone switches and key systems.
Phones are connected through staff computers, eliminating the complicated wires and switches used by the district’s old phones. “There's not a huge wall of wires and clips,” Dirksen said. “There’s one jack on every wall and everything just plugs in. It’s pretty simple and very clean.”
The VoIP service enables the district to assign a direct phone number to each teacher. Teachers keep their phones and phone numbers even if they change classrooms at the end of a year. “I used to have to manually change everybody's phone numbers and move their lines,” she said. “Now they literally just take their phone with them and plug it into their new classroom. It’s so much easier.”
Dirksen has a network administrator and computer support specialist to help her manage all technology needs for the district’s students, faculty and staff. They appreciate the flexibility and convenience of the network-based system. “Having AT&T host it means that we don’t have to worry about any maintenance issues,” she said. “It’s like having a huge weight lifted off our shoulders.
“We're busy all the time, so I try to outsource as many things as I can. Our phone system is one nice thing to outsource that we never have to worry about,” she continued. “The burden doesn't rest on me or the two guys that work for me – somebody else is working on it. That’s really beneficial for our school district.”
Enhanced Safety and Control
The converged network solution distributes calls quickly and easily; it also lets administrators use their computers to check call logs, listen to voice mail messages and manage call settings. “We love getting our voice messages through email,” Dirksen said. “When I was on vacation last week I was able to get all my messages easily and determine which ones I had to respond to before I returned to work.”
The phones make it easy to transfer calls and conduct conference calls. The speaker feature enables the board to include members who are not able to attend meetings in person.
Teachers are happy to have a phone line in their classroom to handle emergencies – one teacher was able to summon medical help quickly when her colleague went into labor in the middle of a school day. They also like that they can give parents a direct phone number to reach them. “We expect a lot of communication between our parents and teachers,” she said. “Having the phone right in the classroom makes it more convenient for teachers to connect with parents.”
Calls that come in during class time are sent right to voice mail. “At the end of the day or when they have a free period, they don’t have to go to the teacher’s lounge and wait for a phone to be available,” Dirksen said. “They can return calls quickly right from the desk in their classroom. It protects students’ privacy, and really encourages teachers to involve parents in their children’s education.”
Equipping classrooms with phones also adds to school security. “Teachers feel safer and more in control,” Dirksen said. “If something happens, they don’t have to leave their students and run all the way down the hall to the office to call for help.”
Communication is Key
Dirksen credits the district’s AT&T account team with educating her regarding the hosted VoIP solution that has worked so well for Hancock Place. “They helped me understand the technology and what would be most cost effective for our district,” she said. “They also took into account our staff and workload to suggest what they believed would work best.”
The phone system is an integral part of Hancock Place’s efforts to work with parents and the community to benefit students. “Communication is key and technology is at the forefront of our efforts,” she said. “We use the phone, our Facebook page and the district website to keep parents abreast of what’s going on in the classroom.”
The district’s next big initiative is to introduce wireless connectivity throughout its schools. “We’re just moving forward to try to educate our kids in the best way possible,” she said. “We know technology is a big part of that so we’re going to be looking at netbooks and tablet computers that require full wireless capability.”
Reduced funding increases a school district’s challenges, but does not overcome Hancock Place’s will to support academic excellence throughout its community. “We really want to be able to continue to provide the education that our community has come to expect,” Dirksen said.