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Amarillo ISD Improves Functionality, Reduces Phone Costs With Digital Communications System

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It’s said that everything is bigger in Texas. While that may be debatable, Amarillo Independent School District (AISD), on the sweeping plains of the Texas panhandle, definitely d'es justice to its state’s reputation. The district encompasses about 70 square miles, serving 30,000 students with 4,000 employees across 50 locations.

Phone communication keeps the widely distributed AISD faculty and staff in touch with parents and each other, as well as helps enhance communication per federal education standards.Jeff D. Roller In 2004, the district began exploring options for upgrading its phone system - with phones for every teacher as its ultimate goal. AISD’s outdated existing phone system led to staff and cost inefficiencies.

With the old system, IT staff had to physically make moves, adds and changes at locations around the district; less than 100 staff members had voice mail; and the phone company could not provide enough copper wiring to expand the existing system to every teacher. Consequently, providing a phone or voice mail to every teacher would have been prohibitively expensive.

Expanded Features

AISD looked to digital voice communications to free the district from its inflexible copper-wire system while also expanding its functionality. After evaluating several providers, AISD selected the ShoreTel digital voice communications system (www.shoretel.com) because it offered a number of features to drive better communication and staff efficiency for less than the old system. In addition, while daily management with some of the other providers would demand significant staff resources, the ShoreTel system was simple to manage - technology staff could make moves, adds and changes from their desks via a Web interface.

The district would also keep costs down by using its existing analog phones with the ShoreTel system. Plus, AISD could purchase services on a per-line basis as needed, rather than as a large capital acquisition. As a vendor-provided managed system, the digital voice communications system became E-Rate eligible, allowing AISD to cover three-fourths of the cost of the solution using those funds.

Austin, Texas-based Trillion, a ShoreTel channel partner that provides wireless broadband services, worked with AISD to roll out the system districtwide. Trillion configured unique call-flow routing, using ShoreTel workgroup features, to direct calls in various departments. In addition, Trillion acquired a common phone prefix for all district numbers to simplify dialing for staff and outside callers.

Since the district had contracts in place with its local phone company, AISD opted for a phased implementation. Currently, about 532 staff members, including all administrative personnel and teachers at the four high schools, benefit from using voice mail and a number of other advanced ShoreTel features.

The unified messaging system lets our staff and teachers easily access their voice-mail messages from any phone or receive messages via e-mail. Staff can also tap into the “Find Me” feature in ShoreTel to roll their calls over to a cell phone. This gives them the flexibility to receive calls and retrieve messages anytime, anywhere, while freeing office staff from having to handwrite messages.

In addition, outside callers can locate staff through the built-in directory, which routes the calls and gives callers the direct number for future reference. That same directory also streamlines call transferring for staff, who can now type in a few characters to find the right extension to route the call in just seconds. With 500 users making numerous calls every day, that feature allows staff to be more productive.

Call Management

ShoreTel workgroups allow each department to designate its own call flow. For example, if a department wants a live person to answer calls, it can choose to route them sequentially from one person to another until the call is answered, or have the calls go to one extension. For busy times, such as holidays or off-hours, staff can easily program auto-attendants to answer and direct callers to the appropriate extensions, relieving departmental staff from having to turn the auto-attendant on when they leave.

In departments like Human Resources and Food Services, workgroup management has transformed communications. In HR, an auto-attendant directs calls to the right individual based on need - whether related to contracts, employment, benefits or substitute teachers - relieving the person who previously answered every incoming call. Also, Food Services more effectively manages daily calls from cafeteria managers at each of the more than 50 school cafeterias.

Beyond that, the district takes advantage of ShoreTel’s converged conferencing technology, which connects administrators and staff so that they can join teleconferences instead of having to drive across the city to meet. The district will gradually expand the system to all campuses, as well as roll out voice mail and phones to every teacher. AISD remains confident that ShoreTel’s flexibility will accommodate its growing needs cost-effectively.

AISD upgraded its phone system to a feature-rich digital communications system that allows office staff to focus more on their jobs, rather than on answering the phone. Workgroups empower them to manage their changing call-flow needs, while an auto-attendant directs callers to the right person. The IT staff easily manages the system, saving countless hours of driving to schools to make moves, adds and changes.

The district saves more than $20,000 a year compared to its old system, and has a flexible, scalable platform for cost-effective expansion as it grows. Most importantly, features like voice mail and unified messaging provide teachers and parents with an easier way to communicate.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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